Check Your Ego: Getting Paid a Living Wage to Write Movies Is a Blessing. | Script Revolution

Check Your Ego: Getting Paid a Living Wage to Write Movies Is a Blessing.


There's something I want to get off my chest. My need to say this has come from what’s actually a wonderful forum thread I stumbled upon about script listing websites. I was delighted to see Script Revolution recommended along with the Black List and InkTip with a bunch of positive success stories surrounding it. After three years struggling to get the site off the ground, I have to admit I got a little misty-eyed. However, since I am a defensive pessimist, I of course had to find something to find a beef with and this beef has been brewing for a long time - CJ

Whenever the conversation comes up about script listing websites, someone always feels the need to mention that some sites, usually InkTip but this certainly should include my own, only tend to attract small production companies that produce very low budget films. Now, that is a true fact, one I cannot argue with, and I see the value in making screenwriters aware of that. I’ve nothing against someone making that observation.

What frustrates me though is the stigma.

I mean, I get it, everybody wants to win the Powerball by selling a spec script to a major studio after a furious bidding war, have that script decimate the box office, secure a top agent, and spend their lives getting paid handsomely to write what they want while being hand fed olives in hot tub by nymphomaniac underwear models. In fact, in any industry, getting to the most comfortable and rewarding place possible is always going to appeal.

What I find odd is, how in the screenwriting world, it feels like anything less than that is seen as some sort of embarrassing failure.

Look, I recently broke in via a small project for a small production company and, I can assure you, it’s been bloody brilliant. I say that as someone who’s spent most of their life working freelance from home and, for some of those years, done very well out of it. That’s been sweet but it pales in comparison to getting paid to write, even if those earnings aren’t going to change your life.

That’s just the money too. Signing that contract, collaborating with producers, watching talent attach, securing locations, gaining that credit on IMDB, and eventually watching the trailers roll in for production is nothing short of magical to experience. You can’t put a price on increased self-worth and a genuine sense of accomplishment.

And here’s the thing, there’s actual benefits to being a screenwriter on a small project. Like the fact you’ll probably be the sole writer and not just a ship passing in the night. Like the fact you’ll probably have a close bond with the producers, director, cinematographer, actors, and other team members. Like the fact you’ll probably go on to form a tight team that go on to work on new projects together while boosting each other up the ladder.

Yes, as our profile increases, we are all approached by chancers with zero credits who want us to work for free in the hope we get 1% of what’s most likely to be nothing. These pseudo-offers are best avoided but should not be conflated with the indie scene where experienced producers are doing their best with the budgets they have to pay their writers as fairly as possible.

Real talk, you probably never got into this for a Porsche and a penthouse. You probably got into it because you were looking for purpose and fulfilment. You probably looked at your pay check and, regardless of what those numbers added up to, felt it didn’t compensate for a life baron of fun, freedom, and creativity. It’s easy to forget that when you hang around with dreamers.

The Matthew Effect certainly seems to apply to film production, operating on an inverse square law and meaning something like only the square root of the total receive half of the glory and revenue. That means, out of the 6,000 films made annually, fewer than 80 are going to dominate the box office and DVD shelves. It’s easy to fear that bargain bin but rethink those numbers. It also means, out of the 50,000 scripts registered a year, only 250 are likely to go into production. Start getting excited about the thought of making it into that microscopic 0.5% because it’s a real privilege even if you are still living in the same house and driving the same car.

If someone wants to scoff at you for writing a movie they’ve never heard of while they themselves sit lonely in their office cubicle fantasising about their Oscar acceptance speech, let them. If someone mocks your status because you made a movie for less than $1m and they’ve spent the last decade fruitlessly chasing $100m, let them. If someone frames your real life success as somehow being their image of failure when they can’t even get a job, let them. See it for what it is, you’re leaving them in your dust.

Believe me as someone who’s been there; when you receive that payment however modest, when you land in LA riding in economy class, when you eat nachos with the production crew, and when that single trailer rolls in for production, you’re still going to feel like the luckiest person in the world.

Struggling by while writing movies is a damn sight better than struggling by while dreaming of writing them. Take every genuine opportunity you can.

About The Author

CJ Walley's picture
Real name: 

I’m here for the gritty movies, the rebellious movies, those films that pack a punch far harder than their budgets would suggest.

As a spec script writer, I love to create pulpy thrillers, mostly with female leads, that feature strong themes, brutal action, witty dialogue, and twisting scenes that have characters vying for power or falling for one another.

As a producer and writer-for-hire, I’m production savvy, budget conscious, and market orientated, able to write in a...Read more



John Hunter's picture

Scriptwriting is a brutal and highly speculative adventure. It will bruise your ego and doesn’t pay very well for most.

I’ve been actively, not passively, at it for perhaps 8-9 years and am truly grateful of the modest successes I have achieved. For me, the biggest payday to date has been the experience.

It has been noted there are some 50,000 feature scripts registered each year and these have a shelf life of about 8 years. So on any given morning that means there are about 50,000 X 8 = 400,000 scripts begging to be read. Some of these are good, some are bad and most of them are awful.

If the reality of the situation and numbers bore you, there is a story about a little boy who opens the barn and shouts with delight when he sees a huge pile of manure,

“This is great! With all this shit in here, there just has to be a pony somewhere!”

So keep on slaying them pixels and all the best.

Robert Moores's picture

I'm not sure why the arts in particular have such a distinct "gold rush" mentality attached to them. It seems like the popular mind is convinced that the only reason you'd ever write a novel is to make Stephen King money, and if you don't get there then your efforts were wasted. It's fucking weird, like people don't think the arts is a job like any other. I very much approve of this rant!

John Hunter's picture

Gold Rush Mentality: (1) Most folks erroneously think they can tell a joke or a story, (2) Final Draft on sale is cheap as chips (3) Everyone has heard about scripts being sold for millions of dollars...So why not give it a go? I didn't get into this for the money, but a payday would be nice.

CJ Walley's picture

I think the issue is how we perceive talent, the ongoing fallacy of overnight success, and the human brain's propensity to obsess with low-odds-high-returns investment. The story our culture choses to portray and believe is that it's likely an ordinary person can jump on a computer, write a brilliant story, and be rewarded millions for doing so. While this is plausible, it is improbable.

Compounding all this is a predatory break-in services industry that trades on teasing on writer's hopes by constantly suggesting the next competition they enter, consultant they employ, or evaluation they buy is going to be lead to some Cinderella story.

John Hunter's picture

You hit a nerve with me on this one - There is more money to be made selling dreams and services to aspiring writers than in actually writing.

CJ Walley's picture

John Hunter's picture

"...I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, for all the good most services actually do for screenwriters, we may as well burn a pile of money and hope the right producer spots the smoke plume..."

As in the actual California Gold Rush, there was more money made selling picks, shovels, 'gold maps' (where to find it), and supplies to aspiring miners than was ever made finding gold. The ratio of those who have made money writing scripts to those who have not must be about a zillion to one - To this point, please see my short, LAST TWO WRITERS, which comes at this issue from another angle.

Jerry Robbins's picture

My first two movies are low budget; but they were in capable hands and even though low budget, the movies look fantastic! I wouldn't trade the opportunity for anything. Would I love a blockbuster budget movie? Of course. Who wouldn't? But seeing the first cut of my first completed movie gave me a feeling of accomplishment I never had before... after years and years (and years) of hard work - the payoff of seeing actors I have seen on the big screen reading MY dialog... no paycheck in the world will replace that feeling. It also made me strive to make my next script better than the one before. Now is not the time for me to get lazy. The money I made from both movies was very fair and I am proud of both pictures (one is still shooting, the other awaits release). You do indeed have to check your ego at the door. For me, I want to sell as many as I can, and I am beyond thrilled that these producers liked my script enough that they were willing to pour some serious cash into getting the movies made. I could have walked away from both, thinking that a big studio would scoop them up. If I had done that, I have a feeling I would still be trying to sell both of them.