View Full Version : The odds of making a living as a screenwriter

02-04-2005, 10:15 AM
See, this is why I should NEVER check the boards before writing my pages for the day...

But since I squandered my precious writing time drafting this for another forum, maybe some of the folks here would find it of interest....

Feel free to correct any of my stats and assumptions!


P.S. Now get off the Internet and get back to WRITING!


QUESTION: I'm curious about the money writers can make, especially new writers.

1. What is a typical compensation for a script? I'm sure there are the typical low, middle & high end deals.

2. What is a typical gross, how much for agents, managers, other fees, etc...? after it's all said and done, what's left...IRS too!...any ideas

3. What is the percentage success rate/ odds of seling your script? and if it's sold what are the odds of it being actually turned into a film?

ANSWER: 1. There is no typical. Some people write for "screen credit" or "deferred compensation," which turns out to be zero.

Here are recent stats for members of the WGA (the screen and TV writers' union). In order to become a member, you have to earn a certain number of points (so many for writing a treatment, so many for revisions, so many for a full script, etc.) and pay dues. Pretty much any writer on a released film is a member of the WGA.

"As for income, let's talk numbers. There were 8,274 members of the WGA west last year. Of that, 4,298 had income (52%), 3,217 in TV and 1,799 in film (obviously there's some overlap). Of the 1,799 WGA members who reported income in film last year, the median income was $93,482; thus, roughly 900 people earned more, 900 people earned less. The bottom 450 earned $32,652 or less; the top 450 earned $226,787 or more. Approximately 89 people earned above $663,400 (top 5%). Remember, these are WGA writers in film only."

In other words, only about 1,340 people in a given year earn enough to live on (in theory) from writing for film. And many (as you can see from the 48% of WGA members who had NO film income) might sell one or two things and then never sell anything else.

As Max Adams points out in her book, "The Screenwriter's Survival Guide," let's say you get paid $100K for your first script. That's a decent price and above WGA minimum. After paying your agent, manager, attorney, WGA dues, and the IRS you end up with maybe $17,500. Not bad if writing is your hooby, not so great if you have to live on that for a year. And remember, fewer than 900 people earned THAT much.

Hard to say how many people are competing with you, but about 100,000 were interested enough in screenwriting and/or filmmaking to join TriggerStreet. Over 6,000 AMATEUR scripts are entered in the Nicholl screenwriting fellowship competition each year. About 50,000 scripts (and treatments, etc.) are registered each year with the WGA -- many of them by pros.

2. Agents typically take 10%, managers 15% and attorneys 5%. Not everyone has all 3, but most pros have at least one. As for taxes - writers pay the same rates everyone else does.

3. The odds are terrible. Really, really terrible. As above, there are about 50,000 scripts (and related material such as treatments) registered at the WGA every year, and probably several times that number written but never registered.

If you want to see how many scripts (or pitches) sell, read the trades or Done Deal -- maybe 30-50 a month. And MOST of these are based on other properties (comic books, TV shows, sequels, video games, novels) to which the production company/studio (NOT the writer) holds the rights. And most sales are by established, WGA-member pros.

(However, every month the WGA adds about 50 new members (this includes TV writers), so it's not hopeless. But it is VERY, VERY hard.)

I think there are something like 200-300 films released a year, so only a percentage of the scripts/pitches sold get made.

Getting into writing for the income is like basing your retirement plan on winning the lottery.

Oh, and another thing -- I've read that most people who DO manage to eventually make (some kind of) living screenwriting have written at least 6-8 scripts and are at it for 6-8 years -- BEFORE the first one sells.

In short, don't quit your day job.

02-04-2005, 12:05 PM
2. Agents typically take 10%, managers 15% and attorneys 5%. Not everyone has all 3, but most pros have at least one. As for taxes - writers pay the same rates everyone else does.

[L]et's say you get paid $100K for your first script...After paying your agent, manager, attorney, WGA dues, and the IRS you end up with maybe $17,500.If you have both an agent and a manager, the manager will likely take only 10% (this is how it works for me and all the other writers I know who have both agents and managers). And "typically" is very important here, as commissions are completely negotiable; I know writers who pay less than the standard to some or all of their reps, though a new writer is unlikely to be in a position to negotiate lower commissions.

