The 3 levels of professional screenwriters

A paid screenwriting gig is a paid screenwriting gig. However, there is a general level in the craft of screenwriting that novice and undiscovered writers must know on their journey to becoming professional screenwriters.

Here we offer simple breakdowns of the three levels of screenwriting in the feature film market today – and we list them from the bottom of the “ladder” to the top.

Blue-collar screenwriters

I’ve been a blue-collar screenwriter for years. But I’m thankfully now in the gray area between blue-collar and white-collar (see below), thanks to a few years of consistent work assignments and product networking projects.

The term “blue collar” refers to an ever-relevant type of worker in the workforce who performs manual labor – whether skilled or unskilled. Back then, laborers wore darker colored clothing (often darker shades of blue) to hide the dirt and grime of their manual labor. The dated element of the term usually referred to manual jobs that paid less than their white-collar counterparts (see below). Today, many so-called “blue collar” workers can earn up to six figures for their skills.

In the world of screenwriting, we trace the term back to its origins, where it refers to lower-paid workers.

It was the screenwriters who were able to break through that barrier that most novice screenwriters find impenetrable.

However, jobs are scarce and salaries fall far short of those of white-collar screenwriters. A year can give them hope until they see another year (or two or three) pass without any agreement. They don’t quit their day job (unless their situation allows it). They don’t do everything. But they made money on some Hollywood or independent productions and probably received product credits.

Believe it or not, blue-collar screenwriters account for most contracts. Most of these deals aren’t syndicated, as non-signatory production companies produce low-budget projects and then sell them to streamers or big networks, like Lifetime, Hallmark, or SyFy.

Read How Screenwriters Launch, Sell, and Write for the Life of ScreenCraft!

Average earnings per contract

$10,000 – $25,000

But these contracts include salary scales for which the screenwriter must be retained:

  • To present
  • First try
  • rewritten
  • Production drafts (Polish drafts)
  • Production bonus

The screenwriter can be replaced at any time — or the contract can be cancelled. And the screenwriter is paid a smaller portion of the overall contract figure for each of the writing stages. The production bonus is paid if and when the feature film is produced. It consists of the remaining balance after payment of the writing stages (outline, first draft, rewrites, polish drafts). But you will not receive this production bonus if the feature film is never produced.

White-collar screenwriters

The term “white collar” refers to a type of worker still relevant in the workforce who does not not perform manual labor, instead of working in desks at desks. White collar workers generally earned more money than most workers identified as blue collar workers.

In the screenwriting business, these types of screenwriters get jobs writing mid-range feature films.

  • They have had successes and failures, but they continue to be hired.
  • They have agents and managers who actively find assignments for them.
  • They write feature films produced by well-known production companies and distributors.
  • The films they write are attached to well-known directors and actors.
  • They work. They throw. Maybe they dance between movie and TV assignments, write more mid-level feature films, or live comfortably between more substantial paychecks spread out year after year.

White-collar screenwriters make their living as professional screenwriters. Beyond other positions in the creative industry (producer, director, etc.), they are fully committed to the screenwriting profession and rely on their contracts to maintain their lifestyle and career.

While blue-collar screenwriter contracts represent the low-end (but more numerous) contracts, white-collar screenwriters hold most of the high-end contracts in the industry.

Average earnings per contract

$50,000 – $145,000

Much like blue-collar contracts, these contracts have salary ranges for which the screenwriter must be retained:

  • To present
  • First try
  • rewritten
  • Production drafts (Polish drafts)

Most white-collar screenwriters are members of the Guild because they work with companies that are mostly Guild signatories (large production companies, large studios, large networks). For this reason, production bonus elements generally do not come into play. If retained for the duration of the contract, the full amount is (usually) paid out whether or not the feature film is produced.

In fact, contracts at the white collar level usually come with an additional bonus. If the functionality is product, the writer is promised a non-negligible bonus. You’ve probably seen scripting deals advertised in trades that say something like $100,000 versus $200,000. This means the screenwriter is paid $100,000 (again, if they are retained at each pay level), then an additional $200,000 if the movie is produced.

Laptop and notepad

one percent

Only the top percent of all screenwriters are the ones who earn big paychecks and get all the prizes.

These are the best screenwriters like:

  • Aaron Sorkin
  • David Koep
  • Christopher Markus
  • Stephen McFeely
  • Chris Morgan
  • Roberto Orci
  • Alex Kurtzman
  • Terry Rossio
  • Simon Kindberg
  • And many others.

Read ScreenCraft’s Top 25 Most Successful Screenwriters in Box Office History!

They are the elite. They’re the ones the studios go to with their hottest properties and franchises. If they’re not doing the six-figure uncredited rewrite contracts, they’re doing the big seven-figure assignments. They don’t grind it as much as the others.

Average earnings per contract

$200,000 – $2,000,000+

Unlike blue-collar and white-collar contracts, most of these screenwriters are either paid upfront for the full amount of their contract or are guaranteed that amount at the time their final draft is handed over.

These are the three general levels of the screenwriting hierarchy. There are differences, yes. Some screenwriters move up and down the ladder over the years. But these are the general levels when it comes to features.

The next lesson is learning to survive the screenwriter’s grind!

Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, first as a liaison with Sony Studios and later as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.

He has many studio meetings under his belt as a product writer, meeting Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as numerous production and management companies. He previously had a development deal with Lionsgate, as well as several writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackoutstarring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle and Bruce Boxleitner, the thriller feature film of the hunter Creed, and many lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies