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I Want To Be A Screenwriter – When Will I Be Rich?

Recently, I came across another writer who made a very interesting point – one that has never really registered with me up until now. He suggested that many aspiring screenwriters assume the only thing standing between them and everlasting success is that one all-conquering killer script.

Game over, you win… or notRich Writer

The theory is that you write a spec script, it gets sold for a ton of money, and then, well, you either buy your own personal Caribbean island and retire, or alternatively, you become Steven Spielberg’s go-to guy… assuming you aren’t already tied up in development meetings with Martin Scorsese.

Now I’m not saying this can’t happen… But it’s an extreme long shot, to put it mildly.

For a start, I read somewhere that only one in every 18,000 spec scripts actually gets sold each year. I’m not sure how accurate that number is. Perhaps it’s more than 18,000, perhaps it’s less. But you get the point: the odds aren’t in your favor. Especially when you realize that the one spec that does get sold was probably written by an established and well-connected writer rather than some new guy. This means that if you are that new guy, the odds are even less in your favor.

Working WriterMore realistically, the best you can hope for is that while your spec won’t get sold or even optioned, it will win you some new admirers. These admirers will hopefully remember you when an open writing assignment comes along, and assuming their hands aren’t tied, they’ll then approach you and ask for a pitch.

Even the open assignments route, however, is becoming a lot rarer. Both inside and outside the studio system, executives appear to be hiring from an ever decreasing pool of favored writers. This results in some writers doubling up or even tripling up on projects, while others must go without.Not Working Writer

For instance, fifteen years ago, let’s say there were ten open assignments. Those ten assignments would go to ten different writers. Nowadays, those ten assignments might be shared between five or six writers. If you are one of the five or six, then you’re laughing. But it also means there are a lot of writers out there who definitely aren’t laughing.

Let’s count the pennies

It’s also important to understand that the money isn’t nearly as big as many aspiring writers seem to think.

I remember some years back when a telephone engineer popped by to fix a fault with my line. At the time, I was working on a paid writing project and considered myself to be something of a success. When the engineer asked me what I did for a living and I told him, his immediate response was one of consternation. He then glanced around my dinghy little apartment, before asking, “So why do you live here then?” Sceenwriter's HouseHe had always assumed Hollywood screenwriters were millionaires, who spent all day lounging around their Malibu mansions and swimming pools.

That’s far from the reality. Let’s say a studio assignment pays $100,000 for a first draft, plus a polish or two (or three, or four, or twelve)… And by the way, $100k is very much on the high end for a new writer. If it’s a non-studio project, you’ll be looking at half that, and possibly a lot less.

Of that $100,000, you’ll then need to pay out around 25% in commissions to all the people who helped you win the job in the first place – managers, agents, lawyers. After all, they have to eat too. Besides, you certainly would’t be getting $100k as a new writer if you didn’t have some very good reps in place. So now you’re down to $75,000. If you’re part of a writing team, that gets split in two, which brings you to $37,250. Then comes income tax or corporation tax, depending on your financial set up.

In the end, assuming you don’t have a writing partner, you’re still only left with $75,000 before tax. That’s pretty good money… So long as you can win a new writing job every year.

Chances are, however, you’ll have lengthy gaps between writing jobs. These gaps can last for years, during which time you will need to find other ways to support yourself.

Screenwriting Careerscreenwriter’s career is like a long and winding road.  You’ll get to enjoy success, failure, isolation, and all sorts of crazy detours.

I have to admit, there’s nothing quite as depressing as working for a couple of years as a full-time writer, and then having to go back to working in, say, a call center or a nursing home in order to make ends meet. It’s happened three times in my career, and boy, demoralizing doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Gimme my money!

The other thing to remember is that the $75,000 won’t feel like $75,000. Instead, it will feel more like $40,000 tops. There’s a very good reason for this.

From my experience, a buyer who pays on time is very much the exception rather than the rule. Most buyers pay late. Sometimes a few weeks, sometimes a few months. I heard of one instance where a writer had to wait a full year after the job was done before he got paid!

