A Screenwriting Salary – how much do UK scribes REALLY earn?

Although it’s hard to get on the screenwriting salary ladder and even harder to stay on it – let alone climb beyond the middle rung – it is possible to make a living as a screenwriter (though Herculean levels of self-discipline, at least one other string to your earnings-potential bow, and a partner who is both financially and emotionally understanding are all useful).

N.B

This guide to a screenwriting salary is just that: a guide, and should in no way be seen as a promise of automatic career steps or guaranteed earnings. It’s an attempt, or stab even, at digging deeper into how much writers earn and at what level of the business. For those who haven’t hit the levels cited, at the age suggested, this is also largely irrelevant and should be taken with a giant brick of salt.

After all, like David Seidler and other screenwriters who broke in late, who cares when you get there? It’s all about the body of work when the curtain closes…

If you’ve got determination and you can forge that with ever-improving craft, you’ll be there or thereabouts eventually…

So, again, we stress – this is a steer or a stab or a loose guide or a speculative insight only into how careers (and the money that goes with those careers) progress! And that’s all it is…

In addition, the guide focusses heavily on what writers earn in television, because for the lion’s share of UK screenwriters TV represents their best shot by some distance of earning a mortgage-paying amount of money. Film commissions are certainly out there, but can lack the kind of joined-up pathway outlined below. The lack of a really competitive, active spec market in UK film might also lead some screenwriters to view feature film commissions as butter rather than bread…

Every screenwriter’s journey is different.

Also, the progression can be a very steep pyramid, with exponentially higher levels of attrition at every tier (though no-one knows who’s going to climb to the top till we see them there; an instance of William Goldman’s much-abused maxim being properly applied). However, you could be one of the handful of screenwriters who climbs to the heady heights and fifteen years later wittily relates your idiosyncratic career path in an Industrial Scripts Insider Interview.


It should be taken as a given that a screenwriting salary is never spread equally over twelve months (indeed, as you progress it won’t even be spread equally over consecutive years) but there is a path that can take you from £10k in a good first year to £250k in the very best of the years that follow.

Although creatives tend instinctively to shy away from anything regarding money (other than spending it) all these figures are gross, which means you need to think seriously about the chunk you won’t get to spend immediately (or at all).

A considerable (and escalating as you progress) part of your screenwriting salary should exist in that hateful spreadsheet column known as “deductions”. These include agent’s commission at an average of 15%, manager’s commission at 10% (if your career crosses the Atlantic and you sign with a management company), accountant’s fees, Income Tax & NI, pension, savings and investments.

Because you’re a freelance, it’s essential that you find a way to be solvent in the years when there’s no work at all, as well as the months that you’re waiting for payments to land. Indeed, it’s a brutal fact that professional writers need to be able to manage their finances with a level of granularity unknown to those on PAYE (and although you should have an accountant, you are still personally responsible for every single pound that comes in and goes out).

So, here is Industrial Script’s very loose guide to what a screenwriting salary looks like, based on current industry rates and a best-case career progression, starting with…

 

Tier one: Baby/New Writer Straight out of NFTS

In your first few years as a professional screenwriter, your screenwriting salary will need to be cumulatively structured with a level of imagination and persistence almost equal to those required for writing the scripts themselves. Your earnings will hopefully pay your rent – they might even cover some bills – but an early years’ screenwriting salary bears zero resemblance to a traditional monthly paycheque from a regular job.

You’re probably aged between twenty-two and thirty-five.

You’ve graduated from the NFTS, or studied screenwriting at university after school or as a mature student (the studying and screenwriting-to-order with professional feedback being far important than the qualification itself).

With a fair wind you’ll have made a short film as writer-producer or writer-director (anyone who does all three equally well is pretty much guaranteed a career, it’s so rare). You may even have grabbed the digital bull by the micro-budget horns and made a feature.

