What do screenwriters need to know going into a paid screenwriting assignment with a studio, network, or production company?
I've been fortunate enough to have been assigned to paid screenwriting assignment contracts multiple times — three in the last eight months for a major network, in particular.
Those most recent ones have been consistent in the structure of the demands of the contracts, the network needs and wants, and the collaboration between the screenwriter and producers, development executives, and even the production leads.
Whether you're writing features for the big screen or the TV screen, here are five things you should expect when being considered for paid screenwriting assignments and when you sign on that dotted line.
Know What You Should Do for Free and NOT Do For Free
I've covered the subject of working for free before.
I'm not a fan of seeing a screenwriter work for free. It should be avoided at all times (seriously, read the above link). But as you're being considered for a paid screenwriting assignment, there are a couple of steps you need to take on your own dime.
Writing a Logline and Short Synopsis
You can't escape these. The first steps of a paid writing assignment entail earning the job in the first place. Depending on the platform you're writing for — as well as the preference of the studio, network, or production company — you're going to need to do some work to earn that paid screenwriting gig.
A logline and a short synopsis are the first steps. And you do these for free.
Depending upon the situation, you're either:
- Pitching a concept of your own for them to consider hiring you to write it — such is the case with network TV movie gigs with SyFy, Lifetime, Hallmark, and others.
- Pitching your take on a concept they have.
So you'll be asked to create a compelling logline, as well as a short synopsis that breaks down the major story beats.
The Short Synopsis
The short synopsis part is fairly simple.
If you need a sample synopsis, check out the paperback novels at your local bookstore. Read the back jacket synopsis and write your own three-paragraph hybrid, roughly the same length. The first paragraph summarizes the first act, the second paragraph summarizing the second act, and the third paragraph summarizing the final act.
And, yes, you want to give away the ending.
This is you pitching them on your overall take on the concept at hand. And, yes, you write it for free.
It may take a couple of weeks or more for these materials to make their way up to the powers that be.
The Full Synopsis
If they like what they see, they may ask you to write out a full synopsis. A full synopsis is generally 3-4 pages of major and minor story points, covering everything from beginning to end. You're expanding that short synopsis and going into more detail.
This is where your major plot twists and turns come into play. Twists and turns can be found in a short synopsis, but you'll deliver them in more detail here.
This is not a scene-by-scene breakdown, mind you. You don't write that for free (see below) while under contract.
When you hand that in, it will take some time to make the rounds. Usually, your direct contact (development executive, producer, etc.) will read it and then pass it up to their bosses. Once again, this could take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a month. Once it is cleared (fingers crossed), they will either give you some general notes and request a rewrite, or you'll be offered the official writing contract. And that is where the money will come into play.
Understand the Contract Dynamics
Congratulations! You've breached your first professional level in your screenwriting career. You're now signing a contract to become a paid screenwriter.
It will take some time for their lawyers to draft your contract. Within the contract, you will be notified of what they will be paying you for your work. And the first thing that you'll notice is the overall worth of the contract in dollar amounts.
How Much Money Will You Get?
As a newcomer, you can expect to see a number in the lower to mid-five-figure range if the contract is non-union. Many screenwriters expect Writers Guild Minimums for screenwriting contract assignments, which start at $67,802 (non-original feature concept) or $77,495 (original feature concept).
The truth is that many of the available paid assignments for unestablished screenwriters are non-union, meaning that the companies hiring you to write are not union signatory companies (companies that have signed on to only hire union members).
Production companies that hire non-union writers develop projects for companies including:
- Direct-to-DVD/Blu-ray/Streaming features
So your contract amounts may range anywhere from $15,000 to $30,000 in many of those cases.
But don't get too excited about that amount right away.
You need to understand that the contract amount is (usually) divided into payment sections. And the company can stop that contract at each stage.
Generally speaking, the contract is divided as such:
- Commencement Fee (upfront money before you write anything)
- Outline/Beat Sheet/Treatment (whichever the company prefers)
- First Draft
- Rewrite Draft
- Polish Draft
- Production Draft
Each company will have its own variance that can either eliminate one or more of these steps or add additional rewrites as well.
So you could write an outline, get paid for it, and if they don't care for the delivery, the contract could stop right there. The same thing can happen at each step. You'll get paid for each step, but you may or may not be retained.
Note: Most companies like SyFy, Lifetime, and Hallmark stick with the original writer through the whole process unless the writer is horrible, difficult to work with, or isn't presenting collaborative skills.
With each step, you'll be paid a fraction of the overall contract amount. And here's where some contracts get tricky. Let's say you sign a deal to write a TV movie for Lifetime. You're a newcomer, so the contract will maybe be for maybe $15,000 overall.
- You'll get some commencement money (maybe a few hundred dollars).
- You'll get maybe a grand for the outline.
- You'll get a couple grand for the first draft.
- You'll get a grand for a rewrite.
But then the contract may stipulate that the rest of the contract be paid out as a production bonus, meaning that you won't get the rest until the film actually goes into production. And any additional polish rewrites or production rewrites will be paid against that remaining production bonus amount.
This isn't the case with all paid screenwriting contracts, but it's often the case with smaller production companies and specialty networks like SyFy, Lifetime, Hallmark, etc. So just be ready for that and read your contracts line-by-line.
Writing the Outline/Beat Sheet/Treatment
Different companies will require different first steps in the contract.
They're pretty much the same thing. They entail a numbered bullet-point document that covers each scene you intend to write in the script. Each bullet point will consist of a description of the scene, detailing character points and plot points. Some bullet points can have just 3-4 sentences, while others may require a longer paragraph.
It's best to keep each bullet point as short as possible, but you don't want to go below two sentences. Why? The whole point is giving them a detailed breakdown of the script.
You cover the story from beginning to end, A to Z, with everything in between.
These documents vary in length — depending upon the needs and wants of studio executives, producers, agents, and managers — and, like outlines, cover the more specifics of the story. But instead of being broken down in scene numbers through bullet points, treatments utilize prose in the forms of descriptive paragraphs that tell the story from beginning to end with all of the plot points, twists, turns, revelations, and character descriptions. Like outlines and beat sheets, treatments should be void of any dialogue.
Some treatments can be as long as 7-10 pages. Generally, you want to keep it as short as possible while still offering the necessary length to tell the whole story from beginning to end.
Why Can't You Just Write the Script First?
The purpose of these documents is to allow the development team an opportunity to go through your envisioned story (and its structure) and request any changes (based on their wants and needs) before you've created the house of cards that is a screenplay.
Rewrites for outlines, beat sheets, or treatments usually don't involve an additional payment from your contract money — so expect to do those types of development rewrites for free.
Lastly, you'll usually be given a couple of weeks to write the outline, beat sheet, or treatment.
The First Draft Process
Thankfully, once you get to this stage of your contract, you're given some freedom. Most companies respect the screenwriter and won't be asking for continual pages during your first draft writing process. They usually let you go do your job.
Non-union contracts usually give you one month to complete the first draft. Union contracts may give you more time, but usually nothing beyond two months.
You'll need to stick to that outline, beat sheet, or treatment as much as you can when you're writing. Yes, you can and should add more dynamics and specifics, but just be sure to deliver on their expectations. And their expectations are based on what you've shown them thus far.
Some contracts stipulate the page requirements, which usually range from 95-99 pages. Others may not. However, if you hand in a 130-page screenplay (or more), they're not going to be happy. You'll instantly hear that it's too long.
Note: Sure, this changes once you're a higher-level screenwriter with hits under your belt. Page count won't matter. But you're not yet a high-level screenwriter and will not be treated as one.
Notes — Lots of Notes
Notes are not feedback. The hard truth is that notes are usually non-negotiable. When you’re under contract, applying these notes is part of the job you’re being paid for. They represent the wants and needs of the company, producer, director, lead actors, etc. You can and should defend your opinion as the hired screenwriter, but you must choose your battles wisely and be ready to concede.
If you fight too hard — swimming against the current of where your employers want to go with the script — you can be easily replaced due to creative differences.
This is why the outline, beat sheet, or treatment process is so vital. Most of the needs and wants will be worked out from a story and character perspective before that first draft as you're given notes on your outline, beat sheet, or treatment. That's why you should stick to those development documents as much as you can when it comes to story and character beats.
The Notes Process
Here is how the general process is for notes:
- You'll get many notes after your first draft.
- You'll address them in your second draft.
- You'll address a few more in your polish draft.
- Once production starts to ramp up, you'll get production notes, which are usually based on the locations that are and are not available. You may need to reduce the number of locations, combine scenes to do so, cut scenes down or out because of budget, etc.
- And sometimes, you'll need to do a rewrite because of certain casting choices as well.
Welcome to Hollywood. Celebrate the fact that you've gotten to the point where most that try will never get to — you've become a paid screenwriter. Now it's time to pay your dues and work your way up that totem pole.
These five expectations will help prepare you for those first contracts that you sign and work under.
Need consulting? Let ScreenCraft's experienced readers offer notes and feedback on your screenplay.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, and the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed starring Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Wesley Truman Daniel, Mickey O’Sullivan, John Victor Allen, and James Errico. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies