TV earnings up 10.1% while screen work continues to slide

Hollywood writer earnings rose 4% last year to $1.02 billion as a 10.1% surge in TV writing overcame a 6.1% decline in  feature film work, according to the Writers Guild of America West.

Total covered earnings for WGA West members topped $1 billion for the first time, the guild disclosed in its annual report to members Monday via its membership and finance committee chaired by Carl Gottlieb. But the feature film stats underline the troubling state of big-screen economics.

Total employment slid slightly by 1.1% to 4,510, a decline of 48 slots from the 2011 number. A total of 3,508 writers reported TV earnings, which amounted to $667.2 million.

Feature film employment slid 6.7% to 1,537 writers earning $343.4 million — the third straight year of declines as the six major studios focusing more of their resources on tentpoles while making fewer mid-budget features. Feature film earnings have plunged 35% since 2007 when pre-strike stockpiling generated $526.6 million in writer earnings.

The WGA West, which has about 8,000 members, reported that residuals surged 5.7% to $348.7 million with gains of 5.9% in TV to $201.9 million and 5.3% in features to $133.1 million.

But the five-year comparisons show that film has been flat while TV has been surging. Film residuals are up only 3.5% since 2007 and peaked in 2010 at $140.2 million; TV has gained 51% since 2007.

The WGA noted that the residuals growth in TV over 2011 included a notable hike in reuse in new media from $4.2 million to $11.3 million by such services as Netflix and Hulu.

Feature-film writers reported residual income of $133.1 million in 2012, up 5% from 2011 but down from the high-water mark of $140.1 million in 2010. TV and homevid revenues were flat but pay TV surged 9% and new media revenues more than doubled to $5.18 million.

The WGA West also said that late reports will boost the TV numbers and reduce the decline in feature film.

The new report also includes a bright 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 on operating revenues of $28.8 million for the fiscal year ended March 31.

“The surplus was the product of a 10.1% growth in total revenue, attributable to an overall increase in writer compensation, led by the television sector and investment gains generated from a strong equities market,” the report said.

Annual expenditures increased 4% to $24.3 million with higher staffing levels “within an overall contest of fiscal discipline.”

The committee also noted that the report contains a supplemental schedule summarizing the foreign levies program activities. It’s the second year in a row that the guild, which began distributing the funds in 1993, has made the foreign levies report to members.

The report provided no details about the class-action suit, filed in 2005 by William Richert (“Winter Kills”), which alleged that the guild had not properly handled the foreign funds due scribes as compensation for reuse. The consent decree, signed in June 2010, included an agreement by the WGA to use its “best efforts” to pay all foreign funds within three years.

The supplemental table said that the WGA collected $17.3 million in foreign levies during its fiscal year ended March 31 and generated $173,094 in interest from those funds with $901,815 in “administrative fees” for distributing the funds. The guild said it distributed $17.1 million in the fiscal year, bringing the total distributed since 1993 to $138.4 million.

The report from the finance committee reported that the WGA West was holding $19.6 million in “funds held in balance” without breaking out how much of that is from foreign levies. 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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