You should have graduated with at least one saleable feature-length screenplay (if not, you’ll regret it). If you’re smart, you’ll have asked an intelligent and pertinent question of every agent who came to give your student group a guest talk, sourced their email address and sent them a short but mesmerizingly clever email while you were still a student – something that would guarantee they remembered you eighteen months later.

You’ve sent all these agents the final draft of your saleable feature-length script, but you don’t just sit back and wait, because waiting can take up to six months and that’s half your first year gone. Instead, you apply to every single new writing scheme that’s taking submissions (steering clear of the vast majority looking to charge you to enter, as only a few are legit). And you set calendar alerts for all the ones that aren’t currently open.

You submit to the BBC Writer’s Room. You attend every event you can (such as the Insider Interviews series), mingling with as many producers, directors and fellow screenwriters as time allows (and don’t mistake a Facebook post, tweet or email as having even 5% of the impact of a face-to-face conversation).

Combining:

  • a spec script sale to a neophyte producer at £5k (and if you went to film school you’ll know several producers already),
  • a commission from BBC3, E4 or one of the indies for a pilot script (based on a pitch created on your own dime) at £5k,
  • plus £10k worth of funding from, for example, the BFI NET.WORK or 4 Talent’s Coming Up,

…your screenwriting salary for each of your first couple of years could be as much as £20k.

Of course, it could also be £0k, in which case your dedication to your chosen craft will be severely challenged.

If your chosen genre is comedy, then there are less paid entry points for writers than there used to be. Stand-up, social media and YouTube can all get you noticed and lead to commissions and ultimately a career, but if you write but don’t perform there are still a few options out there (for example Radio 4’s NEWSJACK,which pays £42 per minute for sketches or Nickelodeon’s writing program which provides 6-months full-time employment).

Those lucky and/or talented enough to earn at least £10k in each of their first three-to-five years will probably progress to at least Tier 2. For those that see nothing but zero, these are the circumstances that will weed out the dilettantes (as Robert McKee likes to say) with many neophyte screenwriters throwing in the towel after a few years of worst-case scenario, while a few worthy warriors of the craft will still resolutely refuse to give-up.

 

Tier 2: Writer on the Rise

At Tier 2, you have a few years of professional screenwriting under your belt. Your tireless networking and subsequently solicited submissions have landed you an agent. You’re probably aged between thirty and forty, unless you’ve been lucky enough while still in your twenties to have a film produced, or a series commissioned from an early spec, or TV scripts for long-running shows commissioned.

In this tier, your screenwriting salary will be made-up of produced work, commissioned scripts/pitches and feature re-writing. You may even have appeared on one of those industry lists of unproduced scripts, such as the Brit List, or had your script unilaterally passed between development execs because it’s so damn good it reminds those execs why they’re in the industry to begin with.

Best case scenario your TV work might consist of —

  • two-to-five episodes of one of the soaps or pre-watershed dramas like HOLBY CITY or CASUALTY, together earning you between £30-£50k (because you’re still a new writer you’ll be earning at the lowest tier on each show for which you write).
  • You’ll also perhaps be looking at around £20k for a commissioned pitch and/or pilot script for an original TV show, perhaps off the back of a particularly original or engaging episode of a long-running series.

On top of that, you’ll have aimed to earn about —

  • £20k from commissioned feature scripts and/or re-writes, in part down to your ever-expanding network of producers, directors and Heads of Development at film production companies.

Combined, you’ll be looking at a total screenwriting salary of between £30-£80k.

This is a critical stage: if you maximise your opportunities and connections, work collaboratively but know when to fight your corner, and your work hits – either critically or in terms of ratings/box-office – then you’ll be perfectly placed to move up to the third tier as a writer whose agent wants to give you time and with whom commissioners and development professionals want to take a meeting.

 

Tier 3: In The Game

Now you’re well and truly in the game. You’ve survived brutal attrition; valiantly coped with bad years interspersed with the good ones; graciously dealt with stupendously bad notes; shown that you can combine idiosyncratic brilliance with writing to order – sometimes within the same script.

