WGA West Earnings, Residuals Hit New Highs, Total $1.8 Billion

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But the guild cautions that the rosy figures hide “downward pressure” on writer-producers’ fees.

The Writers Guild of America West’s members are rolling in clover, it would seem, with the guild’s latest annual report reflecting a reported aggregate of about $1.4 billion in earnings plus $431 million in residuals. But the drivers behind those record-high fiscal year 2017 numbers are complex, and some details are unknown.

The earnings numbers for television and digital platforms like Netflix grew to $976 million, or up only 1.4 percent from the previous fiscal year, which is below the rate of inflation and roughly reflects the contractual increase in minimum scale that the guild achieved in its last negotiations. (The fiscal year 2017 began April 1, 2017, and roughly coincides with the first year of the new contract, which began May 2, 2017.)

Even the weakness of that increase fails, the guild said, to “reflect downward pressure on writers’ overscale income as a result of the growth of short season orders and other changes in the television and digital media industry.” Translation: showrunners and other writer-producers only report their writing income at minimum, scale levels, so the reported figures obscure downward pressure on writer-producers’ total earnings.

Meanwhile, theatrical earnings rose a healthy 6.1 percent to $421 million. The reasons were unexplained.

The number of writers reporting earnings in any medium was up 1.8 percent to 5,819 (roughly two-thirds of the union’s active membership), while writers reporting TV/digital earnings was down 0.3 percent to 4,670 and theatrical earners were up 3.9 percent to 1,940. (Those numbers imply that about 800 writers earned in both mediums.)

When it comes to residuals, the cause-effect picture is clearer: new media reuse is powering reuse payments to new highs. Total television residuals grew 12.4 percent to $278 million, with reuse in new media now constituting the biggest chunk, at $64 million — a 56.9 percent increase in just one year, and almost quintuple the figure from five years earlier, $13 million.

Likewise, in theatrical residuals — where total residuals grew 10.7 percent to $153 million — new media residuals were up 50.9 percent, hitting $32 million, almost quadruple the $9 million 2012 figure, and constituting the third-highest category, after pay TV ($53 million) and worldwide television ($45 million) (a bucket that appears to encompass both broadcast television and basic cable). But those latter two categories are both growing at minimal rates and are likely to be eclipsed by new media within a year or two if present trends hold.

To no one’s surprise, residuals from physical home video continued to plummet for both movies and television shows. These days, about the only discs in sight — at least in Los Angeles — are Academy screeners. For everyone else, there’s Netflix, HBO Go, DirecTV Now and all the rest. As usual, Shakespeare said it best: all the world’s an app. And the residual figures bear that out.

Read the 2018 WGA Annual Report here.

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