Money Money Money

As a junior in high school, I had my mandatory meeting with Mr. Workman, my guidance counselor, to have what was essentially the “what do I want to be when I grow up” conversation so he could direct me to an appropriate college.

When I told Mr. Workman that I wanted to be a TV writer, he made a valiant effort to choke back his surprise (in the 1970s, writing for television was not the popular career choice it is today), and said if I succeeded I’d make a lot of money but it was a very difficult profession to get into.

I had no idea you could make a lot of money writing for television. I simply wanted to write for TV no matter what it paid. Mr. Workman then recommended a small, liberal arts college with an excellent academic reputation (Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA where I spent four tumultuous years learning to grow up as well as write for TV in non-traditional ways).

When I eventually started to write as a professional TV writer I discovered Mr. Workman was right on both counts: it was hard to break in but once I did I could make a lot of money.

Let’s talk about the money.  If you’re hired to write an episode of a network primetime hour long drama today, you will make $13,948 for writing the story (outline). If the writer-producers then send you on to script (teleplay) you make an additional $22,997.

If you’re on staff, you will most likely get paid for story and teleplay without needing to get the okay to go to script. In that case you make a lump sum of $34,956 for each script you write. And staff writers tend to write anywhere from three to seven scripts per season. Depending on the number of guaranteed working weeks in your contract, you can make an additional $3,325-$4,244 per week. So, as a writer on a network primetime hour long series, you will easily make over $100,000 a year.

Employment on non-network shows is lower but still more than what most people in this country earn in a year. For a complete list of minimum salaries writers make in any area of Guild-covered writing, check the Writers Guild web site (www.wga.org) and click on Schedule of Minimums.

When you’re a staff writer on a show, you think you’ll be making this money forever. And some writers will. They’ll rise through the ranks, become showrunners, develop a reputation of being a successful writer-producers and spend the majority of  their years working. But the sad truth is most writers don’t have a multi-decade career or make the big bucks forever. Unfortunately, they don’t understand that and spend the money as if they’ll be making those six figure salaries forever.

If you’re one of the fortunate few who has gotten on staff and started receiving those amazing paychecks, save your money. I’m not saying don’t buy that Beamer you’ve had your eye on, or the two-story Colonial dream house south of Ventura Blvd.  But don’t spend every dollar of your paycheck. Set some aside for that day when the jobs dry up and your agent stops calling you. Give yourself a cushion so that when you find yourself unemployed (temporarily, I hope) you don’t have sell your house or become a barista at Starbucks. Be financially comfortable enough so you can write a new project that will get you noticed again.

My mother jokes that I always saved the first dollar I made from babysitting. She’s not wrong. During my bouts of unemployment, I wrote “Killer Ratings,” various spec pilots, one of which was bought by the Russians and actually produced. A couple of specs I wrote (a TV movie, a “Sex and the City” spec as well as that dramedy pilot the Russians bought) led to writing work on “Dallas” (the original), “Sunset Beach,” and “Hollywood Heights.”

I was able to to wrote those specs because I had saved my money and didn’t need to look for a non-writing job to pay the bills.  I hope you’ll do the same.

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