Despite streaming boom, median writer pay has fallen in last decade, WGA report says
The Writers Guild of America has released data showing how streaming has depressed Hollywood writers’ pay over the last decade.
The union found half of all TV series writers were paid the basic minimum rate under the union’s contract. That is up from 33% in 2013-14.
The percentage of showrunners working at the contract minimum is 24%, up 22 percentage points from a decade ago.
The Writers Guild of America has asked its members to vote on a list of key proposals that will guide negotiations with the major studios in the spring.
And the median weekly pay for writer-producers declined 23% over the period when adjusting for inflation, the union said.
“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 WGA said in its report released Tuesday. “On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience. And while series budgets have soared over the past decade, median writer-producer pay has fallen.”
The data paints a bleak picture for TV and film writers in the entertainment industry as the union readies for contentious negotiations over a new contract to replace one that expires May 1. Talks between the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers and the WGA start on Monday.
The union hopes the data will bolster its argument in bargaining that writers deserve a boost in compensation as new technologies dramatically change how entertainment is consumed.
“The companies have leveraged the streaming transition to underpay writers, creating more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work,” the union said.
The WGA also analyzed the impact of streaming companies’ practice of ordering shorter series. In addition to falling weekly play, most writers on streaming shows are earning less per season because of the shorter work periods, it said.
Traditionally, broadcast networks ordered around 20 episodes that would be worked on over 10 months. Increasingly, studios focused on streaming short-order series with eight to 10 episodes.
Now lower and mid-level writers on a streaming series tend to work 20-24 weeks or only 14 weeks if the writers room is started before the show is greenlit.
Despite the shorter seasons, showrunners are typically still working the same period of time they did in broadcast TV, which the WGA said reflected the true length of time required to complete a series. Over 40% of showrunners on streaming shows reported working over a year on their most recent season.
In 2017, the union addressed the problem of the dilution of writer pay through a practice known as span protection. This ensures that if a writer works more than 2.4 weeks per episode, then they have to be paid more. The protection, however, is still subject to exceptions and caps. The union found 40% of more senior writers (executive producers and showrunners) on short series were left without that protection.
Writers meet today to discuss the issues they expect will be at the center of difficult contract negotiations with the studios this spring.
Additionally, the WGA found that writers working in the comedy-variety genre for streaming services do not have the same protection of minimum pay afforded to most live action TV and film writers.
Screenwriter compensation also has stagnated for four years as studios have released fewer films and box office attendance has faced long-term declines. When accounting for inflation, screenwriter pay declined 14% in the last five years, the report said.
The collapse of DVD sales prompted studios to focus on big budget franchise films, which led to a depression in employment for screenwriters from 2008 to 2015, the WGA said, adding that there is more uncertainty over contracts for film writers.
Screenwriters earning less than $150,000 for a first draft of a script worked 50% longer than those earning more, illustrating how newer writers were subject to producer demands for free work, according to the report.
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