“The Long Kiss Goodnight” (1996), an action thriller written by Shane Black, sold for $4 million. “Panic Room” (2002), a thriller written by David Koepp, sold for $4 million. “Déjà Vu” (2006), a science fiction action film written by Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii, sold for $5 million.
Can every screenwriter who sells a screenplay expect to make millions off it? The scripts I previously mentioned that sold for millions are more of a rarity rather than a regular occurrence in the industry. A lot of the high-selling screenplay sales happened in the 1990s or early 2000s, and the landscape of the industry, as well as the process of selling a script, has changed significantly.
Today we’re going to look at what the average screenplay sells for and what’s a realistic expectation for a script writer salary.
Today the top deals that you’ll see announced in the trades are usually somewhere in the six-figure range, mid to high being common. Five to low six figures are the more regularly occurring sales that you’re probably not hearing about.
Screenwriter guilds set minimums for the lowest their members can be paid on a project. For example, the WGA’s Schedule of Minimums says the lowest a writer can be paid on a low-budget film is $72,662, and $136,413 for a movie budgeted at $5 million or more. So, these are the absolute lowest numbers you can expect to be paid for selling a script. BUT, that’s not an annual salary. That’s a single project. Screenwriters need to prepare their finances for a job that is not steady, because that $72,662 may only come once every five years.
Say you sell your script for $200,000. Don’t expect to receive a check instantly -- it can take months to get paid. Deals can also be structured in such a way that you’ll receive that $200,000 incrementally. Maybe you’ll receive a check for a first draft, a check for a rewrite (remember, a writer can be let go after the first rewrite and replaced), and a check for a polish, each check then totaling up to your final $200,000.
In the US, agents and managers require 10 percent of your fee. If you have a lawyer, they need to be paid an average of five percent. And don’t forget taxes! Depending on how many people are on your payroll, you’re looking at netting between 40 to 60 percent of the script’s sale price. All of a sudden, that six-figure fee becomes five. A script sale can still be a solid income for a certain amount of time, but it’s essential to understand your net so you can plan accordingly for the future.
Keep in mind, I’m talking about what a screenwriter can expect to make in the American industry. Industries in other countries will have different averages. In India or Bollywood, for example, the price of a script might depend more on the writer’s experience or the price of production, with some well-known writers earning up to 15 lakh (equivalent to approximately $20,000). In Nigeria or Nollywood, an experienced script writer can earn between N80,000 and N500,000 per screenplay (equal to $205 to $1280).
I hope this blog gave you a better understanding of what a screenwriter’s salary might look like – which is less of a steady wage, and more of a freelance situation for most writers. But, shoot for the stars! A million-dollar script sale is certainly not impossible. Happy writing!