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“Writers are falling behind” in the streaming era as “mini-rooms” and shorter TV seasons proliferate, the Writers Guild of America claims in a bulletin issued Tuesday, citing the union’s own data.
The report, published less than a week before the Guild is set to enter negotiations with the studios and streamers, paints a picture of a broad swath of writers seeing reduced compensation on film and TV projects even as television budgets in particular have risen during the SVOD era. “The companies have used the transition to streaming to cut writer pay and separate writing from production, worsening working conditions for series writers at all levels,” the guild states in the bulletin.
In episodic television series, writers are increasingly working for “guild minimums,” or the lowest rate that can be paid to a union member as defined by the WGA, the report claims. (Guild minimums range widely depending on the work assigned and platform, some examples being that the rate set for a story for a non-network primetime, high-budget show that’s 30 min. or less is $6,669, while the rate set for a network primetime story and teleplay for a show that’s 30 min. or less is $28,403.) While about 10 years ago, in the 2013-2014 television season, only 33 percent of all TV writers were paid minimum rates, in the 2021-2022 television season 49 percent were working for minimum rates, the Guild states.
The guild additionally finds that while lower-level writers (like staff writers and story editors) are largely being paid minimums, showrunners are increasingly being paid these rates as well (in 2013-2014, only 2 percent were paid minimums; in the 2021-2022 season, 24 percent were). “In real dollar terms, median weekly writer-producer pay has declined 4% over the last decade. Adjusting for inflation, the decline is 23%,” the guild states.
Aggravating these pay issues for lower-level writers is the shorter seasons that have become habitual on streaming shows. The median weeks worked in 2021-2022 on a streaming show were 20 weeks for staff writers, story editors and executive story editors, compared to 29, 35 and 40 weeks for those roles on network and CW shows, respectively.
Upper-level writers face a different compensation issue, according to the guild. Showrunners are working similar periods of time across streaming and network television (44 and 42.5 weeks, respectively); however, because writers that earn over $400,00 on most TV shows and $375,000 on basic cable short-order series do not enjoy “span protection” (a mechanism that shields writers who are paid episodically from seeing their compensation devalued by long work periods) under the WGA’s current contract, upper-level writers “find their episodic fees amount to little more than weekly scale when stretched over so many weeks.” According to the guild, 40 percent of showrunners, executive producers and co-executive producers on short-order TV series do not have span protection.
On the features side, the WGA raises the issue of writers’ commitment to companies being stretched out over long periods of time. The guild finds that while the median employment duration for a first draft for which the writer is paid over $150,000 is six months, that for a writer paid under $150,000 is nine months. “Writers earning less than $150,000 for a first draft work 50% longer than writers earning above that threshold, as lower-paid or newer screenwriters can be uniquely vulnerable to producers’ demands for free work,” the guild argues. When a writer signs a “one-step” deal (when they are paid only to produce one draft of a script), the guild argues they can be “subject to endless demands for free rewrites” and “frequently held hostage to requests for more unpaid revisions” when the entirety of their fee has yet to be paid out.
The Writers Guild is seeking various means of improving compensation for members in its upcoming negotiation, including by raising minimums, expanding “span protection” to higher-paid writers and requiring a minimum of two “steps” for a feature film deal. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter on Tuesday, Chris Keyser, co-chair of the WGA’s negotiating committee, said the union’s top priority in upcoming talks was “compensation, compensation, compensation.”
The guild will have its first bargaining session with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents studios and streamers, on March 20 ahead of its contract expiring May 1.
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