The World’s Highest Paid Screenwriters

Screenwriting can mean big money for those at the top. After all, screenplays usually account for around 1-3% of a film’s budget, and when a budget soars as Hollywood tentpoles usually do…well…get your calculator out. Some screenwriters can start breaking ground on those holiday homes when the cheques clear.

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But just who are the highest paid screenwriters on the planet right now?

David Koepp

David Koepp is undoubtedly one of the planet’s screenwriting kings. His PANIC ROOM spec sits in the top ten sales of all time with $3m, whilst THE SUPERCONDUCTING SUPERCOLLIDER OF SPARKLE CREEK, WISCONSIN remains one of the most expensive unproduced specs in history, selling for $2.25m. Whilst not knocking out multi-million dollar sales in his spare time, David is a pricey hired-hand on box office behemoths – JURASSIC PARK, SPIDER MAN, WAR OF THE WORLDS and INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL to name a few – not to mention the JACK RYAN reboot and Johnny Depp flop MORTDECAI.

Seth Macfarlane

Seth Macfarlane

Seth Macfarlane

Writer, showrunner, voice artist, Oscar host and warbler of big band showtunes, Seth Macfarlane was handed a $100m 5 year deal by Fox for his trio of comedy shows FAMILY GUY, AMERICAN DAD and THE CLEVELAND SHOW in 2008. Not all of that’s for the writing, but Seth still stands as the highest paid TV writer ever. DADS and BORDER TOWN have only added to the coffers – and after TED’s $500m take on a $50m budget, expect TED 2 to pay major dividends.

Terry Rossio

Rossio spent twenty years as one of Hollywood’s go-to-guys. He’s the man behind ALADDIN, THE MASK OF ZORRO, MEN IN BLACK, GODZILLA, SHREK, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEANNATIONAL TREASURE, and THE LONE RANGER. His career culminated in the biggest spec-sale ever for Denzel Washington, DÉJÀ VU. The single script earned him a cool $5m.

Shane Black

Black has a reputation for big spec sales. His introduction to Hollywood at 26 years old with the LETHAL WEAPON screenplay came with a $250k price tag for. Black also scored $1.75m for THE LAST BOY SCOUT, and broke records with the $4m sale of THE LONG KISS GOODNIGHT. Shane was also behind the gargantuan haul for IRON MAN 3, co-written with British screenwriter Drew Pearce.

Ron Bass

It’s no surprise that Ron is adept at negotiating a big payday, given his background as an entertainment lawyer. After penning the legendary RAIN MAN, Bass parlayed similar material into a bumper $2.75m payday for MOZART AND THE WHALE. Ron has been a prolific writer, often working with his in-demand assistants, dubbed the ‘Ronettes’, to write high volumes of material for studios.

When computer billionaire Ted Waitt decided to splash his cash on a passion project about Amelia Earhart, Ron was the go-to-guy to script AMELIA. You know you’ve hit pay-dirt when you’re the man billionaires call to write their specs. (Click here to read about Bass’ relentless work ethic in our article “10 Great Tales of Screenwriting Determination”).

David E Kelley

Prolific is an understatement of David’s TV creations over the years,especially considering his penchant for writing entire seasons almost single-handedly. Kelley is the man behind ALLY MCBEAL, BOSTON LEGAL, PICKET FENCES, CHICAGO HOPE, THE PRACTICE, and DOOGIE HOWSER MD. He is famous for meeting with writing teams just for story ideas, then jotting out entire solo episodes on his famed yellow legal notepad.

The ‘credit’ is everything for screenwriter’s pay – and David has racked up hundreds of TV episodes over the years, a rare feat in a writer’s room driven industry. His most recent creation, THE CRAZY ONES, managed to lure Robin Williams back to a small screen series for the first time since MORK AND MINDY. Oh, and he’s married to Michelle Pfeiffer. This is a man who looks forward to his high school reunions.

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Aaron Sorkin

Aaron Sorkin has dipped his pen in every stream available – big screen, small screen, and top secret script doctor for hire. As with David E Kelley, Aaron was responsible for writing many episodes of THE WEST WING, SPORTS NIGHT, STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP and THE NEWSROOM. Each episode has had a lucrative payday which would secure the average Joe financially for years. As if that wasn’t enough, THE SOCIAL NETWORK and MONEYBALL saw big payday returns on the silver screen.

Joss Whedon

Renowned in Hollywood as script doctor of many a 90’s blockbuster –WATERWORLD, TWISTER, SPEED – Joss made his name in TV fantasy circles with BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, FIREFLY and DOLLHOUSE. Whedon also landed the directing gig that brought together Marvel’s various AVENGERS. That world-beater, in combination with AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D, lead to an alleged $100m five year deal with Disney – including AVENGERS 2 and several TV series.

Chuck Lorre

TWO AND A HALF MEN, MIKE AND MOLLY, THE BIG BANG THEORY, MOM – in the unforgiving world of US sitcoms, the fact the Chuck has four active shows is a TV miracle. However, it still remains to be known if the paychecks were enough to deal with Charlie Sheen on a daily basis.

Shrouded in Secrecy…

Details of screenwriting pay are extremely sketchy in the public domain. This is typical of the esoteric Hollywood accounting which tries to convince the world that blockbusters like HARRY POTTER or THE LORD OF THE RINGS didn’t turn a profit. Beyond the few highly publicized spec script sales, most screenwriting deals are kept confidential – particularly so back-end bonuses or TV package deals for writer-producer-actors are not broken down into component parts. This list is not presented as a ranking, and is by no means definitive.

Are there any highly paid screenwriters or top scribes we’ve missed out? Let us know in the comments box, below…

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