WGA West Member Earnings Down $185M In 2020 Due To Pandemic, But Employment Fell Only 6.6%

EXCLUSIVE: Reported earnings by WGA West members were down nearly $185 million last year, a 10.5% decline from 2019 because of the pandemic and months of shuttered film and TV production, according to the guild’s latest annual financial report. Total reported earnings fell to $1.5712 billion last year, down from $1.756 billion the year before – the first earnings decline since 2014. Even so, the employment of guild members fell by only 6.6% – to 6,108 jobs last year, which was down from 6,541 jobs in 2019.

“While the Covid-19 pandemic brought film and television production to a standstill in early 2020, many writers were able to continue working remotely through the year,” the report says. “Still, writers’ reported earnings and employment reflect the pandemic’s widespread disruption to the entertainment industry. In all fields, writers reported declines in both employment and earnings, reflecting a truncated 2019-2020 television season, delayed 2020-2021 season and months of theater closures.”

The guild noted, however, that “As Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease in 2021, the industry should be able to fully resume production of television and film content.”

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On theatrical film projects, screenwriter earnings declined 12% – from $510.3 million in 2019 to $449 million last year, although the guild noted that “this figure is likely to increase with late reporting.” Screenwriter employment declined by 9.6% to 2,055 writers reporting screen earnings last year.

Earnings reported by television and digital platform writers also declined – down 9.5% from $1.2308 billion in 2019 to $1.1136 billion last year, although the guild noted that this figure is also expected to rise with late reporting. The guild also pointed out its “data regarding television and digital platform earnings is generally based on Minimum Basic Agreement minimums and does not capture changes in TV over-scale income.”

“To protect over-scale pay,” the guild said, “the WGA negotiated improvements to the span provision in the 2020 MBA, increasing the earnings threshold to qualify for span protection from $350,000 to $400,000 for writer-producers working on broadcast, pay or HBSVOD short-order series, or $375,000 for basic cable short-order series. In addition, the guild’s agency campaign has realigned agency incentives with those of their writer-clients, giving writers access to representatives who will work to maximize over-scale pay.” Earlier this year, the guild won an historic victory in its nearly two-year battle to reshape the talent agency business.

The guild also reported that 162 writers reported employment in news, promotion, informational and interactive programming, with earnings of $8.7 million, which was down 41.6% from 2019. “This substantial decline in earnings was due in part to layoffs and Covid-19 changes at ViacomCBS, impacting news and promotional writers,” the guild said.

Residuals collected by the WGA in 2020 decreased 0.9% from last year to nearly $467 million. Even so, it was the second highest residuals haul of all time. Total television residuals decreased 1.4%, while residuals from feature films declined by less than 1%. New media is the largest residuals category overall, accounting for more than a third of the total residuals collected – an increase over last year’s percentage, when new media accounted for 30.4% of the total residuals collected.

Television’s trend of being the strongest residuals area continued in 2020 with $307.69 million in receipts, representing 65.9% of the total residuals collected. New media residuals for television programs were up 16% over last year, increasing from $88.76 to $102.95 million. And while foreign television residuals dropped 8.9% from last year, it remains the second largest area for television after new media, at $45 million.

Domestic syndication residuals decreased 22.6% from 2019, but is the guild’s third largest market at $29.27 million. Network prime time had a significant increase of 23.6% over last year with $24.56 million in receipts, which the guild said “is no doubt attributed to more repeats due to the pandemic.” Home video residuals continued their precipitous decline, bringing in only $1.8 million, a decrease of 13.5% from last year and a 66.2% decrease over the last five years.

Total feature film residuals saw a slight increase to $159.25 million. “As expected,” the report says, “new media residuals are the highest earning residuals category at $68.92 million for feature films,” posting an increase of 26.8%. Pay TV residuals are the second largest category for film, with a 15.3% drop from last year at $39.62 million. Worldwide television receipts, although the third largest dollar category at $38.17 million, “stalled internationally,” the guild said, resulting in an 8.9% drop from last year. As with television, home video residuals for film continue to decline, with a 25.4% decrease from 2019 to $9.58 million, and a five-year decrease of 58.3%.

The Guild’s Foreign Levies Program, meanwhile, distributed $29.1 million to writers and heirs during the last fiscal year. This is the highest annual disbursement in the program’s 30-year history, bringing the total amount distributed to writers over the life of the program to $275 million. This money comes from a tax on blank media and equipment used to record American films and TV shows that are broadcast in nearly 20 foreign countries, and are designed to compensate the “authors” of American films and TV shows exhibited in those country. Some countries also impose levies on cable retransmissions and video rentals. The money is rounded up by foreign collecting societies and distributed to the guilds and studios.

Membership dues, which are based on earnings, fell by $4.6 million – down from $36 million in 2019 to $31.4 million last year. The guild noted, however, that “This decline was offset by unrealized investment gains resulting from the continuing strong equity market, which produced an overall increase in income (including unrealized gains) to $46.1 million, up from $38.5 million in the last fiscal year.”

Hollywood’s Unions Are Racking Up Huge Dues Losses During Pandemic Slowdown

The guild’s annual expenditures of $36.2 million were lower than fiscal year 2020’s total of $38.2 million, a decrease that the guild said “was the result of a number of factors: reduced operating costs attributable to remote work, the curtailment of most in-person member functions, including at the Guild Theater; and the production of a virtual WGA Awards ceremony.” The guild ended the fiscal year with total net assets of over $87.7 million.

“The effect of the economic disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is still being felt,” the guild’s Membership and Finance Committee said in an accompanying statement. “Next year’s report will give us a more complete picture of the full impact of the pandemic on member employment and the Guild’s finances. For now, however, members should feel confident that the Guild remains on a strong financial footing with significant reserves that will enable us to face the current uncertainties.”

The committee noted that the guild’s annual financial report is published each year “in the interest of transparency and a fully informed membership.” The WGA West is the only Hollywood union that provides this type of earnings information.

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