The Hollywood Deal: why not write American movies?

There is no reason why you should not write and work in Hollywood. It’s a question I ask on many of my seminars, ‘do you want to work for Hollywood?’ And if the answer is yes, get on a plane. Genevieve my LA partner did this over a decade ago and has got representation and sold a script to Warner Brothers. She also runs an astonishing one week course in LA called The Hollywood Field Trip – which is running next month.

I asked her to share some notes on being hired as a writer in LA. Over to Gen.
If you are hired to write (whether this is your own idea or someone else’s) you will get paid your writing fee in steps.

THE TYPICAL DEAL is two drafts and a polish (three steps). Each step has two stages, commencement and delivery. You get paid half your step fee upon commencement and the second half upon delivery. The studio has the right to end a writing deal, but they generally have to pay the writer a penalty if they do so.

This is when the studio thinks the screenplay is very, very close to being ready, but still needs a little work to hit it out of the park. Often studios bring in different writers to do a polish on a standing screenplay.

If you are being hired to ‘re-write’ a screenplay that did not originate with you, you may be looking at a Page One Rewrite.  This is when a screenplay really isn’t working and it needs to be reconceived. The idea is in there somewhere but it needs an overhaul. Often in this case, you may be able to negotiate a better rate than just a rewrite.

What does SCALE PLUS TEN mean?
When a writer is a first time writer in Hollywood (in other words, this is the first screenplay that a studio is interested in picking up); their deal will most likely be scale – which is the WGA’s minimum fee – plus 10%. The 10% is usually related to the 10% that is your agent’s fee – however as most likely you will have an agent, a manager and a lawyer on board – you’re looking at 25%! But that 10% certainly helps towards paying those fees.

If you have an attachment – say a well-known director is going to direct the film – then you have an advantage when negotiating your QUOTE (fee). If you’ve made a film already, then the quote that you received for that film, will be your starting line in negotiating your fee for this film. Generally a screenwriter or director will get a raise from one job to the next. If a well-known director has attached themselves to your film, you have an advantage when negotiating your quote.

Writers are generally the producers in TV so they are the ones’ pitching.

Pilot script – if a network likes your idea, they will commission a pilot script to be written. An executive will oversee its creation.

Pilot – if the network likes your script, they will commission a pilot episode. They will pair you with a showrunner (a person who knows how to put a TV show together) and you will hire actors and a director.

Series – if the network likes your pilot and more importantly, if advertisers are excited to buy air time during it, then the network will order a series of episodes to be created. The amount can be between 4-22 (13-22 is typical). Sometimes they will wait to see how the show does in the ratings before ordering a complete set.

Series renewal – if your series does well enough, the network will renew it for additional seasons.

If you’ve being hired by a studio as the Director OR you’re being hired through an open directing assignment as a Director on a film, your fee amount is negotiated by your representation. As a rough guideline, the fee is generally structured as follows:

Development Fee: Usually around $25,000. You get this for working with the writer while they punch up the script. You get half when you start a project and the second half when the project goes into pre-production or gets abandoned.

Pre-production: about 10-20% of your total fee.

Production Fee:  about 50-60% of your total fee. You usually get paid as your crew gets paid, weekly.

Editing Fee: the balance. You get paid half upon starting editing and the second half upon delivering your director’s cut.

Generally there are no POINTS awarded to first time Directors. You would have to have an amazing track record as a Director so you are in the position for your representation to negotiate.

Q – What would be a standard writing and directing deal a first timer coming from the UK or Europe could expect?

Todd Hoffman (Agent at ICM) – If it is a spec script then it is what the market can provide – from $50k to $1m.  If we are talking about your first writing assignment and you don’t have a quote, then most likely it is going to be ‘scale’ which is around $70k to a top range of around $125k. As for directing your first film here, the agent tries to get scale plus 10%, which is around $175k. And this gets you into the Director’s Guild if it is a studio movie.

Q – What would be a typical deal for a first time director?

Adam Kaller (Entertainment Lawyer) – Anything over scale plus ten percent is a bonanza. So you can expect a development deal of $25k paid $12.5k upon signing and $12.5k if they elect to proceed or abandon the project and the DGA scale plus ten percent, which is about $175k or so. Now, they will demand optional pictures. Usually two or three. The only play in those negotiations is if you can cut it to one or cut them out entirely by directing another picture for somebody else first. So you make a deal with Warner Brothers and they give you scale plus ten for the first movie, $300k for the second movie and $600k for the third optional movie.

But if I do a movie for Disney before I do your movie, then your options are cancelled. The whole theory behind options is that if the studio gave you our shot and spent all this money when you were nobody, then we want something in return if you are successful at a set price, which is what an option is. But if another studio steps up and takes the risk, and they will have their own options, then WB options are cancelled. It doesn’t always work. Sometimes we cannot get this in the contract.

Q – What advice would you give a filmmaker coming to the US?

Adam – It is a very different culture and system in Hollywood than the UK system or any other. You have to devote yourself to understanding the rules and principles of this system and applying them to yourself. Study how you get yourself from wannabe filmmaker to filmmaker. Know what agents do, what lawyers do, what managers do. Know how studios receive material. Know what it means to take a spec out. Understanding the language of the business so you can work within the system. You have so many strikes against you when you say you are a director and no one knows who you are. You want millions of dollars from them and their jobs are on the line.

Don’t make it more difficult. Completely understand what it is you are asking them to do and how other people typically ask for it to be done. Ask yourself what is important to them. What do they want me to say? My favorite expression in this business is 99% of the people can say ‘no’ but only 1% can say ‘yes’. It is a cliché, but it is ture as to what is going on around here. And people exercise that ‘no’ power a lot. You have to understand how the chain of command to that ‘yes’ person is and how to work it. Otherwise you are waiting for lightning to strike and that is not a good way to go about any business.

The Writers Guild of America sets the bar for what a new screenwriter gets paid for their first job. Check out the Writer Guild of America’s Schedule of Minimums on their website to get an idea of the money that is possible. (www.writers Keep in mind, indie films don’t have to follow this model.

The Writer’s Guild is largest writer’s union in the world. It provides a varied array of services for scribes across the US and sometimes, the globe. In addition to acting as a guideline for fees, here are some of the things they provide:

1. Set a minimum pay rate for all things written whether it be features, TV, documentary, non-fiction TV, commercials, video games or new media. These amounts are set into tables called The Schedule of Minimums which can be found on the WGA website. So for example, starting 5/2/2012 through 5/1/2013 an original screenplay with treatment on a low budget (under $5 million) is $65,013. For a high budget (over $5 million), the rate is $122,054.

2. Low Budget Agreement. For films that are under $1.2 million. This offers lower rates for indie films so that they can hire and compensate union writers. They also have a level for under $500,000.

3. Set a rate for residuals.

4. Registration of written material. For a mere $20, you can register your script, treatment, synopsis, TV Bible or new media plan with the Guild. Doing so gives you some protection in copyright infringement cases by setting a date that your project was actually created.

5. Contracts and Forms. Need a basic agreement to engage a writer? No problem. The WGA has several templates on their website to get you going. But you should always contact an entertainment lawyer with expertise in literary contracts before sending it out.

6. Determining Credits. Sometimes when multiple writers are brought onto rewrite a script, the original writers are bumped off getting credit for writing the film or TV show. In these cases, the WGA investigates the claims and makes the final ruling.

7. Pensions, Medical insurance & other amenities. Like most unions, being a member gives you great perks such as a pension, health insurance, free screenings of film and TV shows, access to a credit union and access to a myriad of panels and events (such as the WGA awards) for education and networking.

8. Non-violent Protest: in other words –STRIKE! Like we saw in 2008, when an agreement with the studio expires and an impasse occurs, the union can vote to strike. On the one hand, the solidarity does eventually make the studios and networks come to an agreement. On the other, they can be long, protracted events that can leave many people out of work for a long time. And they can lead to a rise in new programming such as the reality TV boom that’s happened since. Expect things such as compensation for video on demand, internet downloads and other new media distribution avenues to be points of contention as WGA moves into the future.

The Writers Guild works on a unit system, based on a writing employment and/or sales within the Guild’s jurisdiction and with a “SIGNATORY” company. A signatory company means that that company has signed the Guild’s collective bargaining agreement. Depending upon the number of units earned, a writer may be eligible for either Current (full) membership, or Associate (partial) membership.

Current membership: In order to be eligible for this membership, a writer must acquire a minimum of 24 units in the three years preceding application. Upon final qualification for Current membership, an initiation fee of $2,500 is due, payable to the Writers Guild of America, West.
Associate membership: A writer may be eligible for an Associate membership if he or she has had writing employment and/or sales within the Guild’s jurisdiction and with a “signatory” company but has acquired less than 24 units in the three years preceding application. Upon final qualification, Associate membership is available for a total of three years at a cost of $100 per year.

BREAKDOWN OF UNITS: A Feature Film (90 mins or longer)
Screenwriter = 24 units.
Story credit = 12 units.
A Rewrite(= One-half the number of units allotted to the applicable category of work.
A Polish(= One-quarter the number of units allotted to the applicable category of work.
An Option(= One-half the number of units allotted to the applicable category of work subject to a maximum entitlement of eight such units per project in any one year. (An extension or renewal of the same option shall not be accorded as additional units. If an option on previously unexploited literary material is exercised, the sale of this material is accorded the number of units applicable to the work minus the number of units accorded to the option of the same material.)

2 units: Each complete week of employment within the Guild’s jurisdiction on a week-to-week basis.

3 units: A television program less than 30 minutes that shall be prorated in increments of 10 minutes or less.

4 units: A short subject theatrical motion picture of any length or for a radio or television program or breakdown for a non-primetime serial 30 minutes through 60 minutes.

6 units: Teleplay less than 30 minutes shall be prorated in five-minute increments; Television format for a new serial or series.”Created By” credit given pursuant to the separation of rights provisions of the WGA Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement in addition to other units accrued for the literary material on which the “Created By” credit is based.

8 units: A television program or breakdown for a non-primetime serial more than 60 minutes and less than 90; A teleplay 30 minutes through 60 minutes.

12 units: A television program 90 minutes or longer or story for a feature-length theatrical motion picture; or breakdown for a non-primetime serial 90 minutes or longer. Radio play or teleplay more than 60 minutes and less than 90 minutes.

24 units: A screenplay for a feature-length theatrical motion picture; radio play or teleplay 90 minutes or longer; Long-term story projection, which is defined for this purpose as a bible, for a specified term, on an existing, five times per week non-prime time serial; Bible for any television serial or primetime miniseries of at least four hours.

Writers Guild of America, West

Writers Guild of America, East


Thanks Gen. And remember you can get more info about her Hollywood Field trip at

Onwards and upwards!

Chris Jones
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