For most, writing is less of a job and more of a passion. But wouldn’t it be ideal if we could all make a living in a field that we are passionate about? It’s not impossible to get paid to do what you love, if you’re willing to accept the reality: there’s not much stability for writers who choose this path. We asked five expert writers how much money the average writer can expect to earn. The answer? Well, it’s as diverse as the backgrounds of our experts.
Per the Writers Guild of America West, the minimum amount a screenwriter can be paid for a low budget (less than $5 million) feature-length film excluding treatment is $41,740. For a high budget film (exceeding $5 million) the minimum is $85,902. Of course, pay varies significantly in between and above those rates, for both TV and film.
“But if you’re doing this for money then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. Because … it’s really hard to break in,” said Jeanne V. Bowerman, editor at Script Mag and Co-Founder/Moderator of #ScriptChat. “There’s not as many paid screenwriters as there are screenwriters who want to get paid.”
New York Times Best-Selling Author Jonathan Maberry, the author of the ‘V-Wars’ franchise coming soon to Netflix, echoed that sentiment.
“Writing is not a lucrative job for most people,” he said. According to Maberry, less than one percent of writers make a living at it. In the novel-writing world, Maberry said he knows writers who are turning out one or two novels each year, making anywhere from $5,000- $10,000 per book. “Unfortunately, most writers have to keep a day job because of the amount of money available. I’d like to see that change, and there are some of us within the industry that are working to raise the pay level for writers.”
However, it’s not all harsh news. For screenwriters who are great at what they do, there is big money to be made. Screenwriter Doug Richardson, who wrote ‘Die Hard 2,’ ‘Hostage,’ and ‘Bad Boys,’ told us sought-after screenwriters willing to do rewrites can make hundreds of thousands of dollars … per WEEK. It’s the exception, of course, and not the rule.
“Screenwriters can make as little as $25,000 to $30,000 a year doing very small jobs if they’re members of the WGA. They can make millions of dollars a year if they are an in-demand screenwriter willing to do rewrites. It’s called the golden handcuffs in Hollywood,” he said. “They just keep throwing you hundreds of thousands of dollars per week to work on this movie and work on that movie and polish that script. And once actors know that you’re the writer that did the polish on that movie, they want you to come in and do the polish on their movie. And that polish is two or three weeks and yeah, you can make a million dollars out of that.”
And the rest, he added, “you can do the math. There’s a low side and an upside, and the upside is UP.”
Donald H. Hewitt wrote screenplays for several successful anime films, including ‘Spirited Away,’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle.’ He said the average writer salary range can be compared to the average pro-athlete’s salary.
“It’s really extremely different. You’re averaging in a handful of people who make a ridiculous amount of money with the majority of people who make an okay amount of money and with a huge majority of people who don’t make any money,” Hewitt said.
Michael Stackpole, author of several novels including the warrior trilogy for Battletech Universe and several novels for Bantam Books’ Star Wars universe, said working for free is not necessarily a bad thing when you’re just starting out.
“Writing for exposure may be fine in your first year just to get some feedback. But after that, you really do want to start looking at jobs that are going to pay you money,” Stackpole said. “The real key thing, and a lot of writers don’t look at this, is that being a writer is more than just writing stories. If you want to get paid, you have to become a businessman. So, you have to think about this as a job. And you have to think about whether or not projects are worth your time.”
I warned you at the beginning of this blog: the numbers really are all over the board! In the end, writers must decide what they’re willing to take as payment for pursuing their passion. Your talent is priceless but putting food on the table isn’t free. The bad news? You may need to keep your day job for a while. But the great news? “The more you do, the better it gets,” Bowerman said. Stackpole concluded, “in terms of the upper end, there is no upper end. There’s really no ceiling.”
Sky’s the limit! Happy screenwriting,
Courtney Meznarich, Director of Community Outreach