WGA reports uptick in earnings for 2009

Hollywood scribes saw a 12% rebound in earnings last year — recovering much of the 15.4% financial hit that they took in 2008 from the double whammy of the recession and the 100-day strike.

The Writers Guild of America West, which sent its annual report to its 8,000 members this week, disclosed that total earnings covered by WGA contracts hit $931.4 million in 2009, up $100 million from 2008. That gain, the report noted, was fueled largely by “strong” earnings by TV writers.

Despite the salary increases, the number of writers employed declined last year by 11 slots to 4,328. And guild leadership took pains to point out that the number of writers getting paychecks has declined by 4.7% from 4,542 in 2006 — the most recent pre-strike year.

“While earnings have rebounded, the impact of macro-economic pressures is reflected in the number of writers reporting earnings,” noted the report, which is traditionally released in the mid-summer.

TV earnings set a record with 10.1% rise to $502.4 million — $31 million above the record set in 2006 — but small-screen employment gained only 27 slots to 3,094 last year. And the number of employed writers was down by 241 from the record of 3,335 in 2007 when pre-strike stockpiling drove hiring.

Feature film earnings rebounded 14.5% to $426.4 million in 2009, recovering about half of the steep 29% plunge in 2008. Studio stockpiling had lifted feature earnings in 2007 by 20.5% to a record $525.4 million.

The WGA also disclosed that residuals edged down 0.7% last year, or less than $2 million, to $286 million. TV residuals rose 2.8% to $141.5 million and screen residuals slid 3.3% to $133.3 million.

New media residuals — one of the key WGA strike issues — jumped from $100,000 in 2008 to $2.1 million for TV last year, including some delinquent payments. New media residuals for film went from a negligible amount in 2008 to $690,000 last year.

In the report, guild leaders touted the gains in the template for new media compensation contained in the agreement with employers that settled the strike, which lasted from Nov. 5, 2007 to Feb. 12, 2008.

“New media remains in its financial infancy with new media residuals representing approximately 1% of traditional,” the report said. “People are watching more television than ever before but the online video market continues to grow rapidly. The formulae established in the 2008 minimum basic agreement provide strong protections for writers as the industry evolves toward an inevitable digital distribution model.”

The new report also includes a brightened picture of the WGA West’s financial outlook from the guild’s membership and finance committee, noting that it had an operating surplus of $4.5 million for the fiscal year ended March 31 — “which partially offset the deficits incurred in the last two fiscal years as a result of the 2007-08 strike and the world financial crisis.”

The committee said the surplus was primarily due to three factors — a 12% gain in earnings, investment gains in the recovering equities market and cost containment measure by guild management as expenditures slid from $26 million to $22.5 million due to reduced payroll. The WGA West cut about 20 slots from its staff in the spring of 2009.

The report also includes disclosure of $30.3 million in “funds held in trust for members” including foreign levies, client trust accounts, undeliverable funds and a residuals trust fund. That’s the same figure as in last year’s report but the WGA did not break out the amount of foreign levies accrued under a system in which the guild collects funds paid under foreign laws to authors of copyrighted works.

The WGA recently reached a class-action settlement on a 2005 suit by William Richert (“Winter Kills”), which alleged that the guild had not properly handled the foreign funds due scribes as compensation for reuse. A state court judge finalized the consent decree last month which included the promise that the jurist will closely monitor how those funds are distributed.

In the consent decree, the WGA’s agreed to use its “best efforts” to pay all the foreign funds within three years.The foreign levies for U.S. creatives began to flow after the U.S. agreement in 1989 to terms of the Berne Convention, which establishes the right of authorship for individuals who create works of art.

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