Everybody reads the trades – writer gets low-six against mid-six figures. Just for a dose of reality, do the math and see what it really means. Start by remembering that most spec sales are the result of a huge amount of the writer’s work – not just noodling for a few months until 120 pages spit out of the printer. Honing, taking notes, rewriting, more and more until you hate the project then, if you’re naive enough, love it again. Finally, after 6, 7, 8 months, maybe even a year filled with your serious sweat, the script is ready to go out into the market. (How it gets there is another topic – for another post.) So, you’re talking about a lot of labor and, likely, a lot of down time until the next project. With that in mind, here’s the math.
“Mid-six figures against…” – Wow! That’s around $500,000. Unfortunately, you can write this portion of it off. You only get this if the movie is made and, usually, subject to other conditions. Most scripts are in development for years and never get produced. Even if it is produced, if other writers are brought in (and they almost always are), here come those pesky “conditions”. If you don’t get on screen credit or “separation of rights” (a WGA term of art – again, the topic for another post sometime), you may forfeit some or all of this money even if the movie is made. Don’t mortgage the house betting on this chunk of change.
“…low-six figures…” – Wow! That’s $100,000 or more. Do the math. 10% out for agent, leaving $90,000. 10%-15% out for manager, leaving maybe $80,000. 5% out for lawyer, leaving $75,000. If you are single and did not earn a lot more income, that puts you in the 28% tax bracket, leaving about $54,000. Just for kicks, throw in a writing partner and divide it in half.
Keep in mind that you don’t even get that up front. You usually have to rewrite the script again taking into consideration notes from the studio and producer, so your eight months of work now becomes twelve months of work. You just earned about $25,000 for your effort.
In Los Angeles, a midlevel loan officer at the neighborhood bank makes about $95,000/yr. (Source – salary.com.)
Bummer? Not really. Working writers can make a terrific living. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any. It’s just a lot easier if you love the work and understand that writing is not the road to easy street. It is hard work with often uncertain returns. You need to hone your craft to be competitive with the very best writer’s out there and you need to be in it for the long haul.