Hollywood screenwriter earnings slid 5.4% last year to $313.9 million — the fifth straight year of decline — while TV writing earnings rose 2.3% to $725.6 million, according to the Writers Guild of America West.
Total covered earnings for WGA West members topped $1 billion for the third consecutive year, edging down 0.2% to $1.053 billion, the guild disclosed in its annual report to members via its membership and finance committee chaired by Carl Gottlieb.
But the stats in the report — which began hitting member mailboxes in recent days — underscore the uncertain state of show business economics.
Total employment slid slightly by 0.9% to 4,745, a decline of 43 slots from the 2013 number. The WGA said that late reports in coming months will likely result in a slight increase in employment levels and earnings.
A total of 3,888 writers reported TV earnings, a gain of 39 slots. Feature film employment fell 5.6% to 1,556 writers, or 96 fewer than in 2013 — the fifth straight year of decline in that category as the six major studios focused more of their resources on tentpoles while making fewer mid-budget features.
Feature film earnings have plunged nearly 30% since 2009, when work rebounded from the 2007-08 strike and generated $432.2 million in earnings. Pre-strike stockpiling in 2007 had pushed screenwriting earnings to $526.6 million.
Earnings in the category of news, promotion, informational and interactive programming were flat at $13.1 million with 185 writers employed.
The WGA West, which has about 8,000 members, reported that residuals surged 2.5% to a record high of $383.7 million with gains of 4.8% in TV to $245.4 million while sliding 1.5% in features to $138.3 million.
But the five-year comparisons show that film has been flat while TV has been surging. Film residuals are up 2.8% since 2009 while TV has gained 60.4% since 2008.
Residuals from new media — a flash point for the 100-day strike — have posted substantial gains since the work stoppage. New-media reuse of TV programming jumped 40.6% last year to $22.3 million while new-media reuse of films gained 21.6% to $11.4 million.
The report said that the guild’s residuals department collected $25.2 million last year in investigating non-payment or under-payment of residuals, down 17% from 2013. The guild’s legal department collected another $16.2 million last year, more than double the $6.2 million in 2013, in enforcement actions — mostly through filing of grievances and arbitrations.
The new report also includes a bright picture of the WGA West’s financial outlook from the membership and finance committee.
“This year’s report continues the positive trends recorded over the last half decade,” the cover letter said. “The guild remains financially strong, with growing revenues and a healthy operating surplus.”
The WGA West had an operating surplus of $4.5 million on operating revenues of $30 million for the fiscal year ended March 31.
“The surplus was the product of steady growth in writer compensation, led by the television and new-media sectors, and increased investment income,” the committee said.
Annual expenditures grew 6.7% to $25.5 million. “This modest increase was the result of routine maintenance and depreciation expenses, and increased expenditures releasted to the guild’s public policy program, particularly the successful campaigns in favor of strict net neutrality regulations and against the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger,” the committee said.
Net assets are nearly $50 million with the report noting that the guild owns its headquarters free of mortgage debt and has unused lines of credit totalling $15 million, according to the report, which added, “Our investments stand at $25.7 million, including a total of $16.6 million in our Strike and Good & Welfare Funds.”
The committee also noted that the report contains a supplemental schedule summarizing the foreign levies program activities. It’s the fourth 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 $15.9 million in foreign levies during its fiscal year ended March 31 and generated $110,301 in interest from those funds with $770,561 in “administrative fees” for distributing the funds. The guild said it distributed $14.6 million in the fiscal year, bringing the total distributed since 1993 to $166.3 million.
The report from the finance committee reported that the WGA West was holding $19.8 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.