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A screenplay writer (also called screenwriter, scriptwriter, scribe or scenarist) is a writer who practices the craft of screenwriting, writing screenplays on which mass media, such as films, television programs and video games, are based.
In the silent era, writers now considered screenwriters were denoted by terms such as photoplaywright, photoplay writer, photoplay dramatist and screen playwright. Screenwriting historian Steven Maras notes that these early writers were often understood as being the authors of the films as shown and argues that they cannot be precisely equated with present-day screenwriters because they were responsible for a technical product, a brief "scenario", "treatment", or "synopsis" that is a written synopsis of what is to be filmed.
Screenwriting is a freelance profession. No education is required to be a professional screenwriter, just good storytelling abilities and imagination. Screenwriters are not hired employees but contracted freelancers. Most, if not all, screenwriters start their careers writing on speculation (spec) and so write without being hired or paid for it. If such a script is sold, it is called a spec script. What separates a professional screenwriter from an amateur screenwriter is that professional screenwriters are usually represented by a talent agency. Also, professional screenwriters do not often work for free, but amateur screenwriters will often work for free and are considered "writers in training." Spec scripts are usually penned by unknown professional screenwriters and amateur screenwriters.
There are a legion of would-be screenwriters who attempt to enter the film industry, but it often takes years of trial and error, failure, and gritty persistence to achieve success. In Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hague writes, "Screenplays have become, for the last half of [the twentieth] century, what the Great American Novel was for the first half. Closet writers who used to dream of the glory of getting into print now dream of seeing their story on the big or small screen."
Every screenplay and teleplay begins with a thought or idea, and screenwriters use their ideas to write scripts, with the intention of selling them and having them produced. In some cases, the script is based on an existing property, such as a book or person's life story, which is adapted by the screenwriter. The majority of the time, a film project gets initiated by a screenwriter. The initiator of the project gets the exclusive writing assignment. They are referred to as "exclusive" assignments or "pitched" assignments. Screenwriters who often pitch new projects, whether original or an adaptation, often do not have to worry about competing for assignments and are often more successful. When word is put out about a project a film studio, production company, or producer wants done, they are referred to as "open" assignments. Open assignments are more competitive. If screenwriters are competing for an open assignment, more established writers usually win the assignments. A screenwriter can also be approached and personally offered a writing assignment.
Many screenwriters also work as full or part-time script doctors, attempting to better a script to suit the desires of a director or studio. For instance, studio management may have a complaint that the motivations of the characters are unclear or that the dialogue is weak.
Hollywood has shifted writers onto and off projects since its earliest days, and the assignment of credits is not always straightforward or complete, which poses a problem for film study. In his book Talking Pictures, Richard Corliss discussed the historian's dilemma: "A writer may be given screen credit for work he didn't do (as with Sidney Buchman on Holiday), or be denied credit for work he did do (as with Sidney Buchman on The Awful Truth)."
After a screenwriter finishes a project, they pair with an industry-based representative, such as a producer, director, literary agent, entertainment lawyer, or entertainment executive. The partnerships often pitch their project to investors or others in a position to further a project. Once the script is sold, the writer has only the rights that were agreed with the purchaser.
A screenwriter becomes credible by having work that is recognized, which gives the writer the opportunity to earn a higher income. As more films are produced independently (outside the studio system), many up-and-coming screenwriters are turning to pitch fests, screenplay contests, and independent development services to gain access to established and credible independent producers. Many development executives are now working independently to incubate their own pet projects.
Screenwriters are rarely involved in the production of a film. Sometimes they come on as advisors, or if they are established, as a producer. Some screenwriters also direct. Although many scripts are sold each year, many do not make it into production because the number of scripts that are purchased every year exceeds the number of professional directors that are working in the film and TV industry. When a screenwriter finishes a project and sells it to a film studio, production company, TV network, or producer, they often have to continue networking, mainly with directors or executives, and push to have their projects "chosen" and turned into films or TV shows. If interest in a script begins to fade, a project can go dead.
Most professional screenwriters in the U.S. are unionized and are represented by the Writers Guild of America. Although membership in the WGA is recommended, it is not required of a screenwriter to join. The WGA is the final arbiter on awarding writing credit for projects under its jurisdiction. The WGA also looks upon and verifies film copyright materials.
Minimum salaries for union screenwriters are set by the Writers Guild of America. Non-union screenwriters may write for free; an established screenwriter may write for millions of dollars.
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- Against: A word used to describe a script's unproduced price relative to its value if approved for production—for example, if a script is sold for $300,000, but the writer gains an extra $200,000 if it leads to production, the screenwriter's salary is described as "$300,000 against $500,000".
- Option: If a script is not purchased, it may be optioned. An option is money 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.
- Feature assignment: The writer writes the script on assignment under contract with a studio, production company, or individual.
- Pitch: The writer holds a five- to twenty-minute presentation of the film to buyers in a short meeting.
- Rewriting: The writer rewrites someone else's script for pay. The writer pitches their "take", much like they would an original pitch.
- Spec script: Short for "speculative" or "on speculation" as in; "She wrote her script on spec". The writer writes the script (original or someone else's idea) without being paid, and, subsequently, tries to sell it.
- 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 (equivalent to $489 in 2021).
- 1949: Ben Hecht is paid $10,000 a week (about $113,888 in 2021). Claims David O. Selznick paid him $3,500 a day (about $39,900 in 2021).
- 1984: Shane Black sells the screenplay to Lethal Weapon for $250,000.
- 1990: Kathy McWorter, who was promoted by her agent as a 21-year-old wunderkind, though in fact she was 28 years old, 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 and Rick Jaffa, both of which sold for a million dollars. None of these movies has been produced so far.
- 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 (about $1,968,366 in 2018) for the script Milk Money by John Mattson. Both deals are records, respectively, for outlines and romantic comedy specs.
- 2005: Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii are paid $3 million against $5 million for the script of Déjà Vu.
Some of the highest amounts paid to writers for spec screenplays:
- Milk Money by John Mattson ($1.1 million, outright purchase)
- Epsilon (unproduced) by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick ("Sources say the Sony deal closed in the $1 million range.")
- The Imitation Game by Graham Moore, at "seven figures" to Warner Brothers
- Film crew
- First-look deal
- Lists of screenwriters
- List of screenwriting software
- Screenwriter's salary
- Script (comics)
- Television crew
- Television director
- Television program creator
- Steven Maras. Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice. Wallflower Press, 2009. pp. 82–85. ISBN 9781905674824
- Hauge, Michael (1991). Writing Screenplays That Sell. HarperPerennial. ISBN 9780062725004.
- Ferguson, Brooks (17 April 2009). "Creativity and integrity: Marketing the "in development" screenplay". Psychology and Marketing. 26 (5): 421–444. doi:10.1002/mar.20281.
- Biopic & Book Adaptation - http://www.screenwriterdude.com/biopic---book-adaptation.html
- Corliss, Richard, Talking Pictures: Screenwriters in the American Cinema, 1927–1973, Overlook Books, 1974, pg. 78
- 1634–1699: McCusker, J. J. (1997). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States: Addenda et Corrigenda (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1700–1799: McCusker, J. J. (1992). How Much Is That in Real Money? A Historical Price Index for Use as a Deflator of Money Values in the Economy of the United States (PDF). American Antiquarian Society. 1800–present: Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved 16 April 2022.
- "Ben Hecht". IMDb. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
- "Screenwriters Adjust to Being Bit Players Again". New York Times. 9 December 2001.
- Lowry, Brian (5 November 1992). "Lansing in new Par pic post". Variety. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
- Marx, Andy (9 November 1992). "'Jade' deal a $2.5 mil gem". Variety. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
- Eller, Claudia (13 November 1992). "Par in 'Money' as DDLC riled". Variety. Retrieved 7 June 2020.
- Lee, Chris (16 May 2005). "A tale of Hollywood e-harmony". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
- Myers, Scott. "Spec Script Sale: "Arthur & Lancelot"". Go Into The Story. Retrieved 29 November 2012.
- Kit, Borys. "'Zombieland' Writers Sell Sci-Fi Project 'Epsilon' to Sony (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 29 November 2012.
- Finke, Nikki (12 October 2011). "Warner Bros Buys Spec Script About Math Genius Alan Turing For Leonardo DiCaprio". Retrieved 20 December 2018.