But the bigger point is, uh, right on the money: $100k really isn't that much when you have to share it with reps and the IRS. I usually end up with about 30% of my gross.

Getting into writing for the income is like basing your retirement plan on winning the lottery.For what it's worth, I find it a little goofy when people talk about the odds in screenwriting, whether it's about winning a contest or selling a script or making a living writing.

It is NOT like the lottery, as has been pointed out here before. In the lottery, every combination of numbers is statistically equal in terms of probability. In screenwriting, a brilliantly written script has a much better chance of getting attention than a crappily written script. A high-concept comedy is more likely to sell than a small drama about a bus driver. A writer who has Hollywood connections and a decent script is probably (if unfortunately) in a stronger position to make a sale or land an assignment than a writer who has no connections and a very good script, etc.—and even then, you never know, because it's not about statistics, it's ultimately about having the right script in the right place at the right time.

I've written fewer than 10 scripts in my whole LIFE, and I've been making a living at this for the past five years. I had no Hollywood connections when I arrived in LA in 1997, and I broke through with my very first script, a medieval drama.

Forget the odds. Fret about the writing. :)

02-04-2005, 12:56 PM
I agree with Purple - it's NOT like the lottery because it's not random - it depends on talent, skill, perseverence, and connections as well as luck.

But you can't discount the long odds of even a skilled person making a living. Presumably, all those WGA members have the skills. But half of them aren't earning any money. I heard from someone on another board (with an agent, even) who had been at this for 17 years and earned a grand total of CAN$250.

Pointing out the "odds" (as problematic as the concept may be in this context) is simply a way to warn aspiring writers not look on this trade as the golden path to easy money.

And in a further time-wasting meditation on this subject, I came up with the following worthless stats:

To determine the actual odds that an aspiring screenwriter will turn pro (defined as joning the WGA) in a given year:

-- Assume 100,000 aspiring screenwriters. TS has a membership of 100K. Scr(i)pt Magazine has a readership of 55,000; Creative Screenwriting has 75,000. Assume overlap. Hence, 100K.

-- However, not all of these people have written a screenplay -- or ever will. The competition is not people who WANT to write a screenplay -- it's people who HAVE written one.

-- So we can define the universe as folks who are serious enough about writing to enter the Nicholl. Out of 6,000 entries, there are some multiples. So say 5,000 individuals.

-- 600 new writers join the WGA every year; roughly 56% get in for film. That's 338 people.

-- So if you are a relatively serious newbie screenwriter (defined as someone who has completed at least one screenplay and entered at least one major contest), your odds are...

[drum roll, please....]

-- 338/6,000 = 5.6%.

These are a lot better than lottery odds but a lot worse than, for example, the odds of an applicant getting into Harvard Law School (graduation from which is a more reliable predictor of a level of income higher than that earned by the average WGA member).

Of course, those 6,000 people are not all equally talented/hard-working/connected. But presumably a lot more than 5.6% THINK they have what it takes.

Again, please feel free to poke holes in my stats and reasoning.


P.S. OK, now I'm REALLY going to get back to revising that beat sheet!

02-04-2005, 01:24 PM
As Max Adams points out in her book, "The Screenwriter's Survival Guide," let's say you get paid $100K for your first script. That's a decent price and above WGA minimum. After paying your agent, manager, attorney, WGA dues, and the IRS you end up with maybe $17,500.

If I remember right, Max's math was wrong there. It actually should have come out to $35,000.

However, I don't have the book in front of me and have no desire to try to find it, so I can't confirm that. If you have the book handy, do the math, using her figures.

02-04-2005, 04:25 PM
Though it's not like the lottery because talent and skill are involved... everyone reading this believes they have talent and skill. And some of them are wrong.

But chance is also involved. "Luck favors the prepared (talented) man" but sometimes really weird things happen.

I always look at "the odds" as a barometer of how hard you have to work.

