Hiring a writer for a screenplay: how much does it cost and how to find a writer?

It’s not done. Certain predatory individuals pay someone peanuts to get the idea in script form, take the script to a more renowned writer and say “I wrote this. Can you polish it up for a flat fee and a percentage?” The initial ghostwriter is cut out after having agreed to forego most of his fee in favor of a payout down the road. A ghostwriter usually agrees that the upfront money is all he’ll ever see, so he makes it a sum worth his while.

Mark Evanier, a prolific writer in many formats (mostly comics and TV animation), frequently blogs about the adventures of people with a great idea who approach him to write it up on spec or for minimal upfront money. These stories never end happily.

No they don’t:

This screenplay will never make a single penny. So why would anybody sane lower the price upfront for a percentage of money that will never appear?

This applies across all writing. Writers are always told to get all the money in the advance or as a flat fee because the odds of making money off the back end are so remote.

There are some circumstances in which a percentage of the rights make sense, but those involve known professional producers for whom making movies are their successful businesses. For unknowns, it is simply never a good idea.

Uh-huh. Who is that and why the hell should they take any time to read your screenplay?

As said above, professionals won’t waste their time like this except for very, very close friends and relatives (and mostly never twice). Why should they? What’s in it for them? I’ve been part of writer’s workshops and enjoyed them, but I never, ever read and evaluate amateur work on the outside. Amateurs are insane and I’d frankly be afraid to tell them the truth. (If you think this is an overreaction, you don’t know the world of wannabe writers.)

Admittedly, there are screenplay competitions and industry conferences that allow amateurs to submit scripts. I have never heard of any of these scripts being made into a professional-level movie. Personally, I consider them a sophisticated form of marketing scam. There are of course costs involved in entering the script into the competition or in conference fees so somebody winds up making money. Just not you.

Am I trying to discourage you from spending your money foolishly? Yes, I am.

Something I’ve heard various professional writers say is this:

Ideas are ten a penny. The hard part is writing them. Any good writer is going to have lots of ideas of his own. He will have more ideas than time to write them. He will not be interested in writing your ideas for you. He won’t even want to *hear *your ideas.

See one writer’s comment here.

If he hears your ideas, and his next screenplay resembles yours however slightly, even one similar line, then you might sue him and claim that he stole your idea. Refusing to look at your idea protects him against that.

I work in the entertainment industry… Or to be more precise I am a lawyer who practices in that industry. Also take into account that I am refering to the argentinian market.
First of all, ideas are worthless: you can’t even copyright them!
There are several stages before you have a workable script. For example, the “treatment” that is a rough summary of the story with no detailed scenes and no dialogues. This is copyrightable and I would advise you to register it before contacting anybody.
Then you can hire a scriptwriter. You should consult a lawyer first but the idea is that for the agreed consideration he assigns all the his rights as the author of the script to you (in the US there is a “work for hire” provission in your Copyright act).
You can hire him for a flat fee or for flat fee plus a percentage of your earnings.
Finally, as to the price. This week I drafted a contract for hiring an scriptwriter. The price? 40.000 american dollars.

I’m getting, no offense, a very naiive view on your part of how the industry works. You seem to be starting from the assumption that (a) there are legions of accomplished (not too accomplished, but adequately) people who have trained in/have aptitude for screenwriting but have a shortage of their own good “ideas” and (b) lots of script evaluators/buyers who need to actively seek out new scripts to replenish their inbox, both classes of people anxiously awaiting your “idea” as the one missing ingredient of the industry.

That’s just not how it works and there is a reason that I have never heard of an unproven individual outsourcing the entire writing of a script, then getting all or most of the upside (studios may outsource rewrite, and writers who have proven their box office/market value on their own sometimes get lazy and lean on ghost/co-writers, but that’s an entirely different scenario).

Put differently, who is doing most of the “value-add” in your scenario? You’ve got the journeyman first-draft writer adding tons of text, characterization, plot detail, atmosphere. You’ve got the “evaluator” giving years of expert experience to tell you which part works and what would need to change. You’ve got the first-tier rewrite guy taking it from a rambling inconsistent but promising first draft to a polished filmable product. Compared to each of them, do you really think your initial idea is so valuable that they will all willingly fall into line and sign up under its sway?

I (again not unkindly) use the word “naiive” with reference to the blithe reference to “showing the result to people.” If not the biggest, than the second-biggest cliche in Hollywood (probably before that in publishing) is the notion that (a) everyone in L.A. (cab driver, waiter, pool boy) has a screenplay he’s trying to “get someone to take a look at” and that (b) everyone with the slightest degree of experience in/connection with the studios spends a substantial part of his time desperately trying to avoid people who want to foist off said screenplays on them, invoke their influence, etc.

Others have emphasized this but I’m not sure it’s taking – “ideas” are the easy part. I had an idea that a faster than light space ship would be great. No one’s going to give me a patent for that space ship, nor is there anyone who’s remotely qualified to do the legwork to actually make it happen who needs or wants me to commission him to do it on my behalf.

I could come up with six plausible, kind of interesting movie ideas in one minute. Here go – Chechen terrorists who look European infiltrate the U.S., leading up to a big climactic standoff at the White House. A modern version of the Three Musketeers, but it’s office politics instead of real warfare/political intrigue. America elects its first Chinese-American president, with all sorts of wacky cultural misunderstandings from his extended first-generation immigrant relatives. Two soldiers grapple with both the stress of war in Afghanistan and their growing realization that what they feel for each other may be more than just camaraderie – all under the shadow of the don’t ask don’t tell policy. A couple meet in a chatroom and conduct their entire courtship in 140 character Twitter messages, meeting in real life only at the altar. A woman discovers her great-great-grandmother’s Civil War-era love letters and sets out to see if revisiting the scenes where she and her beau had traveled to during that period can revive her ailing marriage.

Ah Hell, that took more like four minutes for the typing, but that’s six “ideas.” And feel free to steal any of them, 'cause as such, they’re worth about the pixel they are printed with.

Guys, you are preaching to the choir. Yes, I know that ideas are worthless without great execution. And they are worth even less when coming from someone outside the industry.

That’s why I said in the OP “I know that the chance that it will ever get made into anything are essentially zero”

[li]I want to try to move away from just the “idea” phase to a first step towards seeing the idea on paper. [/li][li]One route would be for me to take some classes, and then try to write it myself. Not only would this take a lot of time and effort, but I’m pretty sure that most current screenwriting students and amateur screenwriters would do a better job than me, so this route is out of the question.[/li][li]That leaves me paying someone to do it. Since the probability of some eventual success is practically zero, I don’t want to spend too much money on it. The only thing that motivates me to spend a non-zero amount of money on this is the satisfaction I would get from seeing the idea taken from simple idea to an actual screenplay.[/li][li]This satisfaction is not worth $40,000 to $60,000, which seems to be the current rate for a professional job.[/li][li]This means that if I move forward, I would have to find some screenwriting student or amateur screenwriter to do it for a fraction of the price of a professional. Sure, the quality will be significantly lower, but at least the “idea” (which most people see as worthless) is now on paper in some fleshed-out form (which some people may potentially see as not totally worthless). Whether I stop at this stage or move forward depends on how this initial screenplay looks, but I can see that even with this initial screenplay in hand the probability of some future success is still practically zero.[/li][/ol]

Thanks for the info and the warnings. Since I’m not familiar with this industry all such input is useful.

Useful info, thanks.

I don’t think anyone would want to do this for a percentage of earnings, especially for someone from outside the industry like me, since the probability of any earnings is essentially zero, so most likely I’m looking at a flat fee.

It’s becoming clear that the prices for professional writers are much higher than I had thought, and are higher than what I’m willing to pay, for “just an idea”. I may not proceed with this, but if I do, it looks like I will have to find a student or an amateur.