You’re most likely aged between thirty-five and forty-five and in any given year your screenwriting salary could still be as low as £20k, though you’ll be aiming for something more akin to £80-£150k.

In a good year your screenwriting salary would comprise:

  • two broadcast hours of primetime TV on shows such as SILENT WITNESS or CALL THE MIDWIFE at £40k per episode;
  • two TV pitch commissions at £25k each;
  • and something in the region of £25k for a commissioned feature script and/or a couple of final re-writes on almost-fully-funded features.
  • Also, if you’ve already written some episodes of long-running drama, you’ll be starting to see those lovely residual payments, probably in the region of £2,500 per year depending on how many broadcast episodes you’ve written.

You could even decide to do what some writers opt to do at this point and only ever use residuals for one purpose (in the same way that actors traditionally pay their tax bill with the end-of-year panto).

Climbing to the next tier is tough – it’s about consistency, personality, professional relationships and a combination of an original voice in its own right with the ability to bring just enough innovation to a long-established franchise or long-running series to refresh a show without irretrievably breaking it.

 

Tier 4: Trusted

You’re now a trusted screenwriter aka a safe pair of hands. You’re probably aged between forty and fifty-five. You’ve bitten through your tongue when a director re-wrote your feature script, either ruining it or adding nothing tangible, but in either case still taking a screenwriting credit. You’ve demonstrated a sensitivity to multiple viewpoints and learnt how to steer a path through them while still creating strong work.

You’ve proven yourself in multiple genres and formats and created at least one successful TV show along with writing a couple of produced features. You may have won a BAFTA and your agent always returns your calls.

As a trusted writer the expected floor of your screenwriting salary will be £40k, though your realistic earnings will be more like £100-£250k.

Your earnings in a given year could comprise:

  • four broadcast hours of primetime TV at £50k per hour;
  • £30k for a commissioned feature script and/or a couple of re-writes, possibly including a Studio movie.
  • In addition, your residuals could be anything between £5-£15k per year, again depending on the number of TV episodes you’ve written to date.

At this tier, you might even receive some income from net points on a produced movie (at lower tiers this will be exceptionally unlikely, though not impossible – especially if you have a very good agent).

The step-up to the top tier is the most difficult of all and only a few writers will make this transition, though that doesn’t mean your career has stalled. Most of the screenwriters who reach Tier 4 will spend the rest of their careers there (though there’ll always be younger writers snapping at your heels and you’ll need to maintain your levels of craft and constantly refresh your levels of innovation).

 

Tier 5: Name/Brand screenwriter and Series Creator

So you’ve made it to the top. You are one of the elite band of screenwriters whose name is a trusted brand. You’re up there with Stephen Moffat, Sally Wainwright, Neil Cross and Heidi Thomas. You’re most likely at least forty and you’ll probably have a minimum of ten hours of authored primetime TV on your CV.

Your earnings floor is £80k, though your target earnings are £250k or possibly much more.

You’ll no longer be writing episodes of other people’s shows (unless it’s DOCTOR WHO) and your feature rewrites will almost exclusively be Hollywood movies. You’ll probably have feature scripts set-up at several different production companies as well as original TV shows at various stages of development – on both sides of the Atlantic.

Your screenwriting salary in a year will possibly combine

  • a feature commission at £75k and an original primetime series commission totalling at least £250k (including multiple broadcast episodes and a producer credit along with the fees that come with it).
  • Residuals from TV episodes and net points from produced feature scripts could add anything from £10-£50k.

Most screenwriters will be ecstatic to spend the rest of their careers at this level. One or two will graduate to the stratospheric heights currently occupied by Andrew Davies and Tony Jordan.

And at that tier of your screenwriting salary the sky really is the limit…


Written by Nic Ransome. Copyright Industrial Scripts 2016, All Rights Reserved.

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A Screenwriting Salary - how much do UK scribes REALLY earn?
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