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Small gains for scribe set

2004 increase fails to keep pace with consumer price index

Hollywood writers saw slow growth in their paychecks last year, particularly in features, as 2004’s gain in overall earnings didn’t even match the 3.3% hike in the consumer price index.

The scribes saw earnings edge up 2.5% to $866.5 million, according to figures issued by the Writers Guild of America West in its annual report to its 8,000 members. Screen earnings posted a modest 1.1% gain to $435.2 million as DVD residuals flattened out while TV earnings increased 4% to $429.2 million; “other” earnings totaled $2.1 million.

Friday’s report, which was based only on guild-covered writing work and excludes money generated from producing, directing or acting, continues the trend of moderate gains in recent years. Last year’s 2.5% hike followed gains of 2.6% in 2003 and 3.7% in 2002, while 2001 saw earnings decline 0.8%.

Total employment in 2004 also showed little change with 35 more screenwriting jobs for a total of 1,825 and eight new slots in TV for a total of 3,225. The gain in the latter category came despite the loss of as many as 300 series jobs from the loss of 15 guild-covered series to reality TV — an area in which the WGA has been ramping up its organizing efforts — as other areas such as cable and primetime offset those losses.

TV more upbeat

The guild also issued an upbeat forecast for TV employment, asserting, “Early indications for the 2005-06 television season indicate that the number of WGA-covered series will rebound somewhat and that is expected to have a positive effect on employment in 2005.”

Report showed that residual payments to writers edged down 2% to $231.2 million in 2004 after a 15% gain in 2003 that had been fueled by a 48% jump to $49.7 million in DVD/video payments. DVD payments for 2004 edged up a mere 1% to $50.4 million in film although video/DVD/pay TV residuals from TV programs jumped 30% to 8.2 million.

The WGA had spent most of 2004 decrying the studios’ 20-year-old video/DVD formula, which allows exclusion of 80% of wholesale revenues from residuals calculations. But the Guild was unable to budge studios on the issue at the negotiating table.

The guild issued a lukewarm outlook for the DVD market in the report, noting that it appears to have leveled off domestically. “While DVD usage in the United States has matured, there is still growth to be found outside the U.S., but it will be slower growth than in the past few years,” the WGA said.

TV residuals to writers took an 8% hit to $100.7 million due mostly to a 13% decline in network and domestic syndication to $50.7 million. Foreign free TV also fell 13% to $18 million while basic cable residuals edged up 1% to $23.5 million.

Film residuals gained 5% overall to $120.2 million, thanks mostly to a 10% hike for TV fees to $34.3 million. Pay TV residuals edged up 3% to $34.3 million.

Writers’ royalties slid 8% to $7.6 million and other residuals fell 10% to $2.7 million.

Other highlights of the report:

  • The median salary for the 5,050 writers working last year was $98,049, up 0.6%; one in four topped $237,371; and the highest-paid 5% — a total of 252 — earned at least $685,000, a hike of 5.8% from 2003.
  • A quarter of the working writers earned less than $35,000.
  • The legal and claims department resolved 146 cases and collected $2.14 million for writers and $117,626 in damages for the guild.
  • There were 631 signatory companies at year end.
  • The WGA determined writing credits on 3,503 projects, including 260 features, with 141 subject to automatic arbitration. There were 64 arbitrations due to protests from participating writers.
  • The WGA West’s fiscal year ended March 31 with a surplus of $760,000. Revenues rose 5.4% to $21.3 million with the increase due to three sources — a 5% administrative/negotiating fee the guild collected on $8 million of foreign copyright royalties, renewal of a residual processing agreement with the WGA East, and $100,000 from studios and nets for a showrunner training program.
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