Show Me the Money: WGAW TV Writer Earnings Grow As Screenwriter Earnings Decline
Film is dead (good thing we shoot digitally now). Theatrical distribution is a pipe dream (good thing we have new distribution outlets). And less and less screenwriters get paid to write movies for the big screen (good thing we have television). As aspiring screenwriters looking at the evolving landscape of storytelling on the screen, we should ask ourselves, “What exactly are we aspiring to do?” Maybe the answer should be: Write for television. Based on the earnings numbers for writers in the WGAW 2012 annual report, that looks like the answer for many professional screenwriters already.
Much has already been written about the new golden age of television we are experiencing right now, and many would argue that great writing is at the heart of this golden age. Film has always been a director’s medium, but television belongs to the writers. I bet you have trouble naming the director of any particular episode of Breaking Bad, but I’m pretty sure you can name the show’s creator and main writer.
Today, it’s almost comical to think that the first season of Breaking Bad was only 7 episodes – who wanted to watch a high school chemistry teacher with cancer cook meth in Albuquerque? Apparently, 3 million of us wanted to watch that (especially those of us in ABQ), and that doesn’t even include numbers from iTunes downloads or Netflix streaming.
With the resurgence in scripted television thanks to pay cable, basic cable and newer online outlets like Netflix and Hulu, it should come as no surprise that the WGAW annual report shows a strong 10.1% increase in television writer earnings to accompany an uptick of 2.3% in the total number of television writers reporting income.
The flip side of the growth in earnings for WGAW television writers is the continued decline in screenwriter earnings and number of screenwriters reporting earnings. Earnings fell 6.1% in 2012 and the number of screenwriters reporting earnings dropped 6.7%. While the decline in earnings was less than in years past, the drop in screenwriters with earnings was considerably steeper than 2011.
With television surging and motion pictures fading, we can assume the migration from film to television is in full swing as a simple matter of maintaining employment. We can certainly point to high-profile examples of big name directors like David Fincher (House of Cards) and Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire) lending their expertise to launch new television series.
But writers are the creators and producers of content for television. Add the support of basic cable, pay cable and new media outlets for quality content with less emphasis on big ratings, plus the security of long-term employment, and what looks like the migration of screenwriters to television according to WGAW’s numbers is not that surprising.
As aspiring screenwriters, does that mean we should stop thinking about nofilmschool as “no filmschool” and start thinking about it as “nofilm school” in terms of where we should pitch our scripts and ideas?
Personally, my affinity for storytelling remains in contained, three-act structure stories with a concrete beginning, middle and end, not the long story arcs that television requires. Frankly, I don’t think I could stretch a character’s story arc over such a long, sustained period, and I’m in awe of show creators like Vince Gilligan and Matthew Weiner along with their talented writing staffs for keeping me hooked on their series year after year.
Moving forward, I’m not sure there will be such a clear delineation between TV writers and screenwriters. In the end, it’s all writing for the screen, whether that’s a theatre, a big screen TV, an iPad, or a smartphone. Just give me a story I can watch with a beginning, middle and end with characters I care about.
Despite what the WGAW report numbers say about paid screenwriting in decline, I take heart that over the years included in the report from 2007 to 2012, several more filmmakers have emerged thanks to the increased access to the modes of production. Plus, with new distribution platforms (iTunes, Amazon, VHX, Chill, Seed&Spark, Tugg, etc.), now more than ever may be a golden age for content, regardless of the platform.
Does the increase in earnings for TV writers make you consider TV for your future writing career? Does your passion for feature film storytelling keep you from writing a TV pilot? Or are you already writing for multiple formats and platforms? Share your thoughts and experiences with us in the comments.