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November 08, 2007

Are Guild Writers Overpaid?

From union strike captain John Aboud comes this interesting factoid about the pay distribution across the Screenwriter's Guild:

In fact, the median earnings of all members of the Writers Guild is only $5,000.

How can that be? About 48% of members do not earn any money from writing in a given year.

Of those writers who do make some money, one quarter earn less than $37,700 a year.

A recent study concluded only 20% of writers already employed would be employed on a TV series for all of the next five years. Another 20% would not be employed at all in the next 5 years.

Overpaid? Nope. This fight is not for the elite writers who are household names. This is for the average writer who just wants to make a living in what is a thriving and growing industry.

And even if the pay distribution were more equal, and the median much higher, why would we care? As Atrios says, "The main issues for the WGA are rather simple - when the studios repackage their work until the end of time in new and exciting media formats, how much residuals should they get (if any). If you fail to 'sympathize' with striking writers, you think that management should just expropriate the value of their work forever."

The question as to whether they're "well-paid" is dependent, of course, on who you're comparing them to -- they're well-paid compared to cashiers, and poorly paid compared to the studio executives they're battling. But whatever your denominator, that's not at issue here. The dispute is over residuals, and the question is whether the pay structure management is seeking to set up is fair. Whether the writers are well-paid is immaterial -- the residuals aren't being proposed as some sort of charity to help supplement the income of underpaid scribes.

November 8, 2007 in Labor | Permalink


wow- you get it right. i was worried about this site. by the way, if you think its bad for writers, look over to SAG and the actors collective bargaining agreement. Not everyone is brad pitt.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 8, 2007 3:14:47 PM

I don't think it's quite that simple. If 48% of the members don't make any money over the course of a year, I take that to mean they're not working at all over the course of that year, or that they are working very very little.

If I'm wrong about that, then it's a totally different story. But assuming I'm not, the problem isn't that they're underpaid, is that they're underworked. Despite working in "a thriving and growing industry," it would appear that there are just too many writers, and not enough things that need to be written.

Pointing out how little someone makes is kind of misleading if you don't also point out that they are hardly doing any work. Most striking workers are full-time, regular employees who are often not being paid enough to enjoy a comfortable life. Apparently, writers are more like independent contractors.

As to the issue of fairness, that is a different question entirely than whether they are underpaid, as you say. But I'm not sure the management-worker paradigm really fits here. How fairly the profits are being divided up can be an issue in any business dispute; movie studios might battle with movie theaters over their respective shares of the box office receipts, for instance, but that doesn't mean it's something that union advocates such as myself should really care about.

I'm not saying I don't care either, but it seems like a grey area to me. Atrios says that we should be concerned even when millionaire baseball players are getting screwed by owners. I don't believe this is true; at some point, it just becomes millionaires battling with other millionaires over who gets to have more of the millions. Strikes conducted by baseball players can only be bad news for the labor movement, as it provides a high-profile example of union activity that makes it easy for people to characterize striking workers as greedy and spoiled.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 8, 2007 3:16:59 PM

The question as to whether they're "well-paid" is dependent, of course, on who you're comparing them to...

That comparative worth stuff died a long time ago. In the real world, the question as to whether they're "well-paid" is dependent, of course, on whether good substitute writers can be had for the same money or not.

Posted by: El viajero | Nov 8, 2007 4:02:14 PM

Is there ANYONE who's passionately on the side of the producers? Neither side generates particularly large amounts of sympathy, but stiffing writers out of their incredibly paltry shares of residuals does seem weird. I'm not much of a union sympathizer, but the writers do seem to be getting the short end.

Posted by: Klug | Nov 8, 2007 4:23:21 PM

I don't know that fair in this case is best expressed by a union contract. In some cases, a writer might be desirable enough that residuals are appropriate, in other cases it might make more sense to simply pay them an hourly wage. Some shows are more 'writer' driven then others, as one example.

That said, if all the writers want to band together to ensure the same type of compensation for all, I don't have anything against it, but I don't particularly see any reason to support it either. That seems to me to be something that can be resolved between them and the studios without my involvement one way or the other. If TV sucks in the meantime, I am sure I can find other amusements.

Posted by: Dave Justus | Nov 8, 2007 4:29:17 PM

Is there ANYONE who's passionately on the side of the producers?


The Los Angeles Times.

The New York Times.


Posted by: ethan salto | Nov 8, 2007 4:51:46 PM

the reason most writers don't earn that much money is not that they get screwed by their employers, it's because they don't get employed in the first place.

the union winning this dispute wouldn't improve the circumstances of most of the people the figures in this post refer to. It could infact hurt them.

Posted by: pimp hand strikes! | Nov 8, 2007 4:56:33 PM

Dave Justus made a boo-boo and didn't close his italics tag

Now fixed I think.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 8, 2007 5:20:16 PM

Short answer to question: Not overpaid.

I read somewhere that part of the problem is that the networks control essentially all of the production companies and micro-manage plots, scripts (down to single words), and action. Having some bobo in NYC editing your scripts per episode is demoralizing enough, so the SWG is really being cautious to argue just over residual fees for later uses. They should be leading the fight to prohibit the networks from owning and controlling the production companies.

Posted by: JimPortlandOR | Nov 8, 2007 5:24:10 PM


you are wrong on multiple levels. most important among which is you treat intellectual capital like hourly wage work. once you begin on that premise, you already on the wrong track. in a way, this is a broader discussion of the devaluation of intellectual capital- the supposed saving grace of the American economy. If we start undervaluing that in favor of the mega congloms, what's left for the worker to have value added in terms of their contracts?

Posted by: akaison | Nov 8, 2007 5:55:51 PM

Short answer:none of our business.

Workers have the right, nay the duty, to organize and negotiate anything they damn well are able to. I have not developed the habit of carefully weighing the justice of labor demands from outside an industry. Are we on blogs next to decide whether UPS drivers make too much money? Whether GM workers should get their pensions and health care?

The post offends me.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 8, 2007 6:00:56 PM

Let me repeat, in case it isn't clear:whether it is a living wage for cleaning women in Houston or supermodels on every NBA's players dressing room, the particular issues of a union action are not my business or my place to judge.

I support labor's right to collective bargaining. It is a freedom as basic as free speech, and the content or substance must be just as irrelevant as speech content.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 8, 2007 6:13:47 PM

If its as basic as free speech, so is questioning it. It doesn't mean that we consider the question ulimately valid, but the asking of it certainly is. As you can see from my post, I ulimately decide its not valid by pointing out the problem with thinking of this as a battle about hourly wages rather than intellectual capital. It takes nothing away from the right of the unions to form to point out the reason for which one exists.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 8, 2007 6:57:49 PM

Well, they make less than SF City bus drivers. It is interesting that they make far less than the shmucks who read their words.

Posted by: catherine | Nov 8, 2007 7:20:46 PM

You have to be apply the wise wisdom of economics in this situation.

You should strictly be paid on the difficulty it would be to replace you in whatever position you hold.

People love to write. It's a dream profession. the field is likely oversaturated. Thus most writers' salaries are driven lower.

Posted by: anon | Nov 8, 2007 7:40:57 PM

well now we get the idiot factor. supply and demand isn't determined here by volumn. if it were then it wouldn't matter. its again about intellectual property having value. not everyone - indeed most- can not write well enough to on a sustainable enough basis to write for film, much less television. i refer some of y ou to johnaugust.com. he's a writer and director, and one of things i saw one day on that site was a wonderful comment by a producer. the tv producer said that he met this woman who said she labored 5 years to produce this great script. and he said it was great too, but he didn't hire her. why? if you can figure tht one out, you will answer how dumb you sound saying they can simply replace these writers. the point is they can not. if they could, they would have.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 8, 2007 7:45:45 PM

it also strikes me many of you dont know shit about the structure of hollywood or the structures it replaced. in the previous version teh dream factory at it was called was based on non intellectual capital theories of labor. that changed once the labor realized its value added work product. in other words, the genie is out of the bottle, and no amount of hour based labor analysis is going to change that.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 8, 2007 7:47:47 PM

I would say 90% of television writers are overpaid.

There are about three shows that are watchable.

mostly the cartoons.

Posted by: ken | Nov 8, 2007 8:16:10 PM

you are wrong on multiple levels. most important among which is you treat intellectual capital like hourly wage work.

That's actually kind of the point I was trying to make - that "intellectual capital" is nothing like hourly wage work, which is why it's weird for anyone to suggest that we should treat this as something similar to traditional strikes.

If it's about "intellectual capital," what you've got is a property or contract dispute, not a labor dispute. Which is fine. But the idea of a "picket line" doesn't seem real applicable here.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 8, 2007 8:22:06 PM

Atrios says that we should be concerned even when millionaire baseball players are getting screwed by owners. I don't believe this is true; at some point, it just becomes millionaires battling with other millionaires over who gets to have more of the millions.

Jason C: What principle is at work here? That no possible question of justice or fairness can exist in disputes between well-off parties? I can see the case for not worrying as much about it, but you seem to be denying here that anyone can be in the right in any meaningful way, as long as everyone involved is sufficiently well off. I'd be impressed if you can coherently defend this position.

Posted by: djw | Nov 8, 2007 8:40:13 PM

I think akaison is far more experienced in this realm than most of us, and I'd defer to his vehemence. I merely aspire. But I think the main thing here is that residuals aren't "sexy" - they're the meat and pitatoes pay of creative work. I don't sympathize with the producers; it just that I'm not necessarily completely in favor of the tactics of the writers, because I think these issues are resolvable and too arcane to develop a lot of passion around in a strike situation ("14%!" "No, 16%" - well, actually, it's more like 2%, but still). And what glamor quotient there is for the writers comes from established, successful types like a Tina Fey, where it's hard, necessarily, to feel a certain solidarity amongst all us workers. Still, I'm rooting for the writers, naturally... and I'm sure they're right on the issues. I just think months of striking and a lost television season are too high a price to pay, as a viewer, I mean.

Posted by: weboy | Nov 8, 2007 8:58:09 PM

wow I find myself agreeing with bob m and akaison in the same article. ..odd.

Yes .. equating 1 job to the other is fairly bogus. We as the general public lack the insight to know what is fair in their industry. ..is it fair compensation vs alaskan crab fisherman? ..vs a streetcleaner? This takes a greater study of the big picture then I want to manage.

..and another reason that these analogies are off base.. per akaison is that they equate hourly work with works that last into eternity. ..we really dