How Much Is A Feature Screenwriter Paid?

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As an aspiring feature screenwriter, your goal is to write movies because you love movies. But somewhere along the line, you also found out that you can make some pretty serious money doing it. Admit it, you want to know: how much is a screenwriter paid? 

Screenwriters are paid according to their industry rate, but all screenwriters are protected by the Writers Guild of America so long as they are in the guild. As of the WGA 2020 Schedule of Minimums, as a first-time screenwriter in the WGA, your minimum rate for an original feature film screenplay (including treatment) is between $77,495 on the low end to $145,469 on the high end. 

Besides that, rates differ depending on whether the script is original or not, with or without a treatment, for television and how long the episode is, and whether or not it’s for a prime time cable show, new media streaming platform, or anything in between. 

That, of course, creates a wide range of rates that takes quite a bit to comb through.

We’ll try to break it down for you as easily as we can without getting too caught up in the finer details. For those finer details, refer to the WGA Schedule of minimums (linked above). 

Let’s dive in!  

How much is a screenwriter paid?

As mentioned above, at a minimum, a feature film screenwriter should expect to be paid between $77,495 on the low end and $145,469 on the high end for an original screenplay with a treatment.

If you read that and feel disappointed, don’t worry; these minimums represent the bottom floor for what guild-certified writers should get paid. 

The more well-known you are as a screenwriter, the more you will get paid, as your representation will always fight for you to get whatever you made on your last sale and then some. 

In addition to all the variation that comes from having differing qualifications, credits, and “name-value” associated with different writers, there’s plenty of other variables when discussing minimums in the feature film realm. 

For instance, what if you sell an original feature screenplay without a treatment? Or what if you sell a feature screenplay for an adaptation? What if you have a story-by credit on a feature script that gets sold? Or what if you rewrite a feature script someone else wrote? 

We’ll get into that in a minute, but first, let’s talk about what to expect to get paid as a feature screenwriter outside of the WGA.

What would a screenwriter outside the WGA expect to get paid?

If you are a first-time screenwriter, not a WGA member, you are not protected by the same rules that apply to the guild.

What this means is that you will, at a minimum, need a lawyer to represent you should you get to the point of selling a feature screenplay. 

For more about how to sell a script, check out our article on the subject here

More likely than selling a script outright, you will probably find yourself getting into some kind of option agreement, allowing a production company or producing partner the rights to take your spec script out to buyers for a potential sale. 

This option agreement could be for as little as $1, but with a contractual obligation of payment upon a future sale. That $1 is very scary, which is why you will need a lawyer to review any documents that come your way before you sign it. 

Without realizing it, you might sign the rights away to your script for only $1!

For more about option agreements, check out this great article on the subject from Stage32. 

What would be in the contract? 

As an unprotected screenwriter making your first sale, your lawyer would probably fight for you to seek out a deal that is at least 2.5% of the ultimate production budget of the film in question. This is around the industry standard for first-time writers who are not protected by the WGA.* 

This contract would also theoretically include some minimum floor to protect you from that total production budget number getting too low.

For instance, your lawyer might argue for a floor of $10,000, so you know that even if the buyer tries to make the movie for a $50,000 budget, or buys it from you with that intention then changes their mind, you will still be fairly compensated. 

*Keep in mind, this isn’t legal advice – that’s what the lawyer is for!

Beyond that, there are all sorts of contractual mechanisms that could get you paid more on the backend should the film make any money if your lawyer can argue for them. That depends largely on how much of a case they can make on your behalf without scaring the buyer away.

If you have representation from an agent, you could even offer your project to multiple buyers and start a bidding war to raise your price. This usually only happens with big-name writers, but never say never!

You can read more on how to get an agent as a screenwriter here.

What about getting paid to rewrite another person’s script? 

What you could get paid for rewriting a script can vary depending on how much the buyer is willing to pay. Theoretically, as an unprotected writer, you could get a wide range of offers for a “ghost” style rewrite or polish. 

Ensure you have a lawyer review all contracts to help you get a fair deal no matter what you are writing!

Now what about if you are a member of the WGA?  

What does a screenwriter inside the WGA get paid? 

As a screenwriter in the WGA, here’s what you can expect to get paid (depending on the following variables. Let’s break it all down according to what the WGA says:  

Screenwriter payment for an original script and treatment.

WGA 2020 THEATRICAL AND TELEVISION BASIC AGREEMENT* 
Compensation for First Period Effective (5/2/20 – 5/1/21)LOWHIGH
A. Original Screenplay, Including Treatment$77,495$145,469
Installments for Employment:
Delivery of Original Treatment35,10858,138
Delivery of First Draft Screenplay30,51258,138
Delivery of Final Draft Screenplay11,87529,193
*data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.))

As you can see from the above data, if you sign a contract to sell an original script, including a treatment, you should expect to get paid between $77,495 on the low end and $145,469. 

