Before fighting through long sleepless nights, beating your head against the wall trying to write out scenes for your screenplay, you may find yourself asking how much do screenwriters earn? Most screenwriters work for the love of telling a great story, but at the end of the day, screenwriting is work, and you have to be able to keep the lights on. Screenplays are the backbone of most films, yet screenwriting is one of the lowest paying, above-the-line, jobs that filmmakers can take on. There is no set figure of how much a screenwriter will make, but there are some guidelines that can steer you in the right direction.
Before you can understand how much a screenwriter makes, you have to understand how a screenwriter gets paid. There are two ways to sell a screenplay: to sell it outright or option it. Optioning a screenplay, or "selling" it, is the first step towards getting paid for your work. A producer or studio offers the writer a set amount of money to take the script off of the market. The writer is then paid the remainder of their money once the film has been released. If the film isn't made within the time frame set in the option, the writer has the opportunity to shop the screenplay again.
The main factor that determines the income of a screenwriter is if the writer is a member of the Writers Guild of America. The Writers Guild has two branches: East and West. East typically handles television broadcasts, while the West is more film-oriented. Think films in Los Angeles; television and stage plays in New York. The Writers Guild is basically a union for writers, setting minimum contract requirements, as well as offering insurance. There are some dues associated with the Guild, but it is a great way ensure that your script will receive fair compensation.
The revenue from your script is determined by a few other key factors: your experience, the type of studio purchasing the work, and, of course, the quality of the work itself. More experienced screenwriters may earn more per screenplay simply because they have established themselves and met a standard where they can set a minimum price for their work. Reputable writers tend to offer the most marketable scripts, that in turn get optioned by the major studios, and have the potential to draw more income.
With all of these factors taken into consideration, the average (full-time) screenwriters is estimated to make $70,117 per script, on average. That figure is an average based to the typical industry high of $91,000 and low of $48,000. However, all situations are different. More studios are choosing to take optioned screenplays at a lower budget because more independent films are receiving theatrical releases and high praise than in years past.