The Changing Economics of Hollywood Script Rewrites

Sacha Baron Cohen
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Studios seek cheaper help for last-minute doctoring as pay for top talent like Michael Arndt and Tina Fey tops $300,000 per week.

This story first appeared in the May 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Sacha Baron Cohen needed to tweak his script for the Paramount comedy The Dictator, he hosted several roundtables in an effort to draw inspiration. Writers received a mere $500 each to sit with Cohen for an hour and bounce ideas off the star. That's a far cry from the $250,000-a-week sum a studio might pay one of Hollywood's top-tier scribes for a production rewrite (punching up a greenlighted script typically is a three-week job). But as studios look to shave development costs, the writer roundtable is becoming more popular. "Roundtables have effectively destroyed the weekly rewrite business," bemoans one top lit agent. "One studio even tried to pay the writers nothing, but their legal department intervened."

Another agent, who reps many in-demand comedy rewriters, sees the silver lining in the phenomenon. "Is it exploitative?" the agent asks. "Nah. What young writer doesn't want to have an opportunity to forge a relationship with Sacha?"

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Studios typically have paid $500,000 to $1 million for a one-step rewrite from a top talent, an assignment that takes six to eight weeks. Midlevel writers earn $200,000 to $300,000 for a one-step, which gets a script into shape to be greenlighted or get actors on board. But that work also is being muscled out by the roundtable, where the going rate is $5,000 total, split among anywhere from four to 10 members.

Still, rewrite work remains plentiful for such top writers as Michael Arndt, Hamburg, Adam McKay and Fox -- and sometimes marquee names like Tina Fey -- who parachute in to fine-tune or overhaul a greenlighted film. Studios pay Arndt, the writer with the highest quote, north of $300,000 a week for last-minute revisions. "So few can deliver with this type of work," says one top studio exec. "Supply is few, and demand is high. So studios are trying to adhere very closely to established quotes."

It's nerve-racking work, but Hamburg, for one, finds the stress manageable: "I compartmentalize the stress of having an entire multimillion-dollar production waiting for me to churn pages out, turn them in and pray that they're decent."