We’re trying not to rain on your parade, but reality kind of requires it in this situation. And as others have pointed out, if you go looking for takers to help you break into the entertainment industry (essentially what you’re doing), you may well find takers, but (human nature being what it is) the odds are much higher of the people you find being the type of takers who end up walking away enriched with your money than your walking away with anything that will get you into the industry.

Two additional thoughts.

  1. Why do you want to work up your idea? Presumably, it’s because you think it would look great up on the screen (with your name attached to it). Think for a minute about every single person who has training or aptitude as a screenwriter (and many who don’t). They all have the exact same motivation. There are fairly strong negative incentives for them to put their ideas on hold to get a few thousand bucks from some other much lesser (in their view) aspiring but unproven market entrant. “But I’d pay them something, which is better than what they’re making as students!” Wannabe actors and Hollywood types are notorious for their willingness to be underemployed/unemployed for years while they chase their dream. They’re not so well-known for taking low-rent assignments to further someone else’s dream.

  2. The scenario you propose has never, to the knowledge of anyone here, worked or been made to work by anyone (someone correct me if I’m missing an example). Never – breaking into a creative business on a piecework/outsourced basis is just unheard of.

Just something to consider, as with any business proposition.

Quite true. Never. This has never worked.

You’ve heard of vanity publishing? This is vanity screenplay writing. You won’t have much trouble finding somebody who would eagerly take all the money from you that they can. It’s like a Nigerian scam for real.

However, at this point I’m switching sides. I encourage you to go ahead and do this, trying as hard as you can.

Why? Because like everybody else in the world I love it when people fail to take my advice and I get to say “I told you so.” :stuck_out_tongue:

I don’t assume this. Even if some aspiring writer has several ideas of their own that they are working on, they may have no regular income, so they get some income by writing something for someone else. Surely this is not an impossibility, right? A quick Google search shows that there are such individuals: “screenwriter for hire”

Whether they are any good is another question, but you make it seem like there is no one who will abandon their own ideas to work on someone else’s.


I understand that people in the industry get bombarded by scripts every day.

Even if was aware of the above, you reminding me of this in the context of this thread is useful, since it makes me realize that even if I was insane enough to spend $100,000 to get a great writer to develop the screenplay and even if the screenplay turned out great, there is still the issue of pitching this screenplay, and being successful at this is very unlikely given the tons of people inside the industry doing it every day. And it gets even worse if this is done with a crappy screenplay, the one I would most likely get with the amount of money I’m willing to spend.

I’m not sure why you bring up the “upside”. Wouldn’t a script written for an unproven individual like me have an almost zero chance of any future earnings? So, why would the writer worry about getting none of the upside? Wouldn’t they just want a flat fee to write this for me, so they can some income and get back to working on their own stuff?

As I mentioned above, I am aware of this (mostly via many movies where this is a big cliche about life in L.A.), but you reminding me of it is very useful.

Well, my idea is better than any of the above :wink:

Seriously, though, the practical aspects of this whole process do seem insurmountable.

Oh, it’s a little worse than that. In vanity publishing, the author just about always has a fully realized (for better or worse) manuscript. All the third party does is format/print it. There’s no real book analog to the OP’s premise.

Not shockingly, because a vanity-press/self-published author has generally done a beginning-to-end project with a lot of (better or worse) thought and work, and a clear voice, put into it, there are instances of self-published books becoming successful and even making an author famous. Not many these days, but some. I wonder if there are comparable analogies of self-published e-books in more recent times . . . .

I am a screenwriter. I’ve finished two features, sold a short, attend a writer’s group and am willing to give your idea a try for $10,000.
Yes, I have lots of my own ideas that I could be working on, but working on them means I’m working for free. Giving your idea a whack means at least I’d be getting paid for my time. And as long as I’m writing, I’m working on my skill.
Some conditions: 1) I’d like to hear your idea first to see if it’s a story or a bare-bones idea. 2) What genre were you thinking this would be? I have my strengths and weakness when writing. 3) I’d like to know what sort of time frame your thinking about.