This is the highest range for first time WGA protected writers selling a feature script, but just because you sell a feature script doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to get paid this amount. 

This range is only if you manage to sell a completely original idea, beginning with a treatment for the story, followed by a first draft, and then a final draft of the completed screenplay. 

So, for instance, if you write a spec script and manage to sell it, you wouldn’t necessarily be contracted to write a treatment unless the studio wanted to change the story so much that a full restructure was required with a page one rewrite.

You can read more on how to write a film treatment here.

Also, as you can see from the above statement, you will be paid in installments.

The first one will be for the delivery of the treatment, followed by a second payment for the first draft and a third payment for the final draft.

Screenwriter payment for a non-original script with a treatment. 

Let’s say you are hired to write a non-original screenplay. This could be an adaptation that you bring to the buyer or an adaptation the buyer is hiring you to write based on some existing intellectual property they have the rights to. Here’s what the WGA says:

LOWHIGH
B. Non-Original Screenplay, Including Treatment*67,802126,089
Installments for Employment:
Delivery of Treatment25,42438,759
Delivery of First Draft Screenplay30,51258,138
Delivery of Final Draft Screenplay11,86629,192
*data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.))

In both instances, you could expect to make between $67,802 on the low end to $126,089 on the high end, paid out in similar installments to those outlined above for an original feature.

Screenwriter payment for an original screenplay without a treatment.

LOWHIGH
C. Original Screenplay, Excluding Treatment or Sale/Purchase of Original Screenplay*52,059106,571
Installments for Employment:
Delivery of First Draft Screenplay40,20577,518
Delivery of Final Draft Screenplay11,85429,053
*data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.))

According to the WGA, if you sell an original feature screenplay without a treatment, like a spec script you write and then pitch and sell, you could expect to make somewhere between $52,059 on the low end and $106,571 on the high end

This money would theoretically be paid out in two installments (as shown above): once upon completion of the first draft, and once more when you turn in the final draft. 

For a non-original screenplay without a treatment.

The same rules above would apply for selling a non-original feature screenplay without a treatment, but the payments are lower. 

As a screenwriter selling a non-original screenplay without a treatment, you would make between $42,366 on the low end and $87,191 on the high end.

LOWHIGH
D. Non-Original Screenplay, Excluding Treatment or Sale/Purchase of Non-Original Screenplay*42,36687,191
Installments for Employment:
Delivery of First Draft Screenplay30,51258,138
Delivery of Final Draft Screenplay11,85429,053
*data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.))

Do these guild-protected minimums get higher over time? 

Something to keep in mind: the current 2020 WGA schedule of minimums protects writers through May of 2023. This means that these minimums scale up every pay period. 

See here how if you sell an original screenplay as a member of the WGA after May of this year, you will actually be entitled to a higher minimum: between $79,432 on the low and $149,106 on the high end.

Compensation for Second Period Effective (5/2/21 – 5/1/22)LOWHIGH
A. Original Screenplay, Including Treatment*$79,432$149,106
*data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.))

But if you manage to sell your screenplay as a WGA member between 5/22 and 5/23, you will be entitled to an even higher minimum of $81,815 on the low end and $153,579 on the high end. I guess it pays to wait, huh?

Compensation for Third Period Effective (5/2/22 – 5/1/23)LOWHIGH
A. Original Screenplay, Including Treatment*$81,815$153,579
*data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.))

This incremental change is outlined by the WGA in the following: “Most minimums increase 1.5% in the first year of the contract, 3% in the second year and 3% in the third year.” There are caveats of course, so make sure you check in with the WGA for the most updated information.

Here are the three periods as a chart for comparison: 

Data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.)

How much is a screenwriter paid for rewrites and story credits?

There are all sorts of other ways to get paid as a feature screenwriter than selling a script outright. Check out what the WGA says should be expected for the following types of work below.

*LOWHIGH
E. Additional Compensation for Story included in Screenplay  9,69319,380
F. Story or Treatment25,42438,759
G. Original Story or Treatment35,10858,138
H. First Draft Screenplay, with or without Option for Final Draft Screenplay (non-original)
First Draft Screenplay30,51258,138
Final Draft Screenplay20,33738,759
I. Rewrite of Screenplay25,42438,759
J. Polish of Screenplay12,72119,380
*data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.))

Let me break all of that down:

How much is a screenwriter paid for story credits? 

Let’s say your story makes it into the final draft of a screenplay that someone else rewrites. You could expect to get paid between $9,693 on the low end and $19,380 on the high end.

What if you only sell a story or a treatment but aren’t hired on to write the script? 

As a WGA protected screenwriter, you could expect to make between $25,424 and $38,759, respectively. However, that amount is higher for an original story or treatment: between $35,108 to $57,138.

What if you get hired to write the first draft of a screenplay for a non-original idea, regardless of whether you are kept on for the final draft? 

The WGA says you should be paid between $30,512 to $58,579, with additional compensation outlined for the final draft. 

