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10Ways

to Make a Living from Your Art

Quick Start Guide

01

WHAT IS SCREENWRITING?

A screenwriter or scriptwriter (also sometimes known as scenarist) is a writer who writes screenplays for television, film, video games, and comics.  Screenwriters are good at writing, storytelling, and usually, have a vivid imagination.  They love the movies and television and think they have the fortitude and passion to make it in this competitive industry. And, with hundreds of feature films, and dozens of television movies and weekly series produced each year, (not including cable TV, independent, religious, or educational shows) somebody must be writing screenplays.

There are a number of attributes and skills that all screenwriters must have, including:

  • An understanding and appreciation of how films, video games, etc. affect an audience
  • An in-depth knowledge of story, plot, and narrative
  • A creative imagination
  • Familiarity with current software for formatting, writing, and presenting screenplays, comics, or video games
  • Ability to bring characters to life through pictorial and dramatic writing
  • Well-organized and dedicated
  • Ability to work within strict deadlines
  • Ability to work as part of a team with other creatives
  • Flexible, able to take criticism, ambitious, and realistic

02

WHAT DOES A SCREENWRITER DO?

Screenwriting is a distinct art field that requires talent, practice, and training, plus an enormous level of commitment. The field has a clearly defined set of rules, methods, and parameters for achieving success, both professionally and artistically.  Every screenplay begins with a story idea. Screenwriters turn those ideas into scripts with the intention of having them produced, made into a video game or a comic (including manga and graphic novels). Some stories are fiction and others are nonfiction; based on a person’s life story or an event, which is then adapted by the screenwriter.  Exclusive or pitched assignments are stories which are thought up and written by the screenwriter.

Most, if not all screenwriters are contracted freelance writers and may begin their careers writing on speculation, which means they might be paid little or not at all, or if the script is “picked up for production” they may be paid very well. Professional scriptwriters do not write for free and are commonly represented by a talent agency.

A talent agency or booking agent finds jobs for screenwriters. They also defend, promote, and support the interests of their clients. Signing with an agent isn’t required, but it will help a screenwriter get a job as most studios and production companies prefer to go through a talent agency to find a writer.  Agents are typically paid a percentage of earnings, but regulations are set by writer’s unions and the legal jurisdiction where the agent works, so percentages vary.

Screenwriters who “pitch” a story usually have the luxury of facing little or no competition, and are often very successful. Open assignments are typically initiated by a production company or film studio. They are more competitive and usually have more than one writer competing for the assignment.  Of course, when a screenwriter becomes known in the industry, producers and production companies will come to them because of their reputation and quality of work.

Screenwriters produce highly creative writing and often work on strict deadlines with a script development team to create a finished screenplay. When producers bring in additional writers to add or improve certain aspects of a script, the original writer will either get credit for the original screenplay, or they will be credited for additional dialogue or as a story consultant. For this reason, and many others, to succeed and gain a reputation in the industry as someone easy to work with, a good scriptwriter will leave his or her ego at the door.

Some screenwriters also work as script doctors. Script doctors edit and rewrite scripts to suit the needs of a studio or director. This can be a very lucrative career, because even if a writer is the ninth or tenth person to make revisions, they are still paid.  Up and coming screenwriters will also ghost write projects to increase their chances of the script being picked up by a production studio. Even though they do not get credit for writing the script, as more established writers take public credit, it is still a viable way for a beginner to get his or her feet wet and gain experience.

EDUCATION REQUIREMENTS

Most screenwriters do not have a degree in theater, film, or screenwriting, but interestingly, most do have a degree in some other field, such as business, photography, or English. And many have a graduate degree.  That said, you don’t need a degree to gain employment as a screenwriter…but it doesn’t hurt either.   A degree offers individuals a deep well of knowledge in writing, a network of professional contacts and mentorship opportunities, teaches and develops communication skills, provides discipline and builds a work ethic, and offers students a strong vision for their future.

In fact, most employers prefer candidates who have earned a degree. They assume (whether true or not) that college grads are more professional and mature, and have a wider base of experience and knowledge.  In truth, college can give students the chance to think critically and to articulate their thoughts more clearly.  Skills not often practiced solo. When working with professionals in the industry, like producers and agents, a large part of a screenwriter’s job will be evaluating materials, such as TV episodes and movie scripts.  After which, a writer must be able to communicate his or her ideas and thoughts effectively.  College literature classes will give students the chance to read books, stories, poems, etc., they may not have the opportunity to read otherwise.  But probably most importantly is the fact that college gives aspiring screenwriters that chance to write an endless stream of articles, essays, papers, scripts, stories and more, even topics you don’t care about or will never care to write about again.  Even so, the things you’ll learn through these exercises, like how to better organize an outline, construct better sentences, juggle multiple projects, and reach deadlines, can be invaluable to a screenwriter’s career.

03

WHERE DOES A SCREENWRITER WORK?

Because most screenwriters work as contract freelancers, they often work out of their homes or offices. Sometimes, when commissioned by a production company, they will write the bulk of the script off-site, but come into the company offices often to present first-drafts and revisions.  When working with a team of writers or other people who have input into the finished script, a writer will work in the studio’s offices, on-set, or on-location. This is also true of writers who write for comics and video games.

To work in film or television, screenwriters will likely relocate to LA, as the bulk of movies and television shows are made in and around Hollywood.  Of course, many shows are also shot on location around the world, so travel is probably in the cards also.  New York City, Chicago, and most larger cities in the US (not considering opportunities aboard) are all locations that screenwriters can find jobs. Of course, since screenwriters are contracted freelancers, even living in some remote location is acceptable, as long as you’re willing to travel to meetings or to a film location.

If you are lucky enough to have one of your scripts picked up and put into production, you will be expected to be on-set during film production and shooting.  If you miss a single day, chances are you will miss any changes to the script, arguments for or against making changes or additions, and any creative ideas that a director or actor may add. Flexibility is key. That, and the ability to adapt to other people’s input and ideas.

04

WHAT IS THE AVERAGE SALARY FOR A SCREENWRITER?

To say the average salary for screenwriters varies greatly is an understatement. Individuals with interest in screenwriting have heard the stories about Joe Eszterhas selling the “Basic Instinct” script for $3-million, or Shane Black making $4-million for his “The Long Kiss Goodnight” script. But, many in the industry agree, selling a script, especially for someone new in the industry, is not always the equivalent to winning the lottery.  In fact, sometimes they may not get paid at all. 

Most professional screenwriters are members of the Writers Guild of America, union. Although membership in not required, it is recommended. The WGA sets minimum salaries for union screenwriters. A non-union writer may write for free; whereas an established screenwriter can write for millions of dollars.  Wages also depend on whether you’re writing a script for a low budget or high budget film. It’s common for low budget films to pay around $60,000, and high budget films to pay well over $100,000.  Comic book script writers can make an average of $100 – $300 per page, and script writers who specialize in writing for video games can make about $20,000.  Those with years in the industry can make much more. 

According to the BLS (US Bureau of Labor Statistics), the median hourly wage for a writer in the arts and entertainment industry is $28.50.  But, most screenwriters are paid in installments, with the final check often not arriving until months after the final script has been approved.  To put this into perspective, you must take into account a typical screenwriter’s purchase agreement. 

Step one is the guarantee, which is the money the writer will be paid whether the script goes into production or not.  The writer will then get 50 percent of the agreed total for the script after the first drift is written, and 50 percent after the first rewrite and polish. At the discretion of the studio, they may pay nothing at all until after the final script is approved.  There are also bonuses that are paid after the final credit is determined, or penalties if a film doesn’t go to production by deadline. 

Because wages fluctuate greatly, most professionals in the field will advise “newbies” to keep their day job.  Just because you are fortunate enough to sell one script for thousands of dollars, it doesn’t’ mean you’ll ever sell another.  But for those with the ambition and determination to succeed as a screenwriter, tomorrow’s script is just another opportunity.

05

WHAT IS THE JOB OUTLOOK FOR A SCREENWRITER?

The BLS predicts jobs for screenwriters to grow only two percent between 2014 and 2024. This is much slower growth than for all career fields.  This slow growth is due in part because of strong competition for all scriptwriting jobs, and because many people are attracted to this field.

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