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I just saw a documentary featuring interviews with a few Hollywood screenwriters. Many of them said they had been working as screenwriters for around a decade, yet had never had any of their scripts turned into a movie.

How do these people make a living? Do they get paid for their unused scripts?

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They do not quit their day job. That's true for many other writers, too.

But besides that, yes, they get paid for unused scripts if these scripts were optioned. I. e. a producer pays them money for the exclusive right to the script for a certain amount of time. During that time the producer can think about turning it into a movie without fearing that a competitor is taking the rights.

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That article you linked to says a writer, whose script has been optioned, receives 5 or 10 percent. 10 percent of what? –  what Jan 8 at 7:58
    
I was mostly looking for the "optioned" part. It was implicated in the documentary, but not explained. One optioned script was rewritten for 250.000 dollars (so one [team of] writer[s] who was not the original writer earned that much). That script was not made into a movie. –  what Jan 8 at 8:04
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The union scale for various kinds of scripts is here: wga.org/uploadedFiles/writers_resources/contracts/min2011.pdf –  Seth Gordon Jan 9 at 16:18
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INT. STARBUCKS, LOS ANGELES

People are sitting at tables and on couches, some on smartphones, many typing away on laptops. We pan to a man in his 40's, with a ponytail and reading glasses. He is concentrating fiercely, reading something on a Macbook.

JOE (looks up at camera):
Oh, hello there! I didn't see you. Welcome to Screenwriter's Corner. Today we have a question from a viewer. "How do screenwriters earn money, if their scripts don't get turned into movies?"

JOE closes his laptop, and looks thoughtful.

JOE:
(CONT'D)
That's a great question, and one we've all wondered about. Some scripts are commissioned, or sold, but never make it through what we call "development hell". Some are not. There are many screenwriters who make a living this way, or at least a partial living.

But Hollywood is also is filled with people who have a story in them, but have found that making a living as a writer is very hard. And selling a script is even harder than selling a novel. Like painters, musicians, and sculptors, for every person who makes money selling their art, there are many who never do. Some who want to write but can't sell their novel may find jobs in a related field. They may be editors, or people who market books. They may be English teachers, or teach college graduates how to write a resume.

The word "professional" sometimes means someone who makes money at a task, but the word also describes ability. A high standard, if you will. Going back to novels, think of self-publishing. Where writers sell their work on their own.

JOE opens his laptop again, and clicks a few times. He opens a movie, and we see it in an INSET. We see a sampling of self-produced scenes as he talks.

JOE:
(CONT'D)
Screenwriters who can't sell their screenplays to Hollywood are increasingly choosing to make their films reality on their own. They may produce professional-quality work, they may make slipshod films.

The montage of scenes changes to show HD video cameras, high-powered computers with editing software, and recording boom rigs*

JOE:
(CONT'D)
But fueled by the availability of affordable cameras and CGI and editing software, there are countless films available on the web. People may be pursuing their dreams as a hobby, or for the exposure. I'm not gonna say that all wannabe screenwriters are amateurs; the situation is far too complicated for that sort of elitism. But there is a divide between people making films for the studio system and on their own. Like small, private publishers bridge the chasm between publishing houses and self-published work, some small production companies are filling the gaps between the two.

JOE pauses as the montage disappears. We return to the Starbucks.

JOE:
(CONT'D)
But you asked how people writing screenplays and not selling them are paying the rent. Well, asking how the entire population of underemployed screenwriters makes money is a question that's hard to answer.

Yes, some screenwriters have day jobs as accountants and carpenters, undertakers and event planners. But others may be set designers or key grips, or they may work in some other aspect of the movie business.

Well, we're just about out of time. I hope we've managed to answer your question. Thanks for tuning in to Screenwriter's Corner, and I'll see you here next week.

JOE returns to his laptop.

FADE TO BLACK.

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Hi, I'm a Hollywood agent, and I'd love to buy the rights to this! But I'm thinking, it's a little talky. Can we add a love interest? And then maybe an old rival? You know, for a triangle. Can Joe have a crazy friend who keeps getting in the way with his crazy antics? And explosions. The overseas market loves explosions. Call me! –  Lauren Ipsum Jan 12 at 14:29
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you forgot the last line. MANAGER: Joe. (wryly) Get back to work. –  unsynchronized Apr 27 at 11:07
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