Typically, you’ll receive the first payment on time (more or less). This is because the buyer wants you to start work on the script as soon as possible – in others words, you are in a position of power. But as the process moves along, the power flows back to the buyer, and the onus is very much on you to hunt down the payments. This is true even when the buyer is happy with the quality of your work. If they aren’t happy – whether reasonably or unreasonably – then getting them to pay becomes increasingly difficult. This is where a good manager or agent truly earns his or her weight in gold.

These delays in payment can have a devastating effect on your personal finances. Because you’re writing full-time, you can’t take a non-writing job on the side. Writer Tightening BeltEven after tightening your belt, it becomes almost impossible not to build up debts. You become an expert at phoning energy suppliers, credit card companies, and landlords in order to buy yourself a little extra time when it comes to paying them what’s owed.

I remember one particularly frustrating instance where I wrote several cheques that all bounced. The day after, I received a $30,000 payment into my bank account – but that didn’t stop the bank from closing me down. Fair play. I’d broken their terms of service.

And of course, when you do finally get paid, what appears to be a nice big sum of money very quickly disappears as you pay off all those debts from the past few months!

Myth-busting

Look, there’s no point crying about it. When it comes to money and writing, this is simply the nature of the beast. Either you accept it or you don’t. If it’s the latter, then you really should go and find another job. Something more sensible, hopefully.

Writing, whether it’s screenplays, novels, or anything else, is the quintessential feast or famine career. Very Rich WriterThere are a very few writers who make a fortune. Those who do… good luck to them. Then there’s the guys who are barely getting by. Maybe they have a decent year or two, followed by some lean years. Relatively speaking, they’re still over-achievers… Because the vast majority of writers won’t make a penny.Very Poor Writer

I guess I just want to dispel the myth that writing screenplays is a good way to make a living. It really isn’t. There may have been a time when this was partially true. From what I understand, it began in the late eighties and early nineties, when writers such as Shane Black were ruling the scene. Back then, the studios were buying pretty much anything. But then it seems the writers and their agents got a little greedy and began peddling any old crap.

By the time I arrived on the scene in 2003, the studios were already wising up. They were also changing the way they did business. Original screenplays began to lose ground, and branding became the new king. Then came 2007-2008, the years of the financial crisis and the Writers Guild of America strike. By the time the dust had settled, the world was a far leaner place for writers.

Hope vs. Life

Now let me be clear. In no way am I saying you shouldn’t strive to be a screenwriter. What I am saying is that you shouldn’t want to become a screenwriter just to make money. If it’s riches that you’re after, there are faster, easier, and more efficient ways of claiming them (and if you have any tips, feel free to let me know!).

The truth is, you should only become a writer if it’s something you really can’t live without. If you aren’t one of those people, that might sound a little odd. Maybe even masochistic. I mean, why pursue a career that involves getting kicked in the teeth and often doesn’t pay anything!?

But I know there are people out there who understand exactly where I’m coming from. They’re gonna write that spec no matter the odds. And that’s great. I respect the devotion. Hell, I’m one of them.

But what I will say is this… Hope With Muscles

Hope is the ultimate motivator. When combined with talent and dedication, it’s even more potent. People have achieved the impossible on far less. But Life is a harsh stubborn old bastard, so until you actually write that all-conquering killer script, don’t give up the day job!

Anyway, until next time…

Best, al

10 Comments

  1. Hi there
    Many thanks for this great and interesting review of screenwriting. It’s something that never took my fancy and I suspect that one either have this gift from the beginning and carry on from there.
    I could not say if one could accquire this talent in mid-stream, so to speak.
    However, it’s not all its cracked up to be, after reading your post, you could also have lean times which don’t auger well for thinking about making a living at this occupation.
    Thanks again and est wishes.
    Cheers PB

    • Thanks, Phil. Glad you enjoyed the article. Yep, screenwriting is definitely one of the trickier career choices!

      Best, al

  2. I really enjoyed reading this. I thought your use of graphics and visuals was really on point.

    It took me a bit to really get what your point was. But when it was made, I realized that you did such a fine job of building to the crescendo of really having to know what your purpose was in writing. For money or because you truly have to write, something that many of us don’t really want to hear..lol..

    I liked that you were so completely honest about the process, and how it has changed.

