We don’t often think of screenwriters as swimming in cash. In fact, the way we talk about films means writers are often ignored in favor of directors. (It’s “Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner,” not “Hampton Fancher and David Peoples’ Blade Runner.”) You can probably name your top five directors, but not your top five screenwriters. This mentality is largely in part to auteur theory, popularized in France in the late 1940s, which upheld the notion that directors are the true storyellers of film.
Though it’s clear today that a whole host of people contribute to each film, especially franchise pictures with astronomical budgets, most writers are still a long way away from becoming household names. Not everyone can be Aaron Sorkin or Diablo Cody, even after international recognition. Recognize the names Adam McKay and Charles Randolph? Possibly not, even though they took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay last year with The Big Short.
However, a new THR article reveals that, at least financially, some screenwriters are getting credit where credit is due. Though directors are still paid signifiant amounts (with Christopher Nolan making the most nowadays), writers can make a pretty penny simply by adapting or changing an existing text. Simon Kinberg, who co-wrote the two latest X-Men films, Apocalypse and Days of Future Past, made a record $8 million on each screenplay. This figure is especially interesting once compared to what high-end producers get upfront: $2.5 million, on a really good day. Kinberg also makes as much as $350,000 a week rewriting other people’s scripts; though Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3), as well as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (The LEGO Movie) reportedly make $400,000 doing the same.
It’s not quite so glamorous for all writers, though. Especially while streaming conglomerates like Netflix change the face of television, writing jobs are in higher demand; which means the value of teleplays has depreciated. An original TV script now goes for between $71,000 and $134,000, which is on the lower end of the Writers Guild scale. One writer for such a streaming service told THR that they “now have to sell three or four times what [they] sold 10 years ago to make the same kind of living.” Of course, since the average American made around $45k overall in 2014, many of us aren’t about to extend our sympathy to these writers. Still, though, when showrunners are taking home as much as $50k per episode, and stars can make $1 million, it’s clear which jobs are valued in the television market.
While it’s easy to assume that writing for film is more lucrative than writing for TV based on these figures, they actually don’t tell us much about what it’s like to be a screenwriter outside of the studio system. While it makes sense that the big bucks are going to those willing to write and edit adaptations and franchise films (since those movies dominate the market today), it’s still unclear how much an original screenplay goes for, especially one produced outside of the Hollywood studio system.
All in all, though this report is certainly interesting, it leaves us itching for more information. For instance, what can a starting screenwriter expect to make? How long does it take before a screenwriter can do their work full-time? Is there any market for scripts that are completely original, or should fledgling writers shoot for a good adaptation? Though the mystical world of Hollywood seems a bit more accessible after this information, there’s still much left to learn.
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