Shrinking paydays for writers

Scribes face smaller fees, fewer jobs

For movie screenwriters and TV scribes, the Big Bucks are starting to dry up.

Except for Hollywood superstars, salaries across the board are tilting downward — so much so that the WGA West has just decided not to issue an annual earnings report.

In 1997, the WGA trumpeted the fact that screenwriter earnings had surged an astonishing 81% during the previous five years, to $366 million.

But screenwriter earnings edged up a mere 0.6% to $388 million between 1996 and 2001.

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

If it’s any consolation, scribes for bigscreen works are not alone: TV types are being hit just as hard.

The WGAW shows TV scribe earnings climbed 47% between 1994 and 1998 to $355 million; but earnings for TV writers over the next three years inched up a modest 5%, to $374 million.

There’s still money to be made in TV — just ask Dick Wolf, David E. Kelley or newbie Shawn Ryan, who just became a $6 million man at FX thanks to his cop series “The Shield.”

Harder times

But the vast middle class of writers — those who don’t have an “executive” before their “producer” credit — are no longer in the driver’s seat.

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

“The most dangerous place to be in the film biz is to have a quote of $400,000, because you’d better be on the upswing at that point,” says one production exec. “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.”

So 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Meanwhile, on the TV front, network and studio execs claim they’re just not able to support writers and series showrunners the way they used to, given smaller foreign and domestic backends, as well as fewer chances to recoup costs as repeats are replaced by reality.

Consider what TV scribes were up against this month as the studios rushed to fill the writing jobs on their series, in what’s commonly referred to as “staffing season.”

  • The average salary for a showrunner/exec producer ranges from $50,000 to $75,000 per episode, though there are now more pacts closer to $50,000 per seg than $75,000.

    The real difference: Five years ago, almost all showrunners earned an extra $2 million to $3 million per year to develop shows.

    “That gravy is gone,” says one agent.

  • Studios are frequently ignoring salary quotes, giving writers’ agents take-it-or-leave-it offers when negotiating staffing deals.

    “There are cases of writers who had $50,000 quotes who are now going to be making $30,000,” one tenpercenter said, noting that studios had almost all the leverage this staffing season.

    “The writer’s married, has a house and a couple of kids in private school — what’s he supposed to do? He takes the offer,” the agent said.

  • Nickel-and-diming on deals has become more common. Twentieth Century Fox TV, for example, recently began making staff scribes contribute what amounts to one script per year; writers traditionally got paid extra each time they wrote a script.

  • Many writing staffs have gotten smaller, leading to fewer overall jobs and more people competing for gigs. And when this season’s staffing frenzy was over, some writers got left out in the cold.

    “There are senior writers, people I’d hire in a second, who I know right now aren’t on shows because they didn’t get staffed,” said comedy scribe-producer Rich Appel (“A.U.S.A.”), one of the lucky few scribes with an overall deal.

    “It’s hard to believe, because you read in Daily Variety there are more comedies than last year,” Appel said. Some studios, he added, may not want to have writing staffs that are “top-heavy” with seasoned pros. “But sometimes that weight is a good thing, because it’s the weight of experience and talent.”

  • Writers who have signed development deals now are being required to earn every dollar by writing on one of their studio’s shows. Not long ago, those scribes were allowed to go off and simply come up with ideas for new shows.

As a result, a writer who made, say, $3 million to brainstorm at Starbucks back in 1999 now makes $1.5 million a year to churn out episodic scripts of shows he couldn’t care less about — and maybe create the next “Friends” in his spare time.

Poverty?

Networks and studios plead poverty as justification for their continued cutting — even though the webs just posted another record upfront advertising intake, adding more than $9 billion to their coffers.

So what gives?

Blame it on just about everything that’s happened to TV over the past decade.

Consolidation and deregulation have led to fewer companies producing most of primetime’s wares — giving writers fewer avenues to travel and creating less competition for their services.

Meanwhile, networks and studios operate less like dream factories and more like other businesses — which means penny-pinchers like Viacom’s Mel Karmazin and Disney’s Michael Eisner aren’t going to stand for big-bucks deals unless they can be justified.

“TV companies need to be run like businesses,” says CBS chairman-CEO Leslie Moonves. “There was a part of the old biz practice that got stagnant. I want people to be incentivized. You need people dreaming of the money that hit showmakers make.”

What’s more, Moonves said, international and syndication riches aren’t what they used to be, leaving less money to invest in new writers.

Tighter margins

“There isn’t the pot of gold like there used to be, starting with foreign money, but also domestically. The margins are much tighter, and people have to make right economic decisions,” he said.

In the wake of the networks’ depressed 2001 upfront ad tallies, the industry tightened belts and accelerated the move toward eliminating pricey overall TV deals.

However, now that the ad market is recovering, some scribes and agents are wondering why the coin’s not flowing again.

Having worked in everything from sketch comedy to hourlong drama in her 15-year career, “The District” exec producer Pam Veasey said she has learned by now that everything is cyclical.

“There’s always a place where they’re adjusting,” Veasey says. “I think we’ll come back to writers being appreciated.”

Still, given that paranoia is the fuel that powers so much of Hollywood, it’s no surprise that some agents and writers believe economics isn’t the only explanation for the current belt-tightening at the congloms.

Some are convinced execs are taking revenge for the excesses of the 1990s, when one agent said getting rich development pacts was like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

Studios and nets, the agent said, “feel like they were getting screwed for years, and now it’s their turn. There seems to be some malicious glee in getting back at us.”

(Josef Adalian and Michael Schneider contributed to this report.)

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