HOLLYWOOD — In 1997, the WGA West trumpeted the fact that screenwriter earnings had surged an astonishing 81% over the previous five years, to $365.5 million. This year, WGA West will not even issue an annual earnings report.

The closed-mouth policy is because screenwriter earnings edged up a mere 0.6% to $388 million between 1996 and 2001. The Guild admits that 2002 earnings were either flat or up slightly; thus, the org has decided to forego its usual practice of a June announcement of earnings figures for the previous year.

“We had to assess whether spending the money on compiling the statistics was the most effective use of our resources,” admits assistant exec director Cheryl Rhoden.

The WGAW reports contain the most detailed financial results of any guild, so the conclusion is inescapable: A-list writers get hired for potential home runs, and everyone else fights over what’s left.

“If a project is a high priority with a studio, they won’t spend less than $1 million on a writer; they need to do that in order to make sure that they also get top directors and actors,” an agent says.

“The most dangerous place to be is to have a quote of $400,000, because you’d better be someone who’s on the upswing at that point. Otherwise, the studios are going to take a chance on the $150,000 writer in the hope that he’ll be the next David Koepp or Akiva Goldsman.”

What went wrong for the other 1,800 or so screenwriters who manage to obtain a gig each year? The key factors:

  • Salaries for A-list actors and directors are escalating. That means less money for others associated with the project, including writers.

  • Writers wind up working longer on a single script, often with seemingly endless rewrites and studio notes, even if he or she has been hired just to perform a single draft.

  • The trend to co-finance projects leads to writers serving many masters, often with conflicting visions. And most writers shy away from disputes out of fear of being labeled a malcontent and never working again at that studio.

  • The once-booming market for spec scripts has cooled.

  • Competition has increased. The WGA West is on track to register as many as 50,000 properties this year, up more than 10,000 from the usual level. The pervasiveness of screenwriting software and instruction in the craft mean more new writers are pounding out specs every day.

If it’s any consolation, scribes for bigscreen works should know that they’re not alone. The WGAW shows that TV earnings climbed 47% between 1994 and 1998 to $354.7 million; earnings for TV writers over the next three years inched up a pedestrian 5%, to $373.7 million.

Those numbers, however, do not include payment for non-writing TV jobs such as producing and exec producing.