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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 $461 in 2019).
- 1949: Ben Hecht is paid $10,000 a week (about $107,455 in 2019). Claims David O. Selznick paid him $3,500 a day (about $37,600 in 2019).
- 1984: Shane Black sells the screenplay to Lethal Weapon for $250,000.
- 1989: During the 1988 strike, John Raffo, sold his female-courier-has-to-take-a-cure-across-state-lines sci-fi spec script Pincushion to Columbia for $500,000.
- 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.
- 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 (about $1,968,366 in 2018) for the script Milk Money by John Mattson. Both deals are records, respectively, for outlines and romantic comedy specs.
- 2005: Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii are paid $3 million against $5 million for the script of Deja Vu.
Some of the highest amounts paid to writers for spec screenplays:
- Milk Money by John Mattson ($1.1 million, outright purchase)
- Epsilon (unproduced) by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick ("Sources say the Sony deal closed in the $1 million range.")
- The Imitation Game by Graham Moore, at "seven figures" to Warner Brothers
- "Money 101 for screenwriters". Retrieved 20 December 2018.
- Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. "Consumer Price Index (estimate) 1800–". Retrieved January 1, 2020.
- "Ben Hecht". IMDb. Retrieved 20 December 2018.
- "Screenwriters Adjust to Being Bit Players Again". New York Times. December 9, 2001.
- Lee, Chris (16 May 2005). "A tale of Hollywood e-harmony". Retrieved 20 December 2018 – via LA Times.
- 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.
- Eller, Claudia (11/9/1992). "Par in "Money" as DDLC Riled". Variety. Retrieved 7/13/2019. Check date values in:
- Kit, Borys. "'Zombieland' Writers Sell Sci-Fi Project 'Epsilon' to Sony (Exclusive)". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved 29 November 2012.
- Finke, Nikki; Finke, Nikki (12 October 2011). "Warner Bros Buys Spec Script About Math Genius Alan Turing For Leonardo DiCaprio". Retrieved 20 December 2018.