A typical writer's deal usually comprises:
- Option: Monies paid in exchange for the right (the "option") to produce -- and therefore to purchase outright -- a screenplay, treatment or other work within a certain period.
- Guarantee: Literally, the money the writer is guaranteed to receive, whether the script is produced or not. This amount is usually divided into payments for multiple drafts (commonly, a draft and a "set," a set being a rewrite and a polish). The guaranteed monies are sometimes referred to as the "front-end."
- Bonus/Bonuses: Also known as the "back-end." Typically, a production bonus is paid once the script goes into production, or, if there has been more than one writer, after the final credit has been determined. A typical contract will specify a smaller production bonus for shared credit. There may also be bonuses contingent upon budget (e.g. "if the movie's budget is greater than x...") or grosses. The cousin of the bonus is the "penalty," which might be paid by the writer if, for example, the script has not been put into production by a set date. Penalties are rarely included in writer's deals, however.
- Spec script: Short for "speculative". The writer writes the script without being paid, and, subsequently, tries to sell it.
- Pitch: The writer works up a five-to-twenty minute presentation of a prospective movie and presents it to buyers in a short meeting.
- Assignment: A rewrite-for-pay of someone else's script. The writer pitches his "take", much like he would an original pitch.
- "Against": "against" is a word used to describe a script's unproduced price versus its value if produced, for example: if a script is sold for $300,000, but the writer gains an extra $200,000 if it's produced, it would be "$300,000 against $500,000".
History of screenwriters' pay
- 1900: One of America's first screenwriters, New York journalist Roy McCardell, is hired to write ten scenarios (each about 90 seconds long) for $15 each (has the buying power of about $332 today ).
- 1947: The original screenplay Woman of the Year is bought by MGM for $100,000 (about $950,000 today).
- 1949: Ben Hecht is paid $10,000 a week (about $77,000 today). Claims David O. Selznick paid him $3,500 a day (about $27,000 today).
- 1967: William Goldman's original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was purchased for $400,000 (about $2.25 million today).
- 1972: Leonard and Paul Schrader's spec script The Yakuza is sold for $350,000 (about $1.6 million today). Paul Schrader and his agent receive 40% each; novelist Leonard Schrader, who conceived the idea for the story, is persuaded to take just 20% and a story credit.
- 1984: Shane Black sells the screenplay to Lethal Weapon for $250,000, ushering in the modern spec market.
- 1985: Ex-fireman Gregory Widen sells his university thesis screenplay Highlander for $500,000.
- 1990: Kathy McWorter - promoted by her agent as a 21 year-old wunderkind, though she was in fact 28 - sells her sex comedy The Cheese Stands Alone for $1 million. This was followed by nuclear-terrorist technothriller The Ultimatum by Laurence Dworet and Robert Roy Pool and WWII action comedy Hell Bent... and Back! by Doug Richardson, both of which sold for a million dollars. None of these movies have been produced so far.
- 1990: Brian Helgeland and Manny Coto sell their nuclear-armed robot spec The Ticking Man for $1.2 million. The script was sent out with a ticking alarm clock attached.
- 1990: Shane Black is paid $1.75 million for The Last Boy Scout.
- 1990: Joe Eszterhas sells Basic Instinct to Carolco for $3 million, but is replaced by Total Recall scribe Gary Goldman when he argues with director Paul Verhoeven over explicit content. Verhoevan later came back and made peace with Eszterhas and shot Basic Instinct unchanged from Eszterhas' Original Screenplay. There will not be another million dollar spec script for over two years.
- 1991: Front page of Variety mourns the end of the modern spec market, announcing "the candy store is closed."
- 1992: Sherry Lansing is hired to run Paramount and spends $3.6 million in less than a week, $2.5 million for a two-page outline of Jade by Joe Eszterhas, and $1.1 million for the for the script Milk Money by John Mattson. At the time, both deals are records, respectively, for outlines and romantic comedy specs.
- 1994: After a bidding war, Shane Black is paid $4.5 million by New Line for The Long Kiss Goodnight.
- 1999: M. Night Shyamalan - who received $2.5 million for breakout script The Sixth Sense - is paid $5 million for Unbreakable, plus another $5 million to produce and direct. Later receives same sum for Signs.
- 2003: M. Night Shyamalan is paid $7.5 million for The Woods, later renamed The Village, but with a reduced fee of $3.21 million for producing and directing.
- 2004: Peter Jackson is paid the higher of $20 million aggregate or 20% of the gross to write, produce and direct King Kong. Jackson wrote the screenplay with his wife, Fran Walsh, and Phillipa Boyens.
- 2004: Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg are paid $1.5 million against $2.5 million + 2% for The Passion Of The Ark, later becoming Evan Almighty. Daily Variety reports this as the highest price paid for a spec script by unproduced writers.
- 2007: Seth MacFarlane signed a $100 million deal with 20th Century Fox to continue work as a writer and producer on Family Guy. This, as a result, makes him the highest paid screenwriter ever.
Some of the highest amounts paid to writers for spec screenplays
- RPM (unproduced) by J.H. Wyman
- Stay by David Benioff
- Evan Almighty by Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg. $1.5 million against 2.5 million.
- The Sweetest Thing by Nancy Pimental
- Monster-In-Law by Anya Kochoff. $1.3 against $2.3 million.
- 99 Problems (unproduced) by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont. $1.25 against $2 million.
- Foreplay (unproduced) by Joe Eszterhas. $1 million against $3.5 million.
- The Cheese Stands Alone (unproduced) by Kathy McWorter.
- Steinbeck's Point of View (unproduced) by Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson. ''$750,000 against $3,750,000 with an additional potential $2 million bonus cast contingent.
- Man-Witch by Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg. $750,000 against $1.5 million.
- The Karma Coalition by Shawn Christensen. $750,000 against 1.5 million.