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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 works up a five- to twenty-minute presentation of a prospective movie and presents it to buyers in a short meeting
- Rewriting: The writer rewrites someone else's script for pay. The writer pitches his "take", much like he would an original pitch
- Spec script: Short for "speculative" or "on speculation" as in; He wrote his script on spec. The writer writes the script (original or someone else's idea) without being paid, and, subsequently, tries to sell it.
Standard Purchase Agreement
A typical screenwriter's purchase agreement will typically contain the following:
- Guarantee: Literally, the money the writer is guaranteed to receive, whether the script is produced or not. This amount is usually divided into steps with payments and due dates. For example, a "three step deal" might include:
- Step One:
- First Draft Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
- First Draft Delivery (50% paid upon Completion)
- Step Two:
- First Rewrite Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
- First Rewrite Completion (50% paid upon Completion)
- Step Three:
- Polish Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
- Polish Completion (50% paid upon Completion)
- Step One:
The guaranteed money is sometimes referred to as the "front-end."
- Optional Steps: The deal may often define optional steps that the studio can trigger at their discretion. For example:
- Step Four:
- Second Rewrite Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
- Second Rewrite Completion (50% paid upon Completion)
- Step Four:
- Step Five:
- Second Polish Commencement (50% paid upon Commencement)
- Second Polish Completion (50% paid upon Completion)
- Step Five:
- Bonus/Bonuses: Also known as the "back-end". Typically, a production bonus is paid once the script goes into production, or, if there is more than one writer, after the final credit is 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.
- 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 $441 in 2017).
- 1947: The original screenplay Woman of the Year is bought by MGM for $100,000 (about $1.1 million in 2017)
- 1949: Ben Hecht is paid $10,000 a week (about $103,000 in 2017). Claims David O. Selznick paid him $3,500 a day (about $36,000 in 2017)
- 1967: William Goldman's original screenplay Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was purchased for $400,000 (about $2.9 million in 2017)
- 1972: Leonard and Paul Schrader's spec script The Yakuza is sold for $350,000 (about $2.0 million in 2017). 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
- 1985: Ex-firefighter Gregory Widen sells his university thesis screenplay Highlander for $500,000
- 1989: David Chappe sell his modern-day, hurricane-hits-coast, and pirates-take-over-town spec Gale Force using Samantha Shad (the lawyer/manager/writer/story consultant and scribe on films like Class Action) to Carolco for $500,000, which is still available today for sale from the company that acquired the post-bankruptcy assets from the failed studio.
- 1990: Jim Gorman and Michael Beckner sell their action/comedy Western "Texas Lead and Gold" to Largo Entertainment for $1 million. Jim Gorman also on as Producer
- 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 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. Verhoeven 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: Jim Gorman and Michael Beckner sell their action/comedy Pirate Adventure "Cutthroat Island" to Carolco Pictures for $2 million. Jim Gorman also on as Producer
- 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 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 partner, 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
- 2005: Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii are paid $3 million against $5 million for the script of Deja Vu.
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Some of the highest amounts paid to writers for spec screenplays:
- Basic Instinct by Joe Eszterhas
- Medicine Man by Tom Schulman
- The Ugly Americans (Eurotrip) by Alec Berg, David Mandel, and Jeff Schaffer
- Bad Dog (unproduced) by Dale Launer
- Married in the Morning (unproduced) by Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan
- Panic Room by David Koepp, at $2 million against $3 million
- Troy by David Benioff
- The Sixth Sense by M. Night Shyamalan
- Twister by Michael Crichton and Anne-Marie Crichton
- Jade by Joe Eszterhas
- A Knight's Tale by Brian Helgeland
- Untitled Will Davies Romantic Comedy (unproduced) by Will Davies
- Jackson (unproduced) by Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson
- The Superconducting Supercollider of Sparkle Creek, Wisconsin (unproduced) by David Koepp and John Kamps, at $2.5 million against $3.25 million with an additional deferred bonus of $1.5 million for Koepp
- Untitled Disney Family Comedy (unproduced) by Kevin Bisch
- They Came From Upstairs (Aliens in the Attic) by Mark Burton
- You, Me and Dupree by Mike LeSieur
- The Break-Up by Vince Vaughn, Jeremy Garelick, and Jay Lavender
- The Arrangement (unproduced) by Kevin Bisch
- Stalker: A Love Story About a Psycho Stalker (unproduced) by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert
- The Worst Man (unproduced) by Michael Carnes and Josh Gilbert
- Manhattan Ghost Story (unproduced) by Ronald Bass, based on the novel by T. M. Wright.
- Radio Flyer by David M. Evans
- Forever Young by Jeffrey Abrams
- Showgirls by Joe Eszterhas
- Sacred Cows (unproduced) by Joe Eszterhas
- Reliable Sources (unproduced) by Joe Eszterhas
- Courage Under Fire by Patrick Sheane Duncan
- Tennessee (Pearl Harbor) by Randall Wallace
- River Road (unproduced) by Andrew Niccol
- The Mark (unproduced) by Rob Liefield
- Untitled Tim Herlihy Comedy (The Ridiculous Six) by Tim Herlihy
- The Game by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris
- Untitled Firestein-Pesce Action Project (unproduced) by Les Firestein and P. J. Pesce
- Executive Search (unproduced) by Gerald Di Pego
- Going West (Switchback) by Jeb Stuart
- Untitled Michael McCullers Buddy Comedy (unproduced) by Michael McCullers
- Alpha (unproduced) by David Benioff
- Ghost Town by David Koepp and John Kamps
- Male Pattern Baldness (unproduced) by Joe Eszterhas, at $2 million against $4.5 million
- Arthur & Lancelot (unproduced) by David Dobkin
- Evan Almighty by Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg, at $1.5 million against $2.5 million
- The Sweetest Thing by Nancy Pimental
- Monster-In-Law by Anya Kochoff, at $1.3 million against $2.3 million
- Foreplay (unproduced) by Joe Eszterhas, at $1 million against $3.5 million
- The Cheese Stands Alone (unproduced) by Kathy McWorter
- "ONLY YOU" (sold as "HIM") to TriStar in 1992 by Diane Drake
- Epsilon (unproduced) by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
- The Imitation Game by Graham Moore, at "seven figures" to Warner Brothers
- Medieval (unproduced) by Mike Finch and Alex Litvak, at $800,000 against $1.6 million
- Stanley's Cup (unproduced) by Jeffrey Alan Schechter, at $800,000 against $1.1 million
- Steinbeck's Point of View (unproduced) by Brandon Camp and Mike Thompson, at $750,000 against $3,750,000 with a potential $2 million bonus cast contingent
- Man-Woman by Bobby Florsheim and Josh Stolberg, at $750,000 against $1.5 million
- Cardinal Bay (unproduced) by Mitchell German
- The Karma Coalition by Shawn Christensen, at $750,000 against $1.5 million
- JohnAugust.com "Money 101 for Screenwriters"
- Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis Community Development Project. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. Retrieved January 2, 2018.
- "Screenwriters Adjust to Being Bit Players Again". New York Times. December 9, 2001.
- Chris Lee (2005-05-16). "A tale of Hollywood e-harmony". The LA Times. Retrieved 2009-02-13.
In the end, Bruckheimer agreed to pay $5 million, including bonuses (or $3 million if “Deja Vu” doesn’t get made), split evenly between Rossio and Marsilii.
- 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)". Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 29 November 2012.
- Deadline Hollywood