Screenwriting, in a lot of ways, is a fairly unique profession. Unlike a more traditional job at an office, or a retail store, or a school, a screenwriter’s job has a workflow that can vary greatly, unpredictable payment schedules, and a lot of effort put into a lot of opportunities that don’t go anywhere. And, on top of all that, there’s no clear professional ladder to climb; high-level success requires intangible components like luck and good timing in addition to perseverance, hard work, and quality output.
One way in which screenwriting isn’t so different from other professions is that salary history comes into play when it comes to the money you earn.
When you hear stories or read news announcements of seven-figure spec sales and writers who make hundreds of thousands of dollars for a few weeks of their writing services, it’s easy to assume that screenwriting is an extremely lucrative career.
I’ll get into financial breakdowns in future posts to show the realities of how screenwriting money actually works, but the issue I want to focus on today is the idea of a screenwriter’s salary history, or quote as it’s more commonly called.
Consider a different job for a moment: a corporate executive. When a corporate professional is fresh out of school, their first jobs are typically entry level jobs like receptionists, office coordinators, or assistants to more established executives. Over the years, as that employee adds to their experience and knowledge-base, their salary generally increases commensurately. They might be making $25,000 per year right out of college as a receptionist, then go on to become an assistant to a more seasoned executive and earn $30,000 a year. Later, they might become a department coordinator or a manager and making $50,000 a year. And from there they might go on to a junior executive position, and then a more senior executive position with more responsibility until, ultimately, they’re a the head of a department and have an impressive mid six-figure salary to match their impressive title, office, etc. The thing is, though, that premium salary and all the perks that come with a job like that are given because of that executive’s years of knowledge and proven ability to deliver results. Corporate executives don’t typically start out at the top of that ladder; they have to climb their way up.
Screenwriters are no different. With rare exception, writers are likely to begin their careers with whatever jobs will pay something, probably working for a non-signatory company and being paid well below Writers Guild minimums. But then, as a writer books more jobs and gains more experience, their pay should generally increase.
For example, maybe the first writing job you’re offered is a $1,000 rewrite. Then you sell a low-budget feature script, but you’ve never sold one before, so the best you can do is WGA minimum (approx. $48,000). Then you get hired to do another rewrite on a low-budget film and since you have WGA minimums as a baseline, you successfully make the case that your rewrite fee should be around WGA scale (approx. $23,000). Then you sell another low-budget feature script, and since you’ve clearly established that your quote is around WGA minimum, maybe your rep negotiates a little bit of a bump so this spec sale lands you $60,000 instead of the WGA minimum. For the deal after that, maybe your rep negotiates a $60,000 sale price and a guaranteed rewrite for $25,000, making your total value of that deal $85,000. And so on and so forth, each successive writing job giving you a bump above and beyond what you made last time.
Are there exceptions to this, like those writers reported in the industry news who make a million dollars on their first spec sale? Sure, just like there are exceptions to climbing the corporate ladder.
Maybe a relative of yours is the CEO of a successful company and has the clout to give you a senior executive position with little previous experience.
Maybe you get in early with a startup and it really takes off, so you go from being the CFO of a company with six employees to the CFO of a company with six hundred employees over the span of just a couple years.
Similarly, as a screenwriter, maybe one of your scripts hits in the right place at the right time and sparks a bidding war that eventually nets you a $250,000 spec sale despite your last sale being WGA minimum, and now you have a quote that can command six-figure paydays from producers.
These things do occasionally happen. But the keyword in that sentence is occasionally. It’s and irresponsible to convince yourself that you’ll definitely receive (or worse, are entitled to) that kind of instant success.
There are always exceptions to a norm. Just like there are people who win the lottery, or get struck by lightning, or are attacked by sharks or drafted by the NFL, even the occasional screenwriter can make a big sale with no previous track record. But those individuals are statistical outliers and in the extreme minority when compared to the pool of people they’re drawn from.
In the pool of all aspiring screenwriters, the number of those writers who have actually been paid anything at any point is a fraction of a percent. And of the writers who have actually been paid anything at any point, only a fraction of a percent make a consistent living at screenwriting. And of the writers who make a consistent living at screenwriting, only a fraction of a percent of those writers take home high six or low seven figure annual salaries on a regular basis.
If you’re planning your future, trying to make money, or looking for professional growth, you should expect to be the norm, not the rare exception. It’s simply a more realistic path to success than hoping you’re the breakout success that only happens to a fraction of a fraction of a fraction of a percent of all hopefuls.
Without years of hard work and persistence (and a good helping of luck), you shouldn’t count on a big six or seven figure screenwriting payday any more than a high school quarterback should expect a recruiter to randomly show up on their doorstep and offer them a starting position on the 49ers. If that result is going to happen for you at all, it’s probably going to come after years of hard work, persistence, and luck.
You’re more likely to find success in screenwriting and anything else through incremental gains rather than rare, massive leaps and bounds.