    By the way,the photo of you is really engaging.
    Great job!
    ariel

    • Hi Ariel,

      Thank you so much – those are very kind words 😉

      It’s very interesting what you say. 

      In the past, I was always focused on the actual writing. In a way, you had to be. Chasing down jobs can be very predatory. If you don’t win the job, you go hungry. There was a long period where I viewed other writers as rivals rather than potential friends & allies. It was a pretty dark way of going about things, but like I said, the competitive nature of the industry kind of forces it on you.

      But since starting up this site, I’ve found myself looking beyond the writing. Instead, I’m now focusing on the living breathing person behind the script. 

      Most of my blogs will still – at least for now – deal with the art/craft of writing. However, I do want to focus more on the writers rather than just the writing. So yes, I think I’ll be doing more of these types of articles. This particular one was inspired by an exchange with another writer on Facebook. Something he wrote struck a chord with me.

      Oh, and thanks for liking the photo! My wife caught me off-guard during a recent family outing. If you look closely at my t-shirt, you can see where my sons threw water all over me moments earlier 😉

      Best, al

  3. From my understanding, every job has its difficulties and characteristics. But one thing is clear. You should be doing what you love. If it’s screen writing, then that’s okay. Most people (just like me) are caught up in jobs they don’t like at all. This can be really frustrating as it drains all your energy. When you do things that you love, you feel fulfillment and joy. You have to trust your guts and take the path that you are supposed to take. nothing is more fulfilling than that.

    • Hey John, 

      You make a great point and I absolutely agree. Over the years, I’ve done many jobs that I wasn’t keen on and, yes, it was soul destroying. You’re only guaranteed the one life, so might as well use it, right? 

      Besides, these days there are so few jobs that are genuinely secure. I think every one of my friends who works in an office has been made redundant at least once, and often several times. It’s not like past generations where if you worked hard you had a job for life. It’s difficult times all round unfortunately.

      Best, al

  4. I think that script writing would be very rewarding, but also very hard! I have often wanted to give this a try. I am not such a great writer, but I think this is a different kind of writing. My hesitation would be the fact that getting someone to buy the script is not such an easy task. Is this true? I mean if you have a wonderful script, it is still hard. Seems like you have to kind of “know” where to turn your script in to.

    • Hi Matt’s Mom  – I know it’s Leahrae, but I love “Matt’s Mom” 😉

      Yes, unfortunately it is extremely hard. In the past, if you wrote a truly excellent script, you stood a decent chance of selling it (or at least getting it optioned, which is where someone pays you a smaller amount so that they can control the rights to the script for a temporary period). At the very least, you would create a lot of excitement within the industry, which would then most likely lead to being hired for an open writing assignment. 

      Nowadays that’s not really the case. You can write a great script only for it to fall flat in the marketplace. This is because studio executives have become increasingly disconnected from writers and screenplays. Their focus is more on branding, franchising, marketing, etc. As a result, the producers, who act as the intermediaries between writers and the studios, have become increasingly disillusioned and cagey. They don’t want to waste time and effort by taking a script to the studios because they know the chances of setting it up are very low.

      Perhaps things will change. The past few summers have seen a lot of franchises beginning to struggle, particularly in the US. This past summer was particularly grim. So perhaps the studios will reevaluate their current business model, in which case the situation for writers may improve… We’ll see 😉

      Best, al

  5. This article sounds a lot like what it means to be an author. I enjoy writing myself, and people do not often realize the selective pool of people that get their movies or books made. It is a lot of work for a big maybe.

    However, it can be very rewarding when you are chosen.I like how you ended with hope being the biggest motivator. I have a saying I like to tell myself: If I quit now, I never would have known if it was going to work out.

    Awesome article, this was very humbling.

    • Hey Christopher,

      Really glad you enjoyed the article. 

      Yes, it doesn’t matter whether it’s screenplays or books – all writers face the same sorts of challenges. I remember a few years back when I had an idea that wasn’t suitable for a script but would have made for a good sci-fi novel. I spoke to my agent about it and she dissuaded me from going down that route. She argued, very reasonably at the time, that the only thing publishers were interested in were glossy cookbooks and celebrity exposes. 

      Also, I like your saying about not quitting. My own thinking is very similar 😉

      All the best, al

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