How much is a screenwriter paid for rewrites?

To rewrite a screenplay as a WGA member, you should be paid between $25,424 and $38,759.

To polish a screenplay, you should be paid around $12,721 and $19,380

What’s the difference between a rewrite and a polish? 

There are different expectations for both a rewrite and a polish, but a rewrite implies the buyer is asking for larger, more structural notes to be changed, while a polish implies more cosmetic, surgical revisions are being requested. 

You can check with your reps, including a lawyer, or the WGA directly if you aren’t sure if what you are being asked to do is a rewrite or a polish. 

All types of feature screenwriting work and corresponding compensation.

Data from the WGA’s 2020 schedule of minimums (THEATRICAL COMPENSATION (ARTICLE 13.A.1.a.)

When does a screenwriter get paid?

As the WGA’s Minimum Basic Agreement says, “The Basic Agreement requires timely delivery, generally 10-12 days, of a contract or deal memo to the writer or the writer’s representative after agreement on the major deal points. Contact the Guild Contracts Department for details.”

The agreement goes on to say, according to the WGA, that “a screenwriter should get paid the greater of either (a) 10% of the agreed compensation for delivery of first material, or (b) $5,854 at the commencement of writing services.” 

After that, the WGA says the company should “make its best efforts to pay the writer within 48 hours of delivery but in no event more than 7 days after delivery”, which I interpret to mean the delivery of each requested draft, be it a first draft, rewrite, polish, or final draft.

Even while those are the rules, I’ve also heard stories of payments being delayed weeks, especially if projects fall through or if what constitutes a “rewrite” being “delivered” is debated. 

From the buyer’s perspective, they want to get their money’s worth with each rewrite, so they might give a screenwriter two or three or even more rounds of notes per rewrite before they consider it officially turned in. This is to be expected, but don’t let it get too out of hand. 

Always keep your reps handy to help you if you feel what’s being asked of you is unfair! 

How much more can feature screenwriters make?    

Beyond these minimums, as a working feature screenwriter with plenty of credits and name value, you can always make a lot more.

Script sales can get astronomically high, particularly if your script gets into a bidding war between, say, two huge buyers like Netflix and HBO. 

These days, bidding wars happen moreover existing intellectual property or on the television side. Not to say they don’t happen on the spec side, but it’s much more uncommon in the 2020s than it was in the 1990s.

Outside of massive bidding wars, any professional screenwriter with good reps would have their rate set at whatever they got paid on their last script sale + a certain percentage more, depending on how in-demand they are as a writer or how hot the project is. 

A lot of seemingly unquantifiable variables will always apply, as you’re only worth as much as your agent and lawyer can argue for, so it’s hard to measure too much beyond guild minimums.

What is the most money a feature screenplay has ever sold for? 

While it’s hard to quantify as so many deals go undisclosed, one of the highest feature screenplay sales of all time was to writers Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio for the script that became the film Déjà Vu starring Denzel Washington. The sale was for $5 million

That’s an astronomical number for a single script, even splitting it two ways, but writers who get overall deals get paid much more than that. 

Overall deals are development deals with a studio to buy right of first refusal for a given time for whatever a creator (usually a producer and writer, like a showrunner on the TV side) creates.

Personally, I haven’t read about any sales higher than $5 million since the recession of 2008, but before that, there were all kinds of wild spec sales, the highest deals of which were around $4 million. 

A series of writers earned this kind of money, including Lethal Weapon writer Shane Black for his school teacher assassin script The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Big Short writer/director Adam McKay’s Will Ferrell race car driver movie Talladega Nights

While those numbers look plenty exciting, don’t get ahead of yourself; if you aren’t even in the WGA, you have very little control over what you’ll be making, let alone having no credits.

So always be humble, don’t get distracted by big dollar amounts as your goal, and keep focusing on writing the best work you can write. The only guarantee you have is loving the craft! 

Writing a great script is, after all, it’s own reward.

Read the 2020 Schedule of Minimums for more. 

There are plenty more ways for screenwriters to get paid as outlined in the WGA’s Schedule of Minimums, so make sure you read through it to stay informed about how much first-time guild writers are entitled to. 

Even if you are not in the guild, it’s healthy to know what a WGA-protected working screenwriter is getting paid in every scenario. It’s always better to be more informed than less when coming to the negotiating table, even if you are a new writer outside the WGA. 

Who knows… you and your reps might be able to fight for you to get closer to WGA standard, even as an industry outsider if you know what’s fair and what’s not. Always defer to your representation to help you in these instances. 

If you aren’t repped by a manager or agent, but have a potential sale opportunity? Get a lawyer


Grant Harvey is a freelance writer, screenwriter, and filmmaker based out of Los Angeles. When he’s not working on his own feature-length screenplays and television pilots, Grant uses his passion and experience in film and videography to help others learn the tools, strategies, and equipment needed to create high-quality videos as a filmmaker of any skill level.

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