This is a typical deal that a studio will make with a writer for a TV series where the pilot script has yet to be written… especially if you’re an unestablished writer. The writer is typically engaged to perform the initial step of writing a pilot script, and from there the studio is given the option to further engage the writer to render additional services on the pilot episode and/or series both from a writing and producing capacity. The studio can stop the process of development with that writer at any time. This is a way for the studio to hedge their risk when they’re developing a TV series for a network. If the studio is unhappy with the script, they can cut their losses early having only committed to the fee for the pilot. Here are the main elements to a one-off deal:
1) Pilot Script Fee – A fee the writer collects for writing the pilot script. Under the WGA Agreement, union minimum (or ‘scale’) for this is approximately $30K for a half hour script and $43K for a sixty-minute script. The studio is entitled to a story, first draft and final draft of the script. Sometimes the studio will bargain for a story, first draft, two sets of a revisions and a polish. If you are an established TV writer, script fees can surpass $250K. This is the only money that the writer is guaranteed to receive under the ‘one-off’ deal.
2) Pilot Producing Service Fee: This fee is implemented in the event that the script is well received and the pilot episode is greenlighted to production. In many cases, the studio will guarantee the writer employment as an ‘executive producer’ of the pilot episode at a negotiated fee. Other times (for example, if the pilot writer is not an established television writer or show-runner), the studio might agree to attach the writer to the project at a lower level, such as a consulting or supervising producer. Your ability to negotiate this as a writer is solely based on your experience. The WGA does not govern producing fees, as such services are not deemed to constitute writing. The fees for such producing services can range anywhere from $15,000 to $150,000.
3) Series Compensation – If the pilot is picked up by the network (i.e., subsequent episodes are ordered to production), the studio can choose to exercise its option to engage the writer as some type of producer on the series. This is typically lower than the pilot- producing fee.
A major component to this deal point is the length of time that that the pilot writer (or ‘series creator’) will be ‘locked’ or attached to the series, thereby continuing to receive screen credit and a fee. A studio will usually agree to lock the writer/creator to the series for at least one year, and in many cases two years. Again, this depends largely on the writer’s status in the television business. Top writer/producers might be guaranteed an executive producer fee and credit for the duration of the series. A writer/creator might also be guaranteed to be paid to write a specified number of episodic scripts during each season of the series.
A writer may also negotiate for a ‘series sales bonus’ – a sum of money payable as a bonus if and when the network picks the show up to series. While the dollar amount of a series sales bonus will vary and is subject to negotiation, it is fairly standard today for a series sales bonus of $25,000 to be granted in the event the writer receives sole ‘written by’ credit on the pilot and sole ‘created by’ credit on the series.
Finally, the WGA Agreement requires that the writer who has the ‘created by’ credit on a series receive a royalty for each episode of the series that is produced beyond the pilot. The current WGA minimum royalty for network prime-time programming is approximately $1,000 per episode. For established writers, this fee can be as high as $8,000 per episode.