Friday, February 3, 2017

The Business of Screenwriting: Commencement of principal photography

There are several significant days in a screenwriter’s life.

There’s the phone call.

Your first big paycheck.

Your first day on a movie set.

The day your movie premieres.

Yes, those are some mighty fine days. And your own fantasies about breaking in as a screenwriter may well incorporate those moments, sun-dappled and dripping with promise.

Here’s another one to add to your list: Commencement of principal photography.

Doesn’t sound very sexy. Why is it such a big deal for a screenwriter? First let’s discuss what it means.

Commencement of principal photography is a term referring to the day upon which actual production of a movie begins. Sure, there will have been a ton of pre-production, oftentimes second unit work, but it’s not considered principal photography until the film’s director, actors and crew assemble to shoot the bulk of the movie.

Everything in pre-production is geared toward the commencement of principal photography. Think of it as a film production’s equivalent to our FADE IN.

The designation also has a legal implication. When a screenwriter signs a contract, their deal typically is broken down into a set of potential payments. For instance, commencement of first draft, delivery of first draft, commencement of rewrite, delivery of rewrite, polish, and so forth.

Most deals include what is known as a production bonus. That is if the project goes into production, the writer receives the money stipulated in the bonus.

Let’s say our screenwriter Sammy Glick sells a spec script. The deal he gets is a pricey one: $ 600,000 against $ 1,000,000. What that means is Sammy is guaranteed that $ 600K, whether the movie gets produced or not. If, however, the movie goes into production, that means he receives a production bonus on top of his guaranteed fee of $ 400K.

What triggers the payment of that production bonus? Why, none other than the commencement of principal photography.

Now do you see why this is a special day for a screenwriter?

As with all deals, there are wrinkles. For example, the production bonus is dependent upon the writer receiving writing credit. If Sammy gets sole “written by” credit, he receives 100% of the bonus. If he shares story credit with another writer, his bonus is reduced by half.

But the main point is this: The day your movie begins principal photography is the day you can start looking for a nice, big fat check to arrive from the studio.

Commencement of principal photography. Music to a screenwriter’s ears… and bank account!

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.


The Business of Screenwriting: Commencement of principal photography was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

The Business of Screenwriting: Commencement of principal photography

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