Screenwriting is a lucrative gig… if you’re in the 0.0001% (I may be exaggerating that percentage… but it also might be crazy accurate) that actually works in the industry, selling screenplays on the regular. It’s a career that thousands pine for, but only few are rewarded for. It’s downright depressing when you look at the numbers and realize how slim the chances of a single sale are, let alone a profitable career is in the field.
But here’s the thing: you don’t actually have to make a sale to make money screenwriting.
Don't quit your day job just yet. Start by making screenwriting your side hustle.
1. BE A GOOD SCREENWRITER
Obvious, right? But it’s true. If you’re going to make money screenwriting you need to know the craft inside out. Formatting should be second nature to you. You should know structure like the back of your hand. You should have written a few screenplays of your own. If you’re lucky, maybe they’ve even done well in a festival or two (that will help you credibility).
If you are just starting out in this gig, you are not ready to make money doing it yet. Would you hire a chef who has never set foot in a kitchen to cater your wedding? Or a doctor that hasn’t been to med school to deliver your child? Probably not.
This isn’t much different. Okay… maybe it’s a little different. But the key point here is if anyone is going to hire you to write for them, you need to prove that you can do a good job. Like any skill, it takes time to reach that level.
2. ADAPTABLE VOICE
If you’re good, you have spent time developing your “voice”. But here’s the thing: you’ve got to drop that “voice” when you write for others and adapt to their voice instead. This can be tricky to do. First, you need to be able to recognize the voice of a screenplay. There’s no good way to describe how to do this. It comes from experience in writing and reading. You just know. If you don't know, I recommend reading screenplays from professionals and noting their differences (not in plot or character… in voice!).
For example: read any two Quentin Tarantino scripts. Even though the content is different, his voice is consistent. There is no denying that those are his stories. Now go read two Aaron Sorkin scripts and you’ll find the same thing. But, they will be vastly different from Tarantino as his voice is different.
As a screenwriter, you need to be able to recognize the voice of your client (even if they don’t know it yet) and mimic it in your writing. You’ve got to be a chameleon.
3. WRITE FAST
Time is money, especially when you are writing for someone else. The faster you write, the more value you will receive for your time. This varies for everyone, but these are the guidelines I try to stick to:
Beat Sheet: 2 days
Treatment: 1 week
First Draft: 1 month
Rewrite: 2-3 weeks
If you can write at this speed, you’re hitting deadlines like the pros. However, it’s important to not sacrifice quality. You need to find that balance of writing fast, but ensuring that your writing is still good. You also need to take the client's response time into consideration. How long they deliberate on what you send them could effect your deadlines.
Speed is important as it will help you to determine your price per draft. If you know it takes you approximately 20 hours to write a first draft (over 1 month), then you can pick your hourly price for your labor and provide an accurate quote that you are happy with.
4. DETERMINING WORK TYPE
Next, you should determine the type of screenwriting work you want to do. Do you want to write full screenplays for clients? Or would you prefer to do analysis and proofreading? The former will make you a lot more money, but it is also more time consuming. It’s important to sort this out as that will determined where you are sourcing your work.
If you are looking for write screenplays, you are going to be seeking the clients directly. If you are seeking analysis/proofreading work, you will be looking for companies that provide that service and are hiring (more on that later).
5. CONTRACTS & PAYMENT
When entering into a negotiation to write a screenplay for someone else you should always present your client with a contract outlining the terms of your work. Be specific. Set your price. Be a good business partner to yourself. There are a lot of people out there who will want to pay you less than you are worth. Make sure the terms are clear, and then get a signed copy of that contract.
Here is what your contract should include:
Contact information for both parties
Work agreed upon (drafts, deadlines, number of revisions per document)
Copyright (who owns the work)
Credit (are you a ghostwriter or do you get credit?)
Your payment schedule is very important. Typically, this is broken up. You can do this however you like, but my advice is to receive 50% upfront, before work begins. And the remaining 50% upon the completion of the draft.
6. FINDING WORK
If you are good to go with items 1-5, you are ready to find clients. There are a lot of avenues you can go down here, all depending on the work type you are seeking.
If you are looking to write screenplays, you need to find clients who are looking for that service. I recommend:
Some of these services require payment for full access (that’s how they make their money). I’ve paid for them all at one point or another and Screenwriting Staffing is the best option. I’ve secured multiple gigs from them. I’ve also had a lot of success with Upwork, but their downside is that they claim 20% of your earnings. ISA has a lot of postings, but you have to look out for the “referred payment” clause. Never take a job that does not guarantee your payment! We know how rare success is in this industry.
The alternative to using these sites is to launch a company of your own and do your own marketing campaigns! It sounds nice, but the reality is that is a hell of a lot more expensive than paying for these services (I know because that is how Script Society was born!). Either way, you should start with these websites to build up your reputation before you set out on your own.
If you are looking for work as an analyst/proofreader I recommend reaching out to existing screenwriting companies. You won’t make as much money working for them (they will take a cut of all your work), but you will get consistent work. They have an audience. You don’t. And if you go into bidding wars with them for clients, usually they will win. A search engine inquiry should point you in the direction of the companies that are hiring.
THE SIDE HUSTLE: IS IT WORTH IT?
Screenwriting is a lot of work. If you’re going to make it your side hustle, you have to love it. Otherwise, this work will drive you to hate it. You have to set deadlines and look at what’s realistic for you to accomplish, without forgetting your real goal here: to sell your own screenplay. Do not forget to schedule time to work on your own projects.
The reality is you can’t be picky when accepting work. You’re going to work on projects that you are not passionate about. But there is value in this. The more you write, the better you become. Since I began my professional screenwriting career I have written over 50 features for clients. I didn’t love every story, but it made me a faster and better screenwriter.
My first year writing professionally I made $8000. In my second, I made $20,000. All that was in part-time work. That number kept climbing every year until I no longer needed my day job. Script Society was born and became my full time gig (along with my personal screenwriting projects). It is possible to make cash screenwriting without making a sale, but it’s hard (and often thankless) work.
You have to decide if that’s worth it for you.