If you have netflix, you can instant watch the documentary “Tales from the Script” which I watched just last night.

I also have a “great” idea and I even started writing the screenplay (started many times now, as a matter of fact), but after watching this documentary I figure that if I do write it, it will be only for fun because those writers are some VERY unhappy people with some real horror stories. (and these are the writers who have actually had their work made into films)

How about making your idea into a novel instead of a movie?

I don’t disagree with this in concept. I would make the emphatic point that self-publishing is a very different thing than vanity publishing, especially today. It is much easier to market your own self-published book when you have control over the quality and printing than using a vanity press book, which almost always looks cheaply amateurish. In addition, although there are a small number of examples of vanity published books being discovered, most of the well-known authors who are trotted out as examples (Tom Clancy, John Grisham, Frank Herbert) involve small or specialty presses rather than true vanity presses.

For what it’s worth, I’d watch this.

I can think of three off the top of my head:

John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow first began “publishing” their books by putting them on a website and setting up a “tip jar” link. Both attracted the notice of real publishers and are now highly respected (and bestselling) authors.

Scott Sigler released his fiction as free podcasts (dubbed “podiobooks”) a chapter at a time through his website and iTunes. He gained a massive following and he too earned a publishing deal with a real publisher.

I will say this about the execution-versus-idea issue: Yes, execution matters a whole lot, and Hollywood producers have gotten extremely good at it. They can get the top-rated actors, best CGI, best stuntmen, hundreds millions of dollars for financing, etc, so they can make just about any movie they want and make it look good. However, a lot of the stories, character development, and dialog are crap. I guess they still know what they’re doing, since they still make millions at the box office, but they may not be doing as well as they could be (I think movie going is down, in real dollar terms, but don’t have a cite).

When I come out of some of the blockbuster summer movies I often wonder “If they can put $200 million towards making this movie, why can’t they set aside a decent chunk of that and put it on a screenplay that doesn’t suck?”. Some may answer that they don’t need a screenplay that doesn’t suck, and they know the optimal way to spend their $200 million to maximize their box office take. However, I think that another possibility is that they have gotten so good at the execution, they can make such dazzling movies these days (from a visual/technical point of view) that they simply go ahead and make a movie even if they don’t have the greatest storyline to base it on.

It’s like someone who has an amazing factory that can make any gadget they want, but they simply can’t come up with enough ideas for amazing gadgets to produce a new one each month, so they go ahead and use their factory to make useless gadgets since they know their gadgets are so dazzling that people will buy them anyway.

The making of movies has become such a colossal enterprise that there are only a few entities which can execute well in this space. So the execution is focused in a small number of entities/companies, and I think this poses a problem, since there is not as much diversity in the types of stories being told, or even the way they are told.

(Artsy, independent films, of course are not covered by the above. The above refers to big mainstream movies)


Now that you’ve heard from the stone-throwers, here’s the other side. Many here have rightly suggested that ideas are over-rated - it’s true. But the idea that talented screenwriters won’t write for you because they have good ideas too is malarky. Screenwriting is their jobs and they strive to get paid for doing it. Almost all first time screenwriters who sell their work go straight to writing others ideas. In fact many spec scripts are written as a way to get their foot in the door. 99% of screenwriters in Hollywood don’t write spec scripts, they write to get paid.

I had an idea for a screenplay. I went to seminars , read every book I could get my hands on and wrote, wrote wrote. I listened to podcasts and networked with other hopefuls on forums, etc. Finally I got my foot in the door and had my project optioned with Palm (for a measley $500, they didn’t renew and no one else was interested). It’s very hard work, but doable. My in finally came (from all places) IMDB Board: Shop Talk Writers. There is a guy that posts there that has sold several scripts and even had a minor but speaking part in Fincher’s Zodiak. I haven’t hung out there in years but I just checked and he is still posting there. PM me if you are interested as I don’t want to identify him here. He’s a very knowledgeable and straight forward guy.

Lots of luck on your project.