The 3 Tiers of Professional Screenwriters

Are there different levels to attain as a professional screenwriter?
by Ken Miyamoto - updated on May 9, 2023

A paid screenwriting gig is a paid screenwriting gig. However, there is a general tier level within the screenwriting trade that novice and undiscovered writers should be aware of in their journeys to become professional screenwriters.

Here we offer simple breakdowns of the three screenwriting tiers in the feature film market today — and we list them from the bottom of the "ladder" to the top.

Blue-Collar Screenwriters

I have been a blue-collar screenwriter for years. But am thankfully now in the grey area between blue-collar and white-collar (see below), thanks to a couple of years of consistent professional assignments and produced network projects.

The term "blue-collar" refers to a still-relevant type of worker in the workforce that performs manual labor — either skilled or unskilled. Back in the day, manual laborers wore darker-colored clothes (often darker shades of blue) to hide the dirt and grime from their manual labor. The dated element of the term usually referred to manual labor jobs that paid less than their white-collar counterparts (see below). Today, many so-called "blue-collar" workers can earn upwards of six figures for their skills.

In the screenwriting world, we date the term back to its origins, where it references workers being paid fewer wages.

These are the screenwriters that have managed to break through that barrier most novice screenwriters feel is impenetrable.

However, the jobs are few and far between, and the paychecks are nowhere near that of white-collar screenwriters. One year might give them hope until they see another year (or two or three) go by without any deals. They’re not quitting their day jobs (unless their situations allow it). They’re not going all in. But they have earned money on some Hollywood or indie productions and have likely received some produced credits.

Believe it or not, blue-collar screenwriters represent most of the contracts out there. Most of those contracts are non-union, as non-signatory production companies produce lower-budget projects and later sell them to streamers or major networks, like Lifetime, Hallmark, or SyFy.

Read ScreenCraft's How Screenwriters Pitch, Sell, and Write for Lifetime!

Average Earnings Per Contract

$10,000 - $25,000

But those contracts have pay scales that the screenwriter must be retained for:

  • Outline
  • First Draft
  • Rewrites
  • Production Drafts (Polish Drafts)
  • Production Bonus

The screenwriter can be replaced at any time — or the contract can be voided. And the screenwriter is paid a smaller portion of the overall contract figure for each of the writing steps. The Production Bonus is paid out if and when the feature is produced. It consists of the remaining balance after the writing steps (Outline, First Draft, Rewrites, Polish Drafts) have been paid out. But you won't receive that Production Bonus if the feature is never produced.

Person typing on a laptop

White-Collar Screenwriters

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

In the screenwriting trade, these types of screenwriters are getting middle-of-the-line feature film writing jobs.

  • They’ve had some hits and misses, but they keep getting hired.
  • They have agents and managers actively finding assignments for them.
  • They’re writing features that well-known production companies and distributors produce.
  • The movies they write are attached to well-known directors and actors.
  • They’re working. They’re pitching. Maybe they’re dancing between film and television assignments, writing more mid-level features, or living comfortably between more substantial paychecks spread out from year to year.

White-collar screenwriters are making a living as professional screenwriters. Beyond other creative industry positions (producer, director, etc.), they are fully committed to the screenwriting trade and rely on their contracts to retain their way of life and career.

If blue-collar screenwriting contracts represent the lower-end (but more plentiful) contracts, white-collar screenwriters hold most of the higher-end contracts in the industry.

Average Earnings Per Contract

$50,000 - $145,000

Much like blue-collar contracts, these contracts have pay scales that the screenwriter must be retained for:

  • Outline
  • First Draft
  • Rewrites
  • Production Drafts (Polish Drafts)

Most white-collar screenwriters are Guild members because they are working with predominantly Guild-signatory companies (major production companies, major studios, major networks). Because of this, production bonus elements don't usually come into play. If retained through the whole contract, the full amount is (usually) paid out whether or not the feature is produced.

In fact, white-collar-level contracts usually have an added bonus attached. If the feature is produced, the writer is promised a significant bonus. You've likely seen screenwriting deals announced in the trades that say something along the lines of $100,000 against $200,000. That means the screenwriter gets paid $100,000 (again, if they are retained through each pay level), and then an additional $200,000 if the film is produced.

Laptop and notepad

One Percenters

Only the top one percent of all screenwriters are those making consistent big paychecks and getting all of the awards.

These are the top-tier screenwriters like:

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

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

They are the elite. They are the ones the studios go to with their hottest properties and franchises. If they’re not making the six-figure uncredited rewrite deals, they’re making the seven-figure big assignments. They’re not grinding it out as much as the rest.

Average Earnings Per Contract

$200,000 - $2,000,000+

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


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

The next lesson is learning how to survive the screenwriter grind!

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, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies

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