What is a Screenwriter and What Do They Do?

A screenwriter either develops a script from an original idea (their own or someone else’s) or adapts an existing body of work, such as a book, play, or even a previous movie. Many screenwriters are hired to work on second or third versions of a script as rewriters.

The Work of a Screenwriter

The film and television industry is one of the most competitive businesses in the world. It has been estimated that at least 50,000 scripts are written every year. Though a film’s director is usually considered a film’s “author”, the story itself is usually the work of a screenwriter or writers. If you’re going to compete against working professional screenwriters, you have to know the industry standards—and those standards are very high. In order to work and work consistently, you must surpass those standards.

Screenwriters may first develop a treatment of the story idea, which is a synopsis of the film with a few scenes written (usually without dialogue). Then, a “shooting script” is written, which is what will be used during filming. As a rule, one page of script equals one minute of filming, so many scripts must undergo numerous revisions to fit into the allocated budget of the film. The shooting script includes dialogue and instructions about lighting, camera angles, and shots. In rare situations, a screenwriter will work closely with the director and producer, and will often incorporate changes in the shooting script to reflect their requests.

If you’re writing a script to sell, it should be formatted as a “reading script”. This format should not include: scene numbers, lengthy setups, or directorial elements such as camera angles or shots, etc. A “reading” or “submission script” should focus solely on great visual storytelling. It should make the reader want to turn the page.

In a “shooting script”, a screenplay’s format must be technically perfect as it serves as the filmmaking team’s blueprint to move men, money and materials. Technically, the shooting script must be outstanding and written by highly trained and seasoned screenwriters, given that today’s budgets and complexity are equal to the cost and construction of a football stadium.

Screenwriters on assignment must not only be creative, but also able to collaborate with others. They also must be able to take criticism and write and rewrite multiple versions of a script, often under pressure to meet deadlines. Before you submit your screenplay to anyone in the entertainment industry, make sure you first get professional coverage (with story notes and analysis) from seasoned industry veterans. This is foundational to your success as a working Motion Picture & Television Screenwriter.

As a screenwriter, your work will usually consist of:

  • Creating characters and story lines that are ‘believable’ for films, television shows, and computer games.
  • Creating summaries of ideas and selling them to producers
  • Script rewriting (or “doctoring”) on an as needed basis
  • Aside from pitching ideas to producers, a screenwriter may also be commissioned to develop a screenplay usually based on a true story, an adaptation of an existing book, or an original idea.

Training & Education

Though not required, many screenwriters hold at least a bachelor’s degree in film or writing. The usual courses that people may look for in a screenwriter may include courses in creative writing, journalism, and english.

Again, you can’t succeed as a professional screenwriter without professional training and feedback. In fact, if you talk to most script analysts and acquisition/development professionals in the major markets (Los Angeles & NY), they will tell you that well over ninety-percent (90%) of the scripts they read fail because of unprofessional screenplay formatting and poor story structure. Understanding other areas of film production, such as direction, budgets, editing, and cinematography, are all helpful in writing a script that is commercially successful. Equally important to learning the fundamentals of screenwriting is learning the fundamentals of universal story structure. Original story structure come from folk tales, fables, and myths.

How much do screenwriters Make?

As with many other careers in film, competition for work as a screenwriter is intense. Many screenwriters pursue other writing jobs on the side, including freelancing, fiction writing, or even marketing, to make connections in the industry and keep their writing skills sharp. Still others move to other areas of filmmaking, such as directing.

Screenwriter Salary

According to the Writers Guild of America, screenwriters made a median salary of $92,000 in 2019. However, salaries can vary widely depending on factors such as experience, location, and the type of project.

For example, screenwriters who work on major studio films typically earn more than those who write for television or independent films.

In addition, screenwriters who live in Los Angeles or New York City tend to earn more than those who live in other parts of the country.

Finally, the size of the project also affects a screenwriter’s salary. A screenwriter working on a blockbuster film will typically make more money than one working on a low-budget indie film.

If the story is their own, screenwriters might sell or option the rights to their screenplay or story for a lump sum.

Consequently, there is no simple answer to the question of “how much do screenwriters make”.

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