How do scriptwriters earn money starting out?

How do scriptwriters trade their scripts for cash? This is unlike a traditional employer-employee-interview situation, isn’t it? So how/where does someone start in this business?

Why just mention scriptwriters? Why not novelists, painters, musicians, dancers, poets, actors, and plenty of other professions? There’s nothing unique about scriptwriters.

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Since this has to do with how artistic works are created, let’s move it to Cafe Society (from GQ).

Well, I would say the scriptwriters are the only ones on that list who don’t “create art for the public.” Admittedly, actors don’t by themselves either, whether they work on stage or on screen, but they’re more directly part of the final product than the screenwriter is…

What the screenwriter does is make a very long memo telling directors, actors, costume designers, effects specialists, lighting people, and all kinds of other showbiz people how to make a piece of art for the public. :wink:

Scriptwriters are unusual in that the clientèle is an extraordinarily small group. The barrier to entry to get a script performed is probably higher than just about any other creative pursuit.

Scripts can mean stage, movie, TV, radio. One thing that sets these markets apart is a highly developed and structured agent and IP management system. It seems that in many markets not having an agent represent you will result in unsolicited scripts being returned unopened. For no other reason than to avoid potential IP and plagiarism issues.

If you have a script for a stage play you can sell performance rights. A script for a recorded performance may often be purchased outright. Or you may end up as an apprentice doing hack work and work your way up in a large organisation. Then you get to work for a wage and your work is owned by your employer form the outset.

None of this suggests how you make ends meet hawking your wares before you get any success. Waiting tables seems to be the usual answer.

You can do anything. Since a writer works alone, all you have to do is carve out spare time to do it. You can work a 40-hour week and have no trouble writing a script.

The harder aspect is getting it to an agent or producer. It’s necessary to work in LA when you’re starting out and spending the time you’re not working, writing, or sleeping making contacts. TV is a place to aim for first; a long-runnimg show sometimes needs new blood. If you get a credit, you can join the Writers Guild, which opens doors (shows are allowed to accept one script from a non-guild writer). Payment for that script can support you for months, and the show might be willing to take another. Now you can make the jump to full-time writing.

The son of one of my coworkers is a script writer whose credits currently include several short movies and two series. Going by my coworker’s remarks, the son works with several partners and they represent themselves (apparently the Spanish market doesn’t need agents for scripts); there are only so many companies that can be interested in, say, a new TV series, and they know the contact info from movie school.

I wish I knew. It’s a nepotistic incestuous industry, unfortunately. First you write spec scripts, which show off your skill but don’t have to get made, then you find people in the industry to pay attention to them and you, and then if you’re lucky and have demonstrable talent you might start to get some work as a script editor or assistant’s assistant, and eventually you may get some paid work. But probably not.

As waiters.

Many people with artistic aspirations - script writers among them - work in advertising.

And waitresses and bartenders…

A large portion of “front of house” restaurant employees are an aspiring xxxxx, fill in the blank…writer, actor, artist, musician…

I’m going to assume you’re asking about the Los Angeles based, US film and television industry. It still produces the most films and TV shows seen in the most countries. (The Indian film industry produces more films but has nowhere near the global reach of the US industry.)

These articles were written by a screenwriter who won several major contests, had an agent with a major agency, and ultimately got fed up with the Hollywood shuffle. Best explanation of the screenwriting game anywhere on the web.

In Hollywood, that is, the Los Angeles based US film and TV industry, script writers have a union. It’s called the Writers Guild of America, WGA for short.

All the major film studios, all the major broadcast and cable TV networks, as well as all the major production companies, are signatories to the WGA contract. This means that when any of these organizations hire a writer, they have to follow the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement for pay and working conditions.

Upon being hired, the writer must eventually join the WGA, pay her union dues, and agree not to do any screenwriting work for organizations that are not signatories to the WGA contract. (A writer can avoid the last restriction by becoming a Financial Core member. As a Fi-Core, she could write scripts for anyone she pleases, but she would still pay dues, and lose voting rights in union elections.)

No one has to be a WGA member in order to get hired. In fact, you can’t join the union until you’ve been hired and done a certain amount of work for a signatory company. Once you’ve done a small amount of work that falls under the contract, however, you must join.

I know one Hollywood screenwriter. He never really struggled for attention. He won an award in film school and shortly thereafter another of his screenplays won recognition for the best unproduced script in Hollywood. A couple of his screenplays have been made into films you have probably heard of. He doesn’t make most of his money from screenplays though. He teaches creative writing at a liberal arts school, he’s written plays (I think at least one of which was produced), and he’s written a couple of literary novels that were reviewed by the New York Times but which weren’t best sellers. All of this has given him a decent income and enough time to pursue his creative interests.

Another friend tried to be a Hollywood screenwriter but wound up in TV production instead when she couldn’t sell her scripts. She still writes as a producer but she also does a lot of other things to get shows on the air.

Yes, the only people I’ve ever met who write screenplays “for a living” have all been service workers in Las Vegas or California.

It’s good to point out that he didn’t really struggle. Hollywood is always on the lookout for writers, and will actively seek out people who show promise.

A writer who wins, or even gets to the semi-finals of the Nicholl Fellowship will start getting calls from Hollywood agents and managers. It’s the most prestigious competition for new screenwriters.
Hollywood is looking for people with brilliant story telling skills. Not just better than average, or laudable in a local context, but absolute top notch in the context where the competition is the entire English speaking world.

A working writer has to be able to turn out good material, made to order, with fast turn around times. I say, “made to order” because most of the available work for a film screenwriter is being hired for assignments that are based on executing someone else’s idea or a pre-existing intellectual property. Most of the available work for TV writers is on a TV show writing staff, executing the vision of that show’s showrunner. (The showrunner is the head writer-executive producer who has final say over all the scripts and the great majority of the creative decisions on the show.)

I don’t know your friend’s situation, but it sounds like she’s a producer level writer. In US television, most of the producer titles are actually different ranks of writer. Top rank writers are executive producers. Below that are several different levels of producer. Only the bottom ranks are actually titled as “Staff Writer”. If she’s writing and doing a lot of other stuff besides, she’s probably doing quite well, and making in income in the low-to-mid six figures.

Generally speaking, staff writers are only allowed to write, because surviving as a staff writer on a TV show is challenging enough for someone without a lot of experience.

As a writer gets more experience, she moves up the ladder and is tasked with doing more. Rewriting other writers’ scripts, supervising editing and post-production, staying on set to make sure the shooting goes as required, sweet talking temperamental actors, supervising the writers’ room when the showrunner is occupied elsewhere.

Working screenwriter from the mid-90s until the mid-2000s here. Note that the industry has changed A LOT since my time making a living at it, so my experience may not apply to up-and-coming screenwriters. It’s a much more difficult market to make a good living in now, mainly because the studios don’t buy specs and hand out assignments at the rate they used to. I don’t envy screenwriters just getting into the business now. Most of the work I did was on material that never got made into actual movies, but I still got paid.

I started out by writing as many specs as I could, showing them to anyone I could get them to. Instead of going the waiter/bartender route, I worked film production - mostly in the art department. This gave me access to producers, who I could befriend and get them to read my scripts. This led to my first assignments, feature scripts for a very low budget production company, for which I was paid a pittance (as an aside, this company, who I think I ended up writing 3 of these screenplays for, made family friendly films, and the company itself was comprised of a family. At the same time, I was also doing art department production work for Penthouse Video. The family-friendly producers were awful, terrible people who would screw you over as a matter of course to save a few pennies, while the guy who produced the Penthouse Video was one of the nicest guys I met in the business; salt-of-the-earth guy who would give you the shirt off his back [as the models were taking off theirs]).

That family-friendly job also led to meeting people who got another one of my specs to another low-budget film company (albeit one with more integrity). That became my first spec sale, and first spec made. The film itself didn’t really go anywhere, but it was also the first feature film of a director who has since gone on to quite a bit of success.

That led to getting an agent, to pitches, to selling a few more specs and assignments to studios. I sold a pitch to Jerry Bruckheimer, which was one of the most nerve-racking experiences of my life (sadly, that one never ended up getting made, either). I think it was about 5-6 years of writing on spec and working production jobs before writing became my sole source of income.

Let me guess - Top Gun 2: More Topper?

A friend of mine who is now a working screenwriter in Hollywood started out as an advertising copywriter. When he made the jump to screenwriting, he still worked as a copywriter for several years, while moonlighting as a screenwriter.

He’s getting enough work as a screenwriter now that he’s mostly been able to step away from working in advertising, but just barely.

The reason I heard about my coworker’s son is that the son and his partners recently sold a new series and promptly got called back to redo it in a way that completely gutted the concept. It has to be “adapted for their audience”; if they don’t do the gutting, someone else will.