EntStrategyGuy Ruins Everything: Debunking 8 Myths About the WGA/AMPTP Negotiations

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

Over the last few weeks, the WGA leadership has been fairly consistent in their discussion about the dire state of screenwriting. Like, say, this:

I’ve also spoken to other writers who even though they sold a pilot and staffed on a show, they still filed for EBT that year in order to be able to feed their kids.

This isn’t close to true. And it’s not like it’s hard to fact check. For example, the WGA minimum for selling a pilot script is $30,000 and a pitch bible is $60,000. The minimum weekly salary for a writer-producer working on a TV show is $7,142 per week. Add it up, and a writer who sold and staffed a show for eight weeks would have made $163,000 that year.

And who qualifies for EBT benefits in California? Those earning less than $2,200 a month.

Here’s the worst part: that quote isn’t just some random person complaining online.

Nope, it’s from Adam Conover. 

A writer on the WGA board AND on the WGA negotiating committee.

(To be clear, Adam is likely mis-remembering this viral tweet, which he quote-retweeted the week before. It’s a good reminder that Twitter isn’t real life. And that tweets that go viral may be the least real of all…)

For those not familiar with his work, Conover made his career debunking lies and misinformation. He’s a self-described “investigative comedian”. Adam tears apart misinformation for a living, even if it yields uncomfortable truths about the world we live in. That’s what he’s famous for! His show was called Adam Ruins Everything for a reason! Even today, his podcast is called “Factually”. 

Today, I’m taking a page from Conover’s book, and dunking some common myths about the negotiations between the WGA and the AMPTP, no matter how uncomfortable they are. 

Frankly, over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what the writers earn to quantify the gap between them and the studios. (Because a strike could really hurt lots of workers and the entire Los Angeles economy.) While I know what the writer’s guild generally wants—higher minimum pay, higher residuals for streaming, ending “mini-rooms”—those asks don’t quite match the rhetoric I read in the trades or on social media, rhetoric that frequently evokes “the end of writing as a profession”. That narrative doesn’t hold up under close scrutiny.

Which is actually really good news! If the gap between the WGA and AMPTP isn’t as big as the narratives suggest, it could make resolving a potential strike that much easier. But to understand that, I think it’s worth laying out exactly what the facts are.

(And yes, I’ll debunk some myths from the AMPTP side, though the studios/streamers tend to be much quieter/buttoned up on social media…)

Table of Contents

Myth #1: WGA Writers Are Broke/The Screenwriting Profession is Doomed
Myth #2: There Are No Streaming Residuals
Myth #3: It’s Harder Than Ever to Be a Screenwriter
Myth #4: Writers Can’t Survive in LA.
Myth #5: Writers are Locked into “Mini-rooms” and Exclusive Contracts
Myth #6: Streaming is Really Profitable
Myth #7: The Studios and Streamers Can’t Afford Pay Raises
Myth #8: This Is the Worst Time To Ever Have Been A Writer
Bottom Line: The Writers Deserve to Be Paid Like Elite Knowledge Workers (Or Professional Athletes)

Before We Start Though…

I’m hesitant to write anything at all about the current WGA-AMPTP negotiations/potential studio lockout/writers strike. I’m very, very, very nervous. 

Frankly, I don’t think reality matches the hyperbole I’m seeing online and in the news. But going against the grain sucks. Going against 98% of writers sucks.

And yet, after a certain point, that’s my job, isn’t it? (And that’s why I think my subscribers read me.) I let the facts and data be my starting point, then draw conclusions from there, no matter how uncomfortable they are. Do I think the majority of people want to read things that go against their preconceived notions? Not really. But do I think a not-insignificant portion of readers want the truth, regardless of whether it confirms to their biases? Yes.

I don’t want to fashion myself as some bold truth teller, but it’s hard to pushback against overwhelming consensus, especially when one side is really loud and incredibly angry. (Even though I don’t think that the rhetoric matches reality, I do think that WGA writers deserve to be well-compensated, a point that I’ll explain at the end of this article with a very complimentary comparison.) 

I’m just not looking forward to (potential) blowback. 

Myth #1: WGA Writers Are Broke/The Screenwriting Profession is Doomed

The survival of writing as a profession is at stake in this negotiation.” – WGA Email to members

These Emmy-Winning Writers Are ‘Broke’ and Voting to Strike” – Daily Beast Headline

“‘All these stories all lead to: we all have a problem with compensation,’ said Meredith Stiehm, the president of WGA West. ‘It’s been going down and down.’” – Variety

I’ve heard, again and again and again, from countless reporters and pundits and WGA writers on Twitter, that screenwriting is doomed. That everything is horrible, and it’s gotten so much worse! Like I mentioned above, literally, WGA Negotiating Committee members are arguing that screenwriters are so broke, they’re on food stamps. 

I said earlier that this stuff was easy to fact check, but that’s not totally true. Figuring out what every screenwriter actually makes, for the whole profession, takes a bit of work. Luckily, Variety reporter (and truly brave man) Gene Maddaus compiled a lot of the WGA data into one place. 

Here are the highlights:

  • The average WGA writer made $260,000 a year in 2022. In 1995, adjusted for inflation, that same number was…$261,000 a year.

  • However, that is the “average” writer, meaning the “mean average”. The WGA hasn’t released “median” writer income since 2014—which accounts for non-working writers—when the median was $140,000 per year.
  • Weekly minimums for writer producers is $7,412 per week. Staff writers, the lowest paid writers, make $4,546 per week. 
  • While screenwriters have been working in shorter writers rooms, the median working writer-producer on a broadcast show works for 35 to 40 weeks (earning $259 to $296K per year) and the median working writer on streaming works 20 to 24 weeks (earning $148 to $177K per year). The median staff writer on streaming works 20 weeks on average (earning $90K per year.)
  • The WGA numbers do not include producer payments to writers. However, those go to (usually) star writers, which doesn’t address concerns of mid-tier writers.
  • However—since my goal is fairness—when accounting for inflation over the last decade, the WGA has pointed out that median writer pay is down 24% since 2014, when adjusted for inflation. But most of that decline occurred from 2013-2015; since then, adjusted for inflation, TV writer pay is up. 

Myth #2: There Are No Streaming Residuals

Over the past decade, while our employers have increased their profits by tens of billions, they have embraced business practices that have slashed our compensation and residuals and undermined our working conditionsWGA Email to Members

“…the loss of residuals…has devalued writers’ salaries for all but the tippy-top tier. – The Los Angeles Times

They don’t make the money that they used to…they don’t get residuals.KCRW’s The Business

AP: As streamers cut costs, TV shows — and residuals — vanish– The Associated Press

Nearly everyone discussing the WGA/AMPTP negotiations says that writers no longer get residuals in streaming. 

But this is patently untrue. I mean, I wrote a whole article about streaming residuals for The Ankler! (And it’s not like this was hard to research. I literally just went to the WGA’s website.) When writers/the WGA refer to this as “pennies”, by pennies, they’re referring to tens of thousands of dollars.

And these residuals have actually gone up over time:

  • From 2011 to 2021, WGA residuals increased 48.2%, from $333 million to $493.6 million, an all-time high. 

  • Writing an hour-long drama can net a WGA writer nearly $63,000 paid out over ten years. A half-hour episode is $32,000. That’s just for American rights. Foreign residuals are a separate bucket.
  • Unlike the past (think broadcast shows in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s) nearly every streaming show earns residuals. In the past, when TV shows were cancelled after one season (or even less than a season), those writers didn’t earn future residuals. Today, every streaming original that stays on a streaming service keeps earning residuals. 
  • As a percentage of residuals, in 2022, streaming residuals made up 45% of earnings. So it’s not like streaming residuals aren’t pulling their weight. 

This issue is a great example of why I’m struggling to predict how the WGA/AMPTP negotiations will go…do the people on the negotiating committee realize that streaming residuals help more writers than broadcast residuals? Or not? As I wrote for the Ankler, if you negotiate for the wrong thing, writers could be worse off. (Interestingly, I got push back from both sides, with some folks saying writers on successful shows should be paid more, but also that they shouldn’t.)

Myth #3: It’s Harder Than Ever to Be a Screenwriter

“I’m hopeful that once there is a new contract, more opportunities will be available, and I can return to my writing career. But the state of the industry is dire. Lower and mid-level jobs have been disappearing.” Ryan Martinez,via Twitter

“If people cannot make a living doing this, they are going to go off and do other things.” Franki Butler via WGA Website

Caroline Renard, a WGA captain and a writer on Secrets of Sulphur Springs, says she’s voting “Yes” because “This fight is also for pre-WGA members. At the rate we’re going, you won’t have a place to become the future screenwriters you want to be. You won’t be able to afford it.” – Deadline

In reality, there’s more writers writing now than ever before. In 1996, there were less than 3,000 working TV writers. Now there’s nearly 5,000. Why? Because the number of new TV shows has exploded. 

And it’s not a surprise what’s driving this, the boom in scripted TV known as “peak TV”:

So, to be clear, more writers are getting paid now than at nearly any time in the writing profession. There are concerns that new (“baby” in the lingo) writers can’t make it in Hollywood, but since the last strike, nearly 2,000 new writers work in TV every year, a 66% increase. Meanwhile, the average pay has stayed roughly flat, even with those 2,000 extra workers.

Again, this is what worries me about this rhetoric: looking three to five years out, I think the numbers of active writers will decrease. If the WGA/screenwriters think the last five years will be horrible, as television production exploded, what will happen if it implodes? 

Myth #4: Writers Can’t Survive in LA. 

“And writers who exist in that workspace aren’t making their year, can’t support themselves, can’t afford to live in L.A. And that’s just untenable.” David Goodman. Co-Chair of Negotiating Committee in Variety

“[This] has really made it almost impossible for writers to put a career together and afford to live and work in Los Angeles or New York, where most of us have to live in order to do our work.” – Adam Conover on WNYC

Whenever I dig into WGA matters, the biggest counter to all the above facts is that they don’t take into account “living in Los Angeles”. All the facts about wages may be true, but with inflation and cost of living in Los Angeles, this still might not be enough.

To be blunt, the median income in L.A. is $37 to $40K a year, depending on if you’re looking at LA county or city. Using these numbers, the average working WGA writer makes six times what half of all Los Angelenos make. What about cost of living? For example, writers may live in super expensive neighborhoods. According to the L.A. Times, the average TV writer makes more than the average residents of Brentwood, Westwood, and so on. 

As I’ll cover below, the writers are absolutely right to demand a larger share of the profit pie. And they should. But pleading poverty may not help their case in the long run.

Myth #5: Writers are Locked into “Mini-rooms” and Exclusive Contracts

“WGA Takes Aim at Mini Rooms With Proposal to Set Minimum Staff Level for TV Series” – Variety

“One of the Writers Guild’s Biggest Contract Negotiation Issues Is the ‘Mini Room’ Boom”Variety

 


The rest of this article is for paid subscribers of the Entertainment Strategy Guy, so please subscribe

We can only keep doing this great work with your support. If you’d like to read more about why you should subscribe, please read these posts about the Streaming Ratings Report, why it matters, why you need it, and why we cover streaming ratings best.

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

The Entertainment Strategy Guy

Former strategy and business development guy at a major streaming company. But I like writing more than sending email, so I launched this website to share what I know.

Tags

Join the Entertainment Strategy Guy Substack

Weekly insights into the world of streaming entertainment.

Join Substack List
%d bloggers like this: