In deciding whether or not to quit your day job, you’ll have to consider all of your expenses. You’ll have to pay rent and in LA that can be $2,000 a month easily. You might want to get a roommate to help with the payments. Then there’s the car, food, clothes, gas, and the rest of it.
A big budget item these days is healthcare. If you start selling scripts to Writers Guild of America’s (WGA’s) signatory production companies you will eventually qualify for their plan which is excellent. If you sell to non-union production companies you’ll have to add health insurance to your expenditures. And that can cost you between $700 to $1,000 or more, a month.
In order to join the WGA, you have to sell a feature length screenplay, or four half hour scripts. When you join you’ll have to pay $2,500 dues. You can also become an associate member for only three years at $100 a year.
You might also want to consider what happens if you start out strong, join the WGA, but then have a bad year. Having a go-to part time job, or parents who’ll support your dream, emotionally, or even fiscally, by letting you write free at home, or a spouse who’ll carry you during the lean years is a huge help.
Living in Los Angeles is also a huge help. With all the meetings you have to take to get a job, it’s almost essential that you live around the studios. There are studios in New York and Florida, too, so you may consider that.
Having enough savings for about 6 months living expenses is highly recommended if you’re selling only occasional scripts. However, I think the best-case scenario is getting hired to write on a TV show.
The salaries are high, (usually in the six figures) and you will learn to write better working with veteran writers running the show, and with the other writers working with you in the room. As an executive producer with a development deal I was earning 1 million a year for a while. Although, I did have to split that with my partner.
And during the hiatus, you collect unemployment and write your features on spec. That’s how it worked out for me. I worked on TV writing staffs almost every year for 25 years straight. I had time off to write features.
What if you sell a script and wonder if you should quit your day job? You should have a realistic idea of how much money you spend per month versus how much you’ll be making per month, (without that day job). Be sure to factor in your savings, your parents’, your relatives’, or your spouse’s support, and if you’re lucky, your trust funds, when making this decision.
A very important consideration in deciding to quit is learning how much writers get paid, when they first start out. You want to be informed about how much you’ll be paid when you sell your first script.
So, for a very important piece of the puzzle, here is how much money screenwriters currently get paid.
If you’re selling low budget non-union scripts, there are no minimums. It’s whatever you negotiate. A lot of non-union writers ask for from 3% to 5% of the films budget. I know screenwriters who ask for $1,000. Some ask for $15,000. It will be less for hour TV pilots, and half hour TV pilots.
Keep in mind, at this level you are selling to individuals independent producers who are trying to raise money for a low-budget film or TV show. You won’t be dealing with networks and studios.
To earn the best money writing for non-union independent producers, it helps if you’ve won awards for your scripts, or better yet, be a produced screenwriter. There are writers who make a living writing in the non-union production world. It’s not the kind of money you dream about, but it puts food on the table.
You’re much better off writing for WGA signatories. The WGA has set up union minimums pay for different kinds of scripts. For the next few years, the minimums for original screenplay (with treatment) range from $72, 0000 to $143,000. That kind of money could get you through a year, if you don’t blow it.
Remember, though, that your agent takes 10%, and if you have both and agent and a manager, they may take as much as 25%. You pay union dues, and you pay taxes, the amount depending on whatever bracket you’re in.
There are a bunch of other categories that pay less. For example, original screenplay, excluding treatment or sale/purchase of original screenplay pays from roughly $45,000 to $104,000. You might get through a year with that kind of money, too.
So if you felt like it, you could quit your day job for a year. In fact, if you get paid this much, I would definitely recommend quitting your day job so you can devote as much time to writing as possible. The better the first couple of drafts you write, the less the chance of your script falling into “development hell,” never to return.
If this movie gets out of development hell, and you don’t get rewritten too much, and your film gets financed and it’s a hit, you’re on your way. It doesn’t happen like that on the first sale very often, but if it does, you’re set for a few years anyway. If you keep writing great stuff, you may be set for life.
More than likely, if your script doesn’t get made, you’ll still get lots of representatives who heard about your sale, take you out to lunch and want to sign you. If you get a good agent or manager, you’ll get more opportunities to pitch, write, or rewrite screenplays. Let’s hope it happens to you. Be careful, it might not.
Back to the money; keep in mind, the studios don’t just hand you a check for $104,000. You will get paid in a step process, so you’ll get a check for the outline or treatment (when you’re done), then another check for the first draft (when you’re done), and then another check for your first rewrite (when you’re done).
So even if you’re lucky and get that kind of pay for your original screenplay, it may sort of dribble in over the course of six months to a year. You’d be well advised to have enough savings in the bank to get you through several months.
The WGA pay for a half-hour TV script will be around $26,000 for story and teleplay. WGA fees for an hour teleplay will e around $39,000, including story and teleplay.
I doubt if you could live for a full year on the fee from selling a single TV script, especially considering agents and taxes. So, I wouldn’t quit my day job in that situation.
Still, selling one TV episode is a big deal. You will have agents, or at least managers interested in you. Lots of great things will start to happen. However, like, I say, I wouldn’t quit the day job yet. I’d ask for time off from your day job, possibly a few weeks, or maybe even a month. You’d have to have a pretty good relationship with your boss, for him to agree to that. Or you can call in sick.
For a TV writer, a staff writer (a newbie) will generally make around $96,000 for a season (which is around 7 months). For anybody who makes it through their first season and gets promoted to Story Editor, they make around $157,000 for the same period.
Plus, Story Editors and higher-ups, (Producers, Story Consultants, etc.) get paid for the scripts they write on top of their salary (at least $157,000). So even second year on a TV show, we’re talking nearly $200,000 for 7 month’s work.
When I got hired on my first show, I was hired as a Story Editor. So, I got paid for the year and for 6 teleplays. I definitely quit my day job as a bartender at that point. Of course, I had a writing partner, so we had to split everything.
And if you keep working on TV staffs, you get promoted to Producer, Supervising Producer, Consulting Producer, Co-Executive Producer, and the yearly salaries really go up drastically.
When you think about quitting your day job, there are a lot of factors to consider. What kinds of scripts will you be selling? Who will you be selling to? Will you be on a television writing staff where you’ll get paid every week?
Will you be depending on your ability to write and pitch feature length screenplays? If so, your paychecks won’t be coming quite so regularly. Weigh everything carefully, then decide. And don’t burn your bridges in case you have a bad year.