How I Made $100,000 as a Screenwriter
Tips, form letters, contracts and eight long years
by Julian Phillips
How I made $100,000 as a screenwriting in eight years. Sounds like one of those weight-loss ads you’d see in the back pages of a ’70s comic book, doesn’t it? So without any introduction or further boasting, here are some basic proofs that the header here is true, certainly as far as the IRS is concerned.
I’m a retired journalist and author in California. In 2004, I started full-time freelancing with an online “for hire” service. It seemed sensible. Small town journalists never make much money anyway, and after the newspaper I edited was sold out from under me, my unemployment benefits ran out fast. By 2005, I had a few clients I was already working with and a decent website. Between 2005 until today in 2013 (eight years), I was able to earn roughly $15,000 a year this way—some years more, some years less. Most of the work was in various types of screenwriting.
What were those screenwriting jobs? Almost all of the work was write-for-hire 90-minute feature film scripts for independent filmmakers with ideas and concepts they wanted to shoot, but not necessarily write for themselves.
My starting rate was usually $2,000. I did a few for much less, and one for $10,000. For a few, I negotiated up to $3,000. Some paid as little as $500 for full-on 90-minute features. I also sold or optioned my own spec screenplays, I wrote treatments, feature film business plans and proposals, coverage, animation series, stage plays, small industrial or commercial scripts, audio-scripts, and even a “live Netcast” chat-show on independent films. I taught local classes in screenwriting, I produced feature films and smaller projects, and yes, I sometimes found I could sell the same script or “pitch” more than once.
Have you ever seen any of my work on TV or as a feature film? No, probably not. As Frank Zappa once said, “we’re only in it for the money.” Why worry about fame, when I can make $500 in two days working on an industrial video script about a high-end prosthetics manufacturing company?
A quick review of some more successful projects I was paid for, would include a series of more than 28 episodes of two different animated TV shows for a small company in Europe; a three-year option on an original script with a $200,000 payout (the film was not produced); several private-party personal life-journey screenplays; an adaptation of a true-story novel; several true story crime and police screenplays, some from former cops, and also fictional crime scripts, and a somewhat high-end screenplay for a well-funded company in Europe (also not produced). I was hired to research and create stage-plays and monologues, also documentaries, treatments, and shorter projects for video, such as YouTube or UStream.tv. Four of the feature-length screenplays were actually completed as finished films, with budgets ranging from $10,000, to over $100,000.
There were two main reasons that I had found this level of success (certainly not very high up the ladder, in Hollywood terms). During those years from 2005 until today, there was an explosion of interest in low-budget film production (independent films), due to the new “next-generation” all-digital cameras and “non-linear” computer editing gear, that could provide very high quality, at very low cost. And I had a half-way impressive resume and track record. I actually was writing “scripts for pay” as far back as 1976. I studied the craft for years, and I accumulated a resume that would get me the gigs. My scripts and stories were clean and fast, crisp, bright and hit the high-points for basic audience enjoyment. So for you, the reader, who may set off to find similar work, look at the low-budget markets first, so you can build a legitimate resume with real ‘credits’, that shows you’re not a complete novice. Even a credit-line on an industrial video indicates you’re serious and can finish what you start.
Here are some other very simple tips and techniques I used:
1. Take the work if it pays and it’s within your skill-set, even boring jobs at low pay. These “gigs” earn you a credit, you learn about the business side of screenwriting, you pocket a few bucks and you may get to see your scripts on the screen. Some great screenwriters, like Bruce Joel Rubin (Ghost, Jacob’s Ladder), started out writing educational scripts.
2. Don’t necessarily do scripting for no pay at all, or “deferred pay.” My own rule was that if the filmmaker could convince me he would really be going ahead to finish a film, I might consider the work for low-or-no-pay, or even give away a script of mine for free. Again, real screen credits move you ahead on the next gig, and this is true and reliable. I might add that on several jobs, over those years of my working career, I was hired, did the work at an agreed rate of pay, delivered the script, and was not paid at all. My mother warned me!!
3. Another important tip: you’ll only get the gigs if you spend time looking for them, and then contact the buyer. This is not the same as writing for Warner Brothers under contract, with a big fat paycheck. Once I had a taste for success the way I was doing it, I found that if I spent several hours a day searching online for the buyers, I could send a note (‘query’) and get the gigs. But they never came looking for me, to hire, without first letting all the world know they were looking for a writer on a film-project, big or small. Craigslist, Mandy’s and other websites or magazines were often where I would look. Make it a daily routine. Win the race while others are lazy.
4. Speed up the process by creating a “form letter” pitch of your own, and save the file on your computer desktop. You write up a simple query, with basic greetings, your background and credits or website, why you are contacting the recipient, your contact information and whatever else works for you. Here’s one I used in 2011:
Kuma’s Kitchen Freelance Media-‘Mind over media. Because it matters.’707-980-6358, firstname.lastname@example.orgJulian Phillips, Vallejo, East Bay San Francisco, CAMature writer, would be pleased to provide screenwriting for your film. Many paid projects, credits here or on IMDb, also see my website. All work in Final Draft. Reasonable rates. Thanks, see below, or my website. Look to hear from you-Kuma’s Kitchen is an online service for quality writing tasks and mass-media projects. ’Kuma’ is Japanese for ‘bear’.BACKGROUND: Author, journalist, novelist, film-maker and musician Julian Phillips has created hundreds of successful creative projects for many Kuma’s Kitchen clients, online since 2004. Semi-retired at age 55-years, the writer earned a BA-degree in Communications in 1981, and was a paid career-writer since before that. Professional work has included years as a newspaper reporter, editor, freelancing for magazines, radio-news, work writing and producing industrial and educational videos, interviews and moderator-host-MC, and teaching classes. Julian is a fifth-generation Californian and has spent most of his life in San Luis Obispo county, with wife Carol and their son Preston Laverne, currently an art student at University in San Francisco. The writer focuses on high-quality, well-researched fact-based journalism styles, and positive dramatic story forms, as entertainment. CREDITS and ACCOMPLISHMENTS: (*completed video-film, writer-producer) –eight 20-min. educational videos on agricultural topics for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo State University; four 60-min. videos on tourism, wine-industry and the arts for Digital West Video Productions; 30-min. video on local surf-board and surfing culture for Tom Anthony Productions; ‘Allegheny Sunset’, 90-min feature film (HD video); ‘Ex$pendable’, 90-min. feature film (HD video) for Tough Struggle Films; ‘Mahanwe: the Virgin Rape Myth’, for CIFKIDS, documentary, 90-min.; ‘Grounded!’, 90-min feature film (HD video) for Tom Luong Films; ‘The Tom Luong Independent Film Hour-of-Destiny’, six-hours of Live Netcast talk-show (UStream.tv),with co-host Lisa Retenour. (*produced stage-plays, writer) –‘My Dentist is an Android’, and ‘The Deer in the Valley’, San Francisco African American Stage-Play Festival (90-min); ‘Can I Rap For You, Lord?’, San Diego Kwanzaa Festival. Also other stage-plays. (*available books and novels) ‘Mars Outpost: Surviving Tharsis Montes’, science-fiction, eBook on Amazon.com/Kindle, 150,000 words; ‘The Jupiter Scam: Cid Bixi Mimim’, science-fiction, 150,000 words; ‘The Gentle Journalist’, humorous essays, 90,000 words; ‘The MeekEarth Kids Books’, 80 short children’s books (with Carol Eastman-Phillips); ‘Getting Into the Screenwriting Game to Win’, 20,000-word eBook; ‘The Easy Way to Plot Your Modern Film Story’, 11,000-word eBook; ‘Film Appreciation for Modern Audiences’, 20,000-word eBook; ‘How to Overcome Personal Homelessness’, 11,000-word eBook; ‘Dumped: an Organic Farm Pesticide Disposal Nightmare’, 30,000-word factual research for Edna Valley Farms; ‘Writing for Publication for Young Students’, 20,000-words. Other credits and accomplishments on my website, or see my complete resume. Samples on request.“Our philosophy is a peace-ahimsa understanding of social cooperation and responsible media for the good of all concerned.”Julian Phillips, July 11, 2013, Vallejo, CA
When you find a “scriptwriter wanted” ad online, you can easily copy-paste this query letter and shoot it off within moments. At times, I would send twenty emails off in this way, in a single day. And yes, almost all of the work I was doing from 2005 to 2013, was by email, phone and online.
5. Create a standard work agreement or “deal memo” that you can use on most jobs. This helps makes things clear, especially in terms of payment, screen-credit, work needed and delivery schedule. With any job or sale with payment of more than $500, get an “advance” or a small good-faith token payment. Always get all contact information for both parties. The “memo” should include your start date and when the material will be ready. You also want to be clear about any revisions or “second drafts”, consultation and approval with the filmmaker as you go, and what format you will work in (such as Final Draft). Some clients feel they are hiring a typist, and want to stand over your shoulder, tell you what to write, and control every detail. Others prefer to give the writer a free hand and view the screenplay when it’s a completed work. Some like to receive “pages-as-you-go.” So to be clear, have a standard “agreement” ready when you get the gigs, otherwise the client may get frustrated, or even angry, and your effort and time will be lost. Good business practices every time set you apart.
Although I am not offering legal advice, here is the deal memo I have used on countless projects:
SCRIPT FEE ‘DEAL MEMO’ *sample
June 19, 2011
This Agreement is made and entered into as of 6/19/11, by and between ‘xxx’, (“Producer”), at email@example.com, (address and phone TK), the party which is creating a proposed motion picture project, currently entitled (‘project title’) and Julian Philips, located at US Post Office General Delivery, Running Springs, CA 92382, 310-880-6517 (firstname.lastname@example.org), a screenwriter (“Writer”) who is being commissioned with regard to writing services for the Picture.
This document will represent the binding agreement of the Parties until or unless the Parties amend, supplement or supersede this agreement by a subsequent writing signed by both Parties. To the extent a matter is not specifically covered hereby, the normal procedures, policies, terms and conditions of the Producer and Writer in their normal course of business shall apply. Most or all communications and exchange between parties hereunder will be by computer email, regular mail (USPS or FedEx, etc.), or telephone. Face-to-face personal conference or consultation is acceptable and desirable for productivity, but not necessary.
The Parties expressly agree on the following:
1) Writer agrees to provide the full-length First Draft version of the Producer’s story, ‘project title’, in a timely fashion, by about the second week of August, 2011.
2) Upon acceptance of the script, Producer shall have all rights to produce, film, distribute and release a film based on this material. Copyright, intellectual ownership, and any and all use or exploitation of written material under this agreement shall fall exclusively to Producer.
3) Producer shall provide story-materials, character profiles, treatments, recordings, and other documents pertaining to the story as he wishes it to be written. Writer will also consult with Producer on story-elements.
4) Writer shall receive as compensation for the script/labor: a) screen credit as writer, and also writer-credit on any promotional material, etc (unless otherwise indicated. Producer may also choose to adopt himself as credited writer, or a combination of both Producer and Writer); b) $3,000 in cash, payable as $500 on or by about June 25-30, by regular mail, or Western Union, or other; followed by another payment of $500 by about July 15; two more payments of $500 each can/will be made at Producer’s convenience by about August 15; the remainder of $1,000 will be paid on receipt by Producer of the First Draft of the script. Payment terms and schedule is flexible and negotiable as-per Producer-Writer agreements, availability, etc.
5) Producer may change or alter scenes, dialogue and characters in the script as deemed appropriate. Upon acceptance/delivery of script, author’s rights are granted to Producer and script may be changed or adjusted in any way Producer may wish; screenplay can also be sold by Producer elsewhere, etc.
6) Following production and completion of the film, or script-sale, Producer shall please provide up-dates on the status of the film, and accounts pertaining to release, distribution, etc., as a courtesy for Writer to enjoy. If the film is completed, the Writer will receive at least one copy on DVD.
7) Script will be created in the Final Draft-7 PC program application format, and can be delivered in this document-format, or as PDF, or some others. The Final-Draft program will also create a variety of script-reports, such as character-reports, scene-reports, locations reports. These ‘script breakdowns’ are also available for Producer, at no additional fee.
8) Producer may receive script-pages or scenes, in-progress, for review, as screenplay composition proceeds by schedule towards completion, as-desired, to facilitate Producer input and creative vision for material.
9) Writer also agrees to provide two ( 2 ) revision drafts of the screenplay for changes, edits and minor re-writes, working in concert with the Producer to meet his wishes for the material, in a timely-manner, following delivery of a First-Draft.
The Parties agree that this Agreement shall be exclusively subject to the laws of the United States generally, and the State of California specifically, and that the courts located in the latter shall have exclusive jurisdiction hereof and venue hereof.
AGREED: **JULIAN PHILLIPS Print Name:
Date: 06/19/11 Date:
6. Master your craft. Customer satisfaction, for both the client (filmmaker), and the audience (viewer), sets you apart from the one-time screenwriter with a spare copy of Final Draft and a “see-how-it-goes” attitude. Sure, anyone can write a screenplay, and even really outstanding work appears from the most unlikely sources. But you can’t always “wing it” and expect on-going positive results (pay for your work and completed films with your name on the “written by” line). Some writers specialize in one type of genre, and gain credits that way. Maybe because of my background in print journalism, I would do all sorts, including educational and documentary. The “tip” here is simply to “be a good writer.” This is subjective, it’s artwork, not a math equation. But you want those three-act high points, you want to avoid clichés and “dumb mistakes”. Do your very best every time at bat, and later you’ll have a collection of IMDb credits to envy. And you don’t need a Masters Degree in Screenwriting to do this.
There are many other lessons and techniques for transforming your screenwriting into cash-money and film credits. Persistence, creative insights, enthusiasm and enjoyment on your part, can get you where you want to go. I tell all the students in my classes, “If you love it, they’ll love it. If you laugh, or cry, or thrill, at your scenes, stories and plots, so will they”.
$100,000 in eight years? Some Hollywood screenwriters will make that much or more in a few weeks. That’s hopefully my next stop on the screenwriter gravy train! See you on the way.