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Old 02-04-2005, 10:15 AM   #1
LauriD
 
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Default The odds of making a living as a screenwriter

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!

LauriD

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.
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Old 02-04-2005, 12:05 PM   #2
PurpleCurtain
 
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Default

Quote:
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.


Quote:
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.
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Old 02-04-2005, 12:56 PM   #3
LauriD
 
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Default

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.

LauriD

P.S. OK, now I'm REALLY going to get back to revising that beat sheet!
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Old 02-04-2005, 01:24 PM   #4
TonyRob
 
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Default

Quote:
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.
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Old 02-04-2005, 04:25 PM   #5
wcmartell
 
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Default The T Word

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
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Old 02-04-2005, 09:18 PM   #6
filmcarver
 
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Default Re: The T Word

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.
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Old 02-05-2005, 06:08 AM   #7
greyghost
 
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Default If it takes a monumental effort, make it pay off

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.
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Old 02-05-2005, 11:39 AM   #8
roscoegino
 
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Default Re: If it takes a monumental effort, make it pay off

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.
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Old 02-05-2005, 12:02 PM   #9
writeofpassage
 
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Default Re: If it takes a monumental effort, make it pay off

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.
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Old 02-05-2005, 12:29 PM   #10
PurpleCurtain
 
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Default Re: If it takes a monumental effort, make it pay off

Quote:
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.
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