H’w’d tightens its belt

Cost-cutters clobber scribes, producers

Sure, glitz and glamour figure in, but the biggest lure bringing people to Hollywood has always been money. Big Bucks.

Now for the bad news: The Big Bucks are starting to fade. Except for superstars, salaries across the board are tilting downward. Hollywood’s corporate bean-counters are taking their toll.

TV’s tribe of scribes and showrunners are a prime example. Writers still reign as the kings of television, but their salaries have become a lot less princely.

There’s still money to be made in TV — just ask Dick Wolf, David E. Kelley or even newbie Shawn Ryan, who this month landed a sweet, $6 million payday at FX thanks to his cop thriller “The Shield.”

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.

It’s now a buyer’s business, with dealmaking leverage moving more and more into the studios’ corner in recent years.

“What’s happening with writers is the same thing that’s happening in the rest of the TV business,” says one production executive. “It’s harder than ever to get filthy rich as a writer. And it’s harder than ever to get into the club of superstars.”

Network and studio execs retort that they’re just not able to support writers the way they used to, given smaller foreign and domestic backends, as well as fewer chances to recoup all of your costs as repeats are replaced by reality.

Still everyone agrees on one point: We’ve entered an era of more belt-tightening.

Consider what scribes were up against this month as the studios rushed to fill the writing gigs on their series — 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.

    Aside from that trauma for showrunners, other writers aren’t seeing anything close to the kind of paychecks they once did, according to Variety research.

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

    “There are all sorts of cases of writers who had $50,000 quotes who are now going to be making $30,000,” one tenpercenter says, 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.”

  • Nickel-and-diming on deals has become more common. 20th Century Fox TV, for example, recently began making staff scribes contribute what amounts to one free script each year; writers traditionally got paid extra every time they wrote a script.

  • The rise of nonwriting exec producers has taken a noticeable chunk out of writing budgets for most shows; it’s also reduced the potential backend coin earned by showrunners.

    “Nonwriting producers can be beneficial because they attract certain acting and directing talent, and that can help get a show on the air or in a better timeslot,” says one industry vet. “The downside is it puts more of a squeeze on the backend and adds another layer of costs to the budget. That gets passed down to the writers.”

  • 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,” says 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 Variety there are more comedies than last year,” he says. He worries that some studios 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 are now 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.

“The studios have great writers, but they want them to develop shows in the four minutes they have free,” one agent fumes. “They’re being shortsighted.”

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 the businesses they are every day — which means penny-pinchers like Viacom’s Mel Karmazin and Disney’s Michael Eisner aren’t going to stand for big-bucks deals anymore 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, according to Moonves, international and syndication riches aren’t what they used to be, leaving less money to invest in new writers.

“Things are changing overall because the economics overall are different from what they used to be,” Moonves says.

“That all derives from end use. 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.”

Indeed, with News Corp. and Tribune dominating the station landscape, there are simply fewer available buyers and less room for mediocre product. So while a red-hot laffer will no doubt still fetch a tidy sum, marginal hits such as “Becker” could be lucky to break even.

“Agents need to do a better job of educating their clients about how much the business is changing with syndication,” says one studio exec. “You’re going to see a lot more haves and have nots (with backend coin.)”

Universal TV Group prexy David Kissinger, meanwhile, disputes the notion that writers are experiencing fewer zeros in their paychecks, arguing that fees for writers haven’t changed dramatically.

“I’m actually stunned that we’re still being forced to pay the kind of fees that we’re forced to pay,” Kissinger says. “Whatever sobriety and determination there was to approach production in a more financially responsible way has gone out the window.”

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

Now that the ad market is healthy again, some scribes and agents are wondering why the coin’s not flowing again. Execs say it’s foolish to assume that one or two good years of ad revenue can erase the fundamental changes to the network TV biz.

“The network divisions are making less money now than they were 15 years ago,” says one senior studio exec. “Above-the-line costs are still astronomical. And people who think it’s the way of the world to always have a $9 billion upfront may be making a mistake.

“I don’t think this is about networks being greedy.”

And some scribes are hopeful.

Having worked in everything from sketch comedy to hour-long drama in her 15-year career, “The District” exec producer Pam Veasey says she’s learned by now that everything’s 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 fuels that powers so much of Hollywood, it’s no surprise that some agents and scribes believe economics isn’t the only explanation for the current plight of small-screen writers.

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

Studios and nets, one agent believes, “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.”