The highest paid screenwriters make their money from a variety of`sources including not just screenwriting but creating, producing and directing. Writers involved in a movie franchise might earn additional money through merchandising. Additionally, television, movie franchises and single scripts all are different categories of screenwriting and should be considered separately in terms of earnings.
Types of Screenwriters
Different types of screenwriters exist. Many write on assignment. This means that companies hire them for a particular job. For example, "Pirates of the Caribbean" was a franchise effort by Disney that involved movies and Disney park rides. The company hired writers to write this specific film. Some movies are sold on spec, which means that the writers come up with an idea themselves and write the entire movie before selling the script. Screenwriters with a good reputation can often get more money for their spec work. Finally, television writers are usually hired by a TV show to write one or two complete episodes of a show and work on ideas for the rest of the season's episodes. Creators of a TV series who also write for the show are the highest earners in television writing.
Highest Grossing Screenwriters
The top grossing screenwriters of all time have usually earned so much money not simply because of their screenplays but because of the movie franchise they've created. Often, such screenwriters have earned money mixed up with other factors besides writing -- such as producing, directing or merchandising. The highest grossing screenwriter today is George Lucas, writer of "Star Wars" and its may prequels and sequels. He's earned more than $3 billion. Rounding out the top five are screenwriters earning around $2 billion: Terry Rossio and Terry Elliot for "Pirates of the Caribbean," David Koepp for "Spider-Man" and James Cameron for movies such as "Avatar" and "Titanic."
Highest Paid Spec Script Writers
Spec scripts are sold based on the script itself, meaning no one's hired the writer to write on a particular subject. Instead, the writer writes a screenplay and then tries to sell it. Terry Rossio and Bill Marsilii are the top paid writers for a single spec script, having earned $5 million for the 2006 movie "Deja Vu," starring Denzel Washington. Since two writers split the money for "Deja Vu," the highest paid single spec script writer is Shane Black for the 2006 cop movie "The Long Kiss Goodnight," starring Samuel Jackson and Geena Davis. Black is also known for writing the "Lethal Weapon" movies. Rounding out the top five are David Koepp for "Panic Room," Will Ferrell and Adam McKay for "Talladega Nights" and Joe Eszterhas for "Basic Instinct."
Highest Paid TV Writers
The top-paid screenwriter in television is Seth MacFarlane. He created, writes and produces "Family Guy," so like other top-paid screenwriters, he gets income not just from writing. Before Seth MacFarlane topped the list, J.J. Abrams, creator of hit shows such as "Felicity," "Lost" and "Alias," was the top-paid TV writer for a deal with Warner Brothers and Paramount involving both television and film.
- Pajiba.com: The 20 Highest Grossing Screenwriters of All Time
- Listverse.com: Top 10 Heighest Paid Screenwriters
- Vanity Fair: Will the Spec Script Rise Again?
- HuffPost TV: JJ Abrams Signs $60 Million Deal with Warner Bros and Paramount
- Fast Company: Seth MacFarlane's $2 billion Family Guy Empire
- Writer's Digest: Reader Question -- How Are TV Writers Paid?
Paige Johansen has been writing professionally since 2003. She holds a B.A. in psychology and English from Cornell University and an M.F.A. in fiction writing from The University of Virginia. Between degrees, she worked in the fashion industry for two years.