You have to work really hard.

- Bill

02-04-2005, 09:18 PM
Get an accountant and set yourself up as a corporation and you should keep fifty percent.

Hard persistent work will pay off if you have the stuff to do it to begin with. Not everyone will play piano well, and not everyone can write. Find yer game.

edit: Most managers take 10 percent. Dont pay more IMO.

02-05-2005, 06:08 AM
The only realistic way to make screenwriting pay off is to make your own independent movie with your own quality script.

In professional songwriting, it may take years to "break in" but a hit song pays the writer every time it's played on the radio.

The idea of selling a well-written script for peanuts ($100,000 is not much money amortized over the eons you spent writing and pitching it), never again to make a dime from it, is a sucker's game.

The great script, turned movie, keeps making money for SOMEBODY... indefinitely. Why shouldn't it be you? You wrote it.

It's no more "impossible" to make your own movie than to break in as a new screenwriter. The great script is rare enough to attract the financing for an indie movie if a sufficient amount of effort is invested.

Neither alternative will be easy. Why not make all your hard work pay you back in more dollars over a longer period?

Even subpar scripts have made money for the writers in some indie films in which the writers shot their own scripts.

02-05-2005, 11:39 AM
Two things:

1) Based on grey's post, and the odds, I think it wise for a writer to morph into a producer (be it associate, co-, or otherwise) whenever the opportunity arises. It's hard but great things don't come easy anyway. We want longevity. I think it's also good for a serious newbie screenwriter to buddy up with serious newbie directors as opposed to just other screenwriters. Should tip the scale our way a bit as far as odds go.

2) Purple, I know screenwriting is not easy money. Not by a long shot. BUT being hung to dry with $17,500 or even $35,000 after 100K gross is, well, a kind of rape. Shouldn't studying tax laws right and left (not that you haven't) streamline more money our way? OK, maybe not a great deal more, but more.

02-05-2005, 12:02 PM
I think this is where the best seller Rich Dad, Poor Dad comes in. We shouldn't be after the 100K carrot or the 10K or million dollar carrot for that matter. We shouldn't be putting our eggs in one basket and slaving on one script for 2 years. We should be after the long haul -- writing, rewriting and polishing several scripts in the course of a year - every year. Odds do not account for the human spirit.

02-05-2005, 12:29 PM
2) Purple, I know screenwriting is not easy money. Not by a long shot. BUT being hung to dry with $17,500 or even $35,000 after 100K gross is, well, a kind of rape. Shouldn't studying tax laws right and left (not that you haven't) streamline more money our way? OK, maybe not a great deal more, but more.
I probably net 50%, give or take, after tax refunds (I don't have a loan-out corporation because I was advised that that's only a money-saver if you're bringing in something like $450k/year, every year...and from what I've heard from friends and acquaintances who set up loan-outs after their first sale but who then failed to continue raking in hundreds of thousands a year, that advice was very sound). My earlier post referred to the amount I net up-front because most people want to know how much their first check will be, not how much they will see a year later, after they file their tax return. :)

02-07-2005, 07:17 PM
Many screenwriters may have other sources of income and may work in the industry in other capacities. A person could sell a screenplay for $500k one year, and the next year not have any sales. So in that year the person would have zero income. But perhaps the next year that person can make a sale again.

Who knows? These stats are really meaningless.

Just continue working on your scripts, and continue working on whatever ways you use to support yourself in the meantime.

Screenwriting is like acting, or any other artistic deal. Only a few are going to make millions from it. For those screenwriters who prove themselves able to come up with blockbuster hit after hit, these people make millions. If your sold specs are made into movies that end up going straight to dvd, well, you'll be making substantially less.

02-08-2005, 01:17 AM
6k is *really* low...

If you figure there are around 50k screenplays registered every year with the WGA, and those scripts don't just disapear at the end of the year (I have a company reading a 15 year old script of mine right now), but let's say the average writer keeps their script in circulation for ten years - we've heard so many stories about scripts that finally sold after a decade, I think that's a fair number of years...

So that gives us 500,000 scripts in circulation... and 338 new writers joining the WGA.

With 50k new scripts each year, my guess is a much higher % of those newbies are cranking out scripts than you think. Ask any Starbucks employee in LA "How's your script coming along?" and they'll tell you. For that matter, ask any auto mechanic the same question and you'll probably get an answer... and many of these people *don't* register their scripts because they don't even think about it... but they do try to get producers to read them.

You don't want to know what your odds of actually getting a script on film are - it's just too frightening.

- Bill

02-08-2005, 05:37 AM
"You don't want to know what your odds of actually getting a script on film are - it's just too frightening."

Well, the odds don't really matter. What matters is whether or not you have work translated into film.

Hey most singers or musicians never get further than performing in local clubs. But some become major superstars. Most actors never get beyond playing the occassional small gig (few become A list actors).

02-08-2005, 11:30 AM
Actually, there aren't 50,000 scripts registered every year with the WGA. There are 55,000 THINGS, including treatments, pitches, loglines, books, plays, commercials, etc. -- for TV as well as film.

So if you're talking about FILM SCRIPTS by NON-WGA members, I'm taking a wild-a** guess that it's under 10K -- which puts the number of newbie writers generating those scripts into the same ballpark as the number of Nicholl entrants.

(Also, I'm looking at the number of WRITERS, not the number of SCRIPTS, to compute the chances of a newbie writer joining the WGA in a given year. So the number of scripts in circulation isn't relevant.)

Turns out my number for new FILM members for the WGA was too high -- should be about 132/year (not 338) .

7,000 screenplays were entered for Project Greenlight 1. Assume some multiple entries, so say 6,000 writers. The first year was not limited by genre but it was limited by budget. So any PGL script could be entered in the Nicholl (except for adaptations) but not vice verse. Nicholl is international, PGL is US-only. So some overlap here, and some writers who entered one but not the other. But I still think if you add the two together you're under 10K writers.

But so far I haven't seen any documented numbers to convince me there are a LOT more than 5,000-10,000 serious aspiring screenwriters out there. (I know this seems like a really low number -- does anyone have anything better than a guesstimate for a larger one?)

With the adjusted WGA figures, that yields odds of 1.3-2.6%.

Personally, I don't find this too discouraging. It could be much worse -- if you're thinking that there are 55,000+ scripts and only 200 get made, for example, the odds are 4/10 of one percent.

And of course we all have the ability to improve our own odds...


02-08-2005, 01:53 PM
Books, plays, commercials, comic books, etc don't need to be registered, they are protected under their original copyright. The only thing registered are *original* treatments and scripts - pitches can only be registered in wrtten form... and that's some form of treatment, right?

And lots of stuff just isn't registered. I only register specs, not pitches that turn into assignments. Those scripts are *never* registered because they are done deals. They will eventually be copyrighted...

And *many* of my specs aren't registered - I copyright instead. Lasts longer, and I have scripts that are well beyond the 5 years WGA gives you.

I also don't think contests give you a real idea of how many screenwriters are out there, serious or otherwise. I only entered one contest in my life, instead I focused on *selling* the scripts. And many of my friends have never entered contests. I think there's an equal or greater number of *serious* writers who do not enter contests at all.

And you *do* need to take into account that scripts don't just drop out of circulation after a year. I gave a script ten years, but I'm not the only one I know with a script being read *right now* that's 15 years old - one of my friday night movie guys also has a script he wrote in the late 80s being read (and he's *not* a sold writer). He also has never entered a contest, but he has had a bunch of meetings on scripts.

I think it's danged hard to break in, and once you're in - hard to stay there. How many WGA members earn *nothing* every year?

As for stuff that actually gets on screen - since about 75-80% of the stuff that ends up on screen doid not originate with a script (but started out as a book, comic book, play, - other form of copyrighted material), the odds of one of the circulating more than half million original scripts becoming one of the maybe 40 movies made from original scripts every year are not good.

But it's *possible*, I know it, because last year I sold a spec written in the mid-90s which is now in post production.

And, as I said before, the odds are just a baramoeter of how hard you have to work... and how hard you have to stick with it. If you think the odds of selling a screen play are good, then you struggle and nothing happens, you may quit... a couple of months before you might have broken in. If you think the odds are bad, and you struggle and nothing happens... you know you may still have to struggle for a while because the odds weren't good in the first place. Or maybe you realize you need to work harder. Whatever - if you know it's not going to be easy, when it's *not easy* you are prepared for that...

And it's not easy.

- Bill

Adam Isaac
02-08-2005, 02:58 PM
I always assumed it was 99% against 1%. This is good news.

02-08-2005, 04:03 PM
The non-script stuff may not NEED to be registered with the WGA -- but nonethless it is registered, and counts toward those 55,000 items.

Also, while some folks may never register a script, I've had projects for which I've registered a treatment and one sheet along with a script. In any case, I think the number of FILM SCRIPTS has got to be way under 55k.

Here's the email I got from the WGA when I asked about this:

"The WGAw Registry registers over 55,000 pieces of material per year."

"Please keep in mind that registerable material includes scripts, treatments, synopses, outlines, and written ideas specifically intended for radio, television and film, video cassettes/discs, or interactive media. The WGAw Registry also accepts stageplays, novels and other books, short stories, poems, commercials, lyrics, drawing, music and other media work."

I used the number of registered items (and, by derivation, scripts) registered to calculate the number of serious writers. The total number of scripts circulating is relevant to the odds of a particular script selling. But I'm not looking for that number - I'm looking for the odds of a newbie joining the WGA.

I think both the WGA and the contest numbers independently suggest that the number of serious newbies is under 10,000.

Certainly there are many future pro writers who'll never enter a contest -- but how do we count them? (That's a serious question, not a rhetorical one...) For example, presumably there are some number of aspiring screenwriters who already work in the industry in some non-writing capacity, as crew, actors, assistants, whatever. They already have better contacts than a contest win would give them, so they don't bother with contests. So what's a ballpark number for newbies who can be considered serious writers but who have not entered either the Nicholl or Greenlight -- and what's this number based on? (Guesses don't count; even if your data is crap it's still data...) ;) I mean, do we just include the entire adult population of LA County? ;)


A Pathetic Writer
02-08-2005, 05:49 PM
A role model of mine once said "Never tell me the odds."

What he meant by it was, if you're careening into an asteroid belt to avoid being destroyed by Imperial TIE fighters because your hyperdrive is @#%$ up, the odds are immaterial. You either make it, or you don't. There's not a 5% success rate, if failure means 100% dead.

The number of scripts in the slush pile are entirely irrelevant when it comes to determining who sells. What do you think... if somehow by a miracle only 400 scripts get send to Hollywood this year -- they'll all sell?


Each script is judged on its own merits. Is it marketable? What's the hook? Is there someone excited about it? Will anyone WATCH this? How GOOD is it?

When these line up, regardless of the amount of other slop in the pool, you have a sale.

Nothing else matters.

02-08-2005, 06:56 PM
The interns providing coverage are asked to rate how marketable a script is, what major actors could play the parts in said script, etc.

If you've written a well marketable script that has a perfect part for a Nicole Kidman actress and you put it into the right hands, you are sold.

As for the slush pile, it maybe that the majority of those who never make it simply have written non viable, non marketable scripts.

I had a former roommate who begged me to read his scripts. Once I read them, I can see why he hasn't gotten anywhere. Half of his scripts were about his gay life, and the others were scripts that he wrote about COPYRIGHTED and TRADEMARKED tv shows like Bewitched. (he calls them adaptations).

A lot of people send in scripts and do not even have them in the proper format.

It isn't just blind odds, the fact is many people are sending in scripts that SUCK.

02-08-2005, 07:48 PM
Right. So let's say that 95% of the scripts by newbies suck.

That means that between 25 and 50% of the writers whose scripts don't suck should wind up in the WGA.

The odds keep getting better 'n' better. :)


02-08-2005, 08:23 PM
It's the other guy's script that sucks.