Saying that “writers are not keeping up,” the WGA said today that its upcoming negotiations for a new film and TV contract “must significantly address writer compensation.” The talks are set to begin March 20, and the current contract expires May 1.
Based on today’s bulletin – the third this month – the WGA is not seeking a mere adjustment in the way writers are paid but a complete overhaul of the pay scales it had bargained for with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers in recent years.
“Driven in large part by the shift to streaming, writers are finding their work devalued in every part of the business,” the guild said. “While company profits have remained high and spending on content has grown, writers are falling behind.
“The companies have used the transition to streaming to cut writer pay and separate writing from production, worsening working conditions for series writers at all levels,” the WGA added. “On TV staffs, more writers are working at minimum regardless of experience, often for fewer weeks, or in mini-rooms, while showrunners are left without a writing staff to complete the season. And while series budgets have soared over the past decade, median writer-producer pay has fallen.”
For feature film writers, the guild said, the collapse of the DVD market “drove the studios to focus on tentpole features, depressing employment for screenwriters in the period 2008 to 2015. Streaming has increased demand for feature-length films, with movies now a key part of streamers’ original content lineup, but the variety of release strategies has created uncertainty about the contract terms applicable to writers on these projects.”
The guild’s research shows that “writers earning less than $150,000 for a first draft work 50% longer than writers earning above that threshold, as lower-paid or newer screenwriters can be uniquely vulnerable to producers’ demands for free work. Many writers are also employed on one-step deals, guaranteed only a single draft, but subject to endless demands for free rewrites. These demands contribute to lengthy employment periods, as writers who are still owed 50% of their fee on delivery may be hesitant to refuse requests for more changes.
“In this context, screen minimums are far too low. The current minimum for a first draft non-original screenplay is just $60,932, which is 1.2% of the minimum budget threshold of $5 million – or 0.3% of a still-modest $20 million budget.”
For screenwriters, compensation has “stagnated over the past four years,” the guild said. “Their pay is often stretched out over many months and can be held hostage by producers’ demands for free work.” This is particularly the case for screenwriters working at or near the guild’s minimums. These conditions are untenable.”
On the TV side, the median weekly pay, in real dollars, for episodic writer-producers “has declined 4% over the last decade,” the guild said. “Adjusting for inflation, the decline is 23%. In addition to falling weekly pay, most writers on streaming shows are earning less per season because of shorter work periods.”
The guild notes that “with the rising dominance of streaming – where 50% of series writers now work – short orders, the separation of writing and production, and the lack of a season calendar have depressed writer pay. At every job title, more writers work at MBA (Minimum Basic Agreement) minimum now than a decade ago. In the 2013-14 season, 33% of all TV series writers were paid minimum; now (almost) 50% are working at minimum. Increasing numbers of seasoned writers, including showrunners, are now paid no over-scale premium for their years of experience.”
The guild’s data shows that only 2% of episodic showrunners and executive producers were working at the guild’s minimums in 2013-14, but by 2021-22, that figure had ballooned to 24% and 19%, respectively.
According to the guild, the new “typical” employment period for lower- and mid-level writers on a streaming series is 20-24 weeks, “or only 14 weeks if the room is convened without a series order – i.e., a pre-greenlight room. Showrunners, on the other hand, are working almost the same number of weeks in streaming as they do in broadcast, reflecting the true length of time these series take to complete.”
The guild said that “more than 40% of showrunners working on streaming series reported working for over 52 weeks on their most recent season.”
Showrunners, executive producers and co-executive producers on streaming series “also earn much less on a weekly basis than their peers on broadcast series,” the guild said. “Median weekly pay for showrunners on streaming series is 46% lower than for showrunners on broadcast shows.”
Writers of streaming comedy-variety shows are also getting left behind. “In comedy-variety, writers working for streaming services – which are now the largest platforms for entertainment content – lack the most basic protection of MBA minimums,” the guild said. “In 2015, Netflix expanded its original content production to include comedy-variety and talk shows with the launch of With Bob and David. Other streamers followed, and since then more than two dozen comedy-variety and talk series have been made for streaming services, employing several hundred writers. Series like The Amber Ruffin Show on Peacock and The Problem with Jon Stewart on Apple use the same formats, and draw from the same workforce, as Jimmy Kimmel Live on ABC or The Daily Show on Comedy Central.
“But the companies have refused basic MBA protections – minimums for scripts and weeklies – for comedy-variety writers when they work on streaming series, even though episodic writers working for the same companies have those minimum standards. Under the current MBA, compensation for writers on streaming comedy-variety series is entirely negotiable. Unsurprisingly, the amounts paid to these streaming writers are often lower than those paid to their peers.”
The existing contract’s “span” provision, which is supposed to protect over-scale pay for TV writers, is another major issue that the guild wants to address. “Since 2017, the MBA’s span provision has offered some protection against the erosion of over-scale pay for qualifying writer-producers on short-order series. Span protection limits the period of time covered by a writer-producer’s episodic fee to 2.4 weeks of work. If a writer-producer works longer than 2.4 weeks, multiplied by the number of episodes (e.g., 24 weeks for a 10-episode order), additional compensation is due. However, this protection is limited to writer-producers earning under $400,000 on broadcast, pay TV, or HBSVOD short-order series, or $375,000 for writer-producers working on basic cable short-order series – leaving many upper-level writers unprotected.”
According to the guild, 40% of co-executive producers, executive producers and showrunners on short-order episodic series – are left without span protection because they earn over the MBA threshold. With long production schedules, these writers find their episodic fees amount to little more than weekly scale when stretched over so many weeks. Without span protection, their median weekly pay is nearly 50% lower than it would be if their episodic fee only covered 2.4 weeks of work.”
In conclusion, the bulletin says that “the companies have leveraged the streaming transition to underpay writers, creating more precarious, lower-paid models for writers’ work.”