Writers pen record coin during 1996

Underscoring the strong demand for creative talent, writers earned a record $653 million in 1996, an increase of 12% over a year earlier, according to the latest report of the Writers Guild of America.

Earnings among scribes grew in almost every category, from television to film to interactive, and the year also saw another significant rise in median income among writers.

The earnings figures were included in a comprehensive annual report to guild members that was released Monday.

The year also saw record employment, with 4,042 members, or 51.5%, having jobs during the year. That is 3.7% more than a year earlier, and it tops a previous high mark set in 1990.

Television continued to provide the bulk of the writing jobs, about 50% more than those employed in screen jobs. But the guild said that the gap between TV and screen jobs is the lowest that it has been in the last five years.

In recent years the WGA has thrived in a bullish market for creative talent. And even though the market for spec scripts has languished, screen scribes continue to see record earnings.

“Screen is certainly the stronger area,” WGA member Charles Slocum said.

Screen earnings, in fact, once again outpaced returns for TV writers. Screenwriters posted $352.1 million in earnings, compared to $290.9 million for TV writers. The figures do not include non-writing earnings that TV writing staffers often earn in hyphenate jobs as producers or executive producers.

Meanwhile, the median earnings for scribes under guild contracts reached $84,608 during the year, up 12.1% from $75,473 in 1995. It is even more significant when compared to 1991, when writers posted median earnings of $56,500.

Unlike some previous years, writers at all income levels posted increased earnings. The guild said that the highest earners found slower growth in 1996 than those in middle and lower income categories.

Despite the record employment, the guild noted, the employment market is considered tight because of the influx of new writers into the industry. “At least 10% of the workforce is new to the industry each year,” the report said. The guild admitted 601 writers to some membership category in 1996. That tops the 573 admitted in the second-highest year, 1980.

Meanwhile, the guild processed $127.1 million in residuals in 1996, 9.9% more than the $115.7 million processed in 1995. TV program residuals grew at the fastest rate of 12.8%, to $70.5 million in 1996 from $62.5 million in 1995. Theatrical residuals grew by 5.2%, from $50.2 million in 1995 to $52.8 million in 1996.

Large increases were seen in domestic free TV reuse, where $46.2 million in residuals were collected. The 14.4% increase, the guild said, was due to the success of firstrun syndication series. In basic cable, $6.6 million was collected, a 29.4% increase driven by the rising value of reruns to basic cable channels. The size of the average residual payment increased from $615 in 1995 to $626 in 1996.

The improved earnings picture also showed in the guild’s revenue, with dues on writers’ earnings reaching $13.5 million, a 14% increase from the year earlier. The guild collected $3.4 million in other revenue.

Expenses of $15.2 million, meanwhile, reflected an increase 15.8% over a year earlier. The guild said that the increase was due to stepped up policing efforts to collect residuals, greater effort to public relations activity, and an increased participation in international alliances.

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