Screenwriters are paid in several different ways, including options, rights sales and residuals. The pay is based on each individual screenplay, as most screenwriters for films work on a script-by-script basis rather than as salaried employees of a studio. This makes the average annual income dependent on how many scripts a writer can sell each year, which can vary from year to year.
The Writer's Guild
The Writer's Guild of America (WGA) protects the interests of all types of writers, including screenwriters. This organisation sets minimum pay rates per screenplay, and any filmmaker who wants to purchase a WGA member's script must meet these minimums. However, independent filmmakers may purchase scripts of non-WGA members for any amount the writer will accept.
Low-Budget Film Rates
In general, writers are paid between 2 and 5 per cent of a film's budget for full sale of their scripts. This isn't always the case with low-budget films, which the WGA defines as films with a budget under £3 million. For theatrical films with budgets between £0 and £3 million, the minimum screenplay fee is £25,538, according to the current schedule of minimums. Any films with budgets over £0.8 million must pay the writers up front, while lower-budget films may defer part or all of the pay until the film is commercially distributed. This means you may sell a script one year and not be paid for it until the following year or later.
Standard Feature Film Rates
For the third period of the current WGA agreement, which runs from May 10, 2010 to May 1, 2011, writers can expect to earn £40,717 to £76,441 for the sale of an original screenplay. This includes the screenplay treatment, which is a kind of synopsis used to sell the script, plus a rough and final draft of the screenplay.
Additional Pay Types
Non-original screenplays, such as remakes of older movies or screenplays based on books or stage plays, generally earn the screenwriter between £35,629 and £66,258, including a treatment, original draft and final draft, according to the WGA's third period rates. Additional screenplay rewrites or an author rewriting another screenwriter's script will earn fees of £13,360 to £20,367, while a final polishing draft on a script can earn the writer approximately £6,683 to £10,183.
These numbers may sound high for a single script, especially if you are a fast writer with a vast number of screenplays to sell. However, the field is highly competitive, and a survey of WGA's western chapter members in 2007 reported that 3,775 of the 8,129 members were unemployed. Even if you earn the top value of £76,441 for your screenplay and are paid on time, which can be a problem in the film industry, if you don't sell another script for the next two years, your annual income averages out to approximately £25,480, minus any agent fees you must pay to get the screenplay into a producer's hands and minus your self-employment taxes.