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 not
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.
More 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.
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?” He 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.
A screenwriter’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. Even 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!
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. There 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.
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 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…