WGA West Annual Report Shows "Golden Age of TV" Continues for Writers (Analysis)

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TV employment, earnings and residuals are up while screen figures, after tumbling post-strike, show slow growth at best.

The WGA West’s latest annual report, released Tuesday, provides continued good news for television writers, along with a smidgen of hope for feature writers as well — but an analysis by The Hollywood Reporter of almost a quarter-century's worth of WGAW data underscores just how completely the 1990s surge of independent cinema has transformed into a new golden age of television

From 1992 through 2006, aggregate TV and theatrical earnings for the WGAW’s members were roughly equal. That changed after the 2007-08 WGA strike, and THR’s review shows that the two industries have trod very different paths since then. Aggregate TV earnings have nearly doubled since the walkout, rising from $462.5 million in 2008 to a THR-estimated $859 million last year. Meanwhile, theatrical earnings, which spiked to $526.6 million in 2007 as studios stockpiled in advance of the strike and slumped to $375.1 the year after, trended slowly down for several years and have gradually increased since 2012 — but at $387.4 million (THR est.) last year, they have never fully recovered.

THR’s 2015 earnings and employment figures include an addition of 7 percent to the WGAW’s figures, as an estimate to account for adjustments that the guild is expected to make when they restate the 2015 figures next year, following the union’s historical practice in adjusting for late-arriving data.

Total covered earnings, at a reported $1.176 billion in 2015, were notionally down 0.9 percent, but it’s more likely that figures will show an increase of about 10 percent when late-arriving data is eventually factored in. As an apples-to-apples comparison, this year’s reported figure for 2015 is 12 percent higher than the 2014 figure reported last year.

The guild’s employment numbers show a similar pattern as the earnings figures, with TV employment surging almost 50 percent from 2008, when about 3,120 members reported TV earnings, to 2015, when an estimated 4,420 did, meaning that over half the guild’s approximately 8,000 members performed at least some TV work last year. Theatrical employment, which hit a high of over 2,040 members in 2007, fell to about 1,660 in 2012, before recovering some lost ground to end at about 1,920 in 2015.

The WGA West earnings figures exclude residuals, which are tabulated separately. But the picture is similar there, too: Residuals for reuse of TV product grew 50 percent from 2010 ($174 million) to 2015 ($262 million), but theatrical residuals actually declined about 3 percent ($142 million to $138 million) over the same period as viewers shifted their attention to TV offerings.

New media reuse of TV product, which grew 13 percent to $25.4 million, overshadowed primetime network reuse ($19.4 million, down 12.5 percent) and is increasing at a rate that suggests it could equal or exceed basic cable syndication next year. New media reuse of theatrical product grew 22 percent to $13.9 million, but still falls short of physical home video, which at $22.9 million (down 14.4 percent) is at less than half of the $50 million figure achieved annually in the videocassette and DVD heyday that lasted from the late 1990s through the mid-2000s.

Aggregate residuals were up 3.4 percent, to about $400 million, with total new media residuals representing about 10 percent of that total.

Comparing the TV and screen worlds again, average individual earning figures paint a dramatic picture as well: An earnings gap of roughly $100,000 per year favored screenwriters over their TV colleagues for much of the 1990s and 2000s, but no more. Either TV writing salaries have been bid up, or TV writers are writing more in a year or both. It's impossible to say which from the reported figures, but in any case, the screen figures in recent years have moved in the opposite direction, and as a result the average amount earned per year for a writer working in TV is just a few thousand dollars shy of the average for a screenwriter, with both at about the $200,000 mark.

That factoid should be taken as illustrative, not as an indication that the typical working writer makes $200,000 per year. Some writers work in both film and TV in a given year. Also, arithmetic averages can be distorted by extremes, such as the presence of highly paid showrunners or star screenwriters, or the inclusion of writers who made only a few tens of thousands of dollars in a given year because they worked only on a polish, for instance.

The WGA West’s figures don’t include WGA East data. Although they negotiate many major contracts together, the two guilds are legally separate unions and the WGAE, like the DGA and SAG-AFTRA, does not release detailed earnings and employment reports. The WGAE is half the size of the WGAW, and its proportion of screen and scripted television work is assumed by observers to be somewhat less than that, in light of the concentration of scripted entertainment writing in Los Angeles.

Read the WGAW report here.

 

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