Workforce salary and review site glassdoor.com states that professional screenwriters will earn an average salary of $62,700 per year in 2023. Is that really what screenwriters are making? Let's dig in a bit deeper.
We can look at the Writer's Guild's (WGA) Schedule of Minimums to better understand a screenwriter's core compensation and how much professional writers are actually being paid.
Note About the WGA's Schedule of Minimums
The union negotiates the schedule of minimums every few years
These numbers are not the average but rather the lowest that WGA members can be paid for a wide range of scripts, from spec scripts to adapted screenplays and more
The rates increase yearly
There are two sets of rates listed, one for high budget projects and one for low budget projects
A low budget is a feature film with a production budget of less than $5,000,000, and a high budget film is considered anything more than that
There's no guarantee of these rates for non-WGA writers who are not represented by the union
No matter the average base salary listed, it isn't what a writer takes home because they still need to pay taxes, agents, managers, lawyers
I referred to the 2020 Schedule of Minimums for the following amounts and looked at the Third Period Effective 5/2/22-5/1/23 figures to provide the most up-to-date information.
Original screenplay and treatment
For the sale of an original spec script and a treatment (a summary of a feature film or TV show), the WGA lists $81,220 to be paid to the screenwriter for a low-budget project and $152,461 for a high budget project.
Nonoriginal screenplay and treatment
A nonoriginal screenplay and treatment can earn a writer a minimum of $71,061 for a low-budget project and $132,149 for a high-budget project.
Original screenplay without a treatment
For an original screenplay sans treatment, a writer can expect to make at least $54,561 for a low-budget project and $111,694 for a high-budget project.
Nonoriginal screenplay without a treatment
A nonoriginal script without a treatment can net a writer at least $44,402 for low budget and $91,382 for high budget projects.
If a screenwriter is hired to complete a rewrite of a script, the WGA lists the minimum pay at $26,646 for low budgets and $40,622 for high.
"Story By" Credit
Compensation for story elements included in a screenplay can earn at least $10,159 for low budget projects and $20,312 for high budget projects.
Screenwriters will earn at least $26,646 for low budget projects and $40,622 for high budget projects for treatments alone.
When does a screenwriter get paid?
If you sell your script for $200,000, don't expect to receive a check instantly. It can take months to get a check in the mail. Deals can also be structured so that you'll receive that $200,000 incrementally. Maybe you'll receive a check for a first draft, a check for a rewrite, and a check for a polish, each check then totaling up to your final $200,000. The WGA also provides guidance on how payment installments are structured for various situations.
Do screenwriters get royalties?
Screenwriters don't always get royalties. Screenwriters get royalties when they own the intellectual property that's generating continual revenue. WGA screenwriters receive residuals when their credited work for a WGA signatory company is reused. To learn more, check out my blog on residuals and how they're calculated.
All these figures I've listed are for minimums for what a WGA screenwriter can expect to make. This doesn't include unions or guilds in other countries or the salaries that non-union writers earn in the film industry for movie scripts, treatments, and the like.
I hope this blog gave you a better understanding of what a screenwriter might earn in 2023. Screenwriters' salaries will vary and change at different points in their careers, depending on what they're doing in the entertainment industry and how union negotiations proceed. Happy writing!