Show Me the Money: WGAW TV Writer Earnings Grow As Screenwriter Earnings Decline

Writers Guild WestFilm 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 No Film School 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.

Link: WGAW 2012 Annual Financial Report


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In the TV biz, the show creators and some showrunners get back end participation. In the film biz, they will get bonuses but those are usually limited in scope. (plus, in TV, writers have real power and responsibility .... in feature films, it's mostly, "Turn in your script on time and good bye")
The rest depends on how the accounting reporting is done. Tarantino is a writer/director/producer, who will get back end as a director and a producer but not as a "writer", just because his contract says so. The "Hangover" series Todd Phillips likely filed a minimum required wage with the WGA while his compensation amount came onto his director/producer hat (Phillips wrote/co-wrote, directed and produced all three Hangover films but didn't even get the writer credit - and he was peed off on that - for the first one, despite having a very different version from the purchased Lucas/Moore spec script). Overall, Phillips grossed ~ $200M off the series all by himself.

PS. What's also funny off this article was that Hangover was the second of two simultaneous) Hollywood projects with the "What happened in Vegas..." working title. The story arcs weren't identical, however.
PPS. The original Lucas/Moore script should still be on IMSDB.

August 2, 2013 at 12:38PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


With TV, the whole show is put onto the writers back - the writer carries the show and occasionally screws up. It's a lot more demanding job than film I would imagine.

August 2, 2013 at 4:54PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Feature films have an on-set writer (unless he's also a writer-director, I guess) to rewrite the dialog that may not work as intended when the cameras are rolling. But, considering that a normal schedule for a film is about two pages per day, there's reasonable amount time to re-do the required scenes. (there have been films where the script by the end of the shoot is almost entirely different than at the beginning - see the "Shining" or "48hrs")

The writer TV schedules can range from 'demanding" to "absurd". On some 90's era sitcoms, the writers came home at 2 AM and went to work at 8 AM the next day. There were some (usually single/unmarried) showrunners who basically lived on the set (and, as I had been told, used the less traditional picker-uppers to achieve a day long concentration). The stakes, of course, are huge. A successful sitcom can generate syndication rights in hundreds of millions, of which the creator/s often share in 25% (a normal cut for your run-of-the-mill creator/developer). Top TV writers are ├╝ber wealthy. Chuck Lorre's net worth is (allegedly) $600M while Larry David's $800M (and that's mostly off one show).

But, not to feel too badly for the top feature writers - the so-called script doctors (most recognizable, often Oscar winning scribes, brought in to do everything from a full draft to a small dialog rewrite) can make upward of $300K per week. Other big names (like Terri Rossio and Ted Elliot, for example) will get the producer credits and thus some portion of the film's gross revenues either via the gross profit participation or a bonus schedule based on the gross totals.

August 3, 2013 at 12:33AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


The biggest problem I see right now is how residuals are calculated for writers with internet distribution of their shows. That is why the WGA went on strike anyway; they weren't getting paid for these new distribution methods as studios claimed they were not making any money from them. Netflix, HBO, and cable are really leading the way right now in awards but I can guarantee you the studios are going to fight back as best they can. When a network realizes that not a single one of their shows won an Emmy it really changes things.

I do not think film is dead by any means especially with the international market growing as fast as it is. Look what China has done for Pacific Rim which just might get a full trilogy now.

August 2, 2013 at 4:12PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


Theatrical exhibition is rapidly dying due to the studios killing the goose that laid the Golden Eggs. Independent film is dead (even if a few Hollywood insiders still make their supposedly indie films) as a commercially viable endeavor and fewer and fewer features are made for a smaller and smaller slice of the public.

Film as an origination medium is not, however, no matter how many times people "in the know" want to say it. Film remains the only origination medium that is ready for any High Def standard and is visibly superior to any digital origination (no matter how many times people repeat that "they can't see the difference).

Sadly, since film and TV has become a studio executive medium and studio executives don't care about the look of their product being actually good there is more and more pressure to shoot "digital" and it makes them feel they're being "hip and modern" and are "saving money" by downgrading their product (incidentally one of the reasons for TV's rapid slide in the ratings).

August 3, 2013 at 9:41AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Rena Moretti

GREAT points, DLD.

August 2, 2013 at 4:24PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


What is obvious from this article and the comments is that writers remain as uninformed as ever about the way the industry really works. They report gleefully entirely inaccurate stats (like feature writers being paid $300,000 a week which may happen once every five years) and gobble up industry stats that may or may not be accurate (although in this case I don't see any reason WGA would lie about increasing TV revenue even though it flies in the face of the economic crisis TV faces - ie. more reality shows and fewer and fewer scripted shows).

We also do not live in a Golden Age of television. We live in a Dark Age of television (at least as far as creativity is concerned). Most current shows have horrid writing caused in great part by the fact that the networks are more and more micro-managing the writing. The idea of the writer as some sort of auteur is just ludicrous when you know anything about what TV is like.

What aspiring screenwriters should know is that the most common job they're likely to get is a $7,000 feature script for a small TV movie, a job that used to command $10,000 a few years back but doesn't any longer due to the quick shrinkage of the market).

A few writers make most of the money while most writers make next to nothing. That's the reality of the market, not writers being paid $300,000 a week to sit on a set to rewrite dialogue.

As for residuals, unless you are on staff on a major show, you'll never see the first penny. That's also the reality nobody wants to discuss.

August 3, 2013 at 9:35AM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM

Rena Moretti

Eh, first of all, script doctors are everywhere and, while there aren't many of them around, they can make the rates I had quoted. A more common procedure is to have a rewrite well ahead of the production where a month worth of work can bring in $1M-$1.5M to a star writer. Many scripts for big budget films have had more than one writer assigned to them (generally, a sequential schedule that often depends on which actor is attached to the project and which angle of the story he wants to play up).
Second, the "economic crisis" was in 2008. Once the Fed/Bernanke began to inflate wildly, the dollar lost a large portion of its value (though, often in unison with the Euro), which of course pumps up the totals, especially from the foreign markets.
Third, while the "golden age" is a nebulous concept, the fact is that, unlike the 2-3 OTA channels of the 1950's (ABC really didn't begin to show its muscle until the mid-50's), there are dozens of the major producers of content - from the OTA affiliated ABC/Disney, NBC/Universal, CBS/Paramount, FOX to cable channels (A&E, TNT, Lifetime, F/X) to pay TV channels (HBO, Showtime) to the newly emerging streamers (Netflix, Amazon, YouTube), there are more job opportunities for writers than they ever had.
Fourth, the executives always meddle. That's their job. Go find some of those 1970's Robert Blake's rants about the "suits", that so entertained Johnny Carson. The truth of the matter is that a powerful writer/producer has more clout than a mid-level executive because he has the direct line to the head of the studio who signed him. That's why a Grant Tinker, a Steven Bochco, a Jerry Bruckheimer, a Chuck Lorre will have the final word in that argument.
Fifth, much like in sports, it's true in the entertainment industry as well - big stars will make the most money and the majority of the rest will be lucky to get a cup of coffee in the minor leagues. That hasn't been a revelation in about 100 years. Anyone of the adult age and sound mind who wants to be a part of the industry understands the risks of "not making it big". That is why Hollywood Boulevard, with a nod to Al Dubin, is known as the Boulevard of Broken Dreams.
But it hasn't stopped the dreamers from dreaming and it never will.

August 3, 2013 at 12:18PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM


I'm kind of surprised there are actually writer-only types when it's so much easier to film your own thing these days...

August 9, 2013 at 10:13PM, Edited September 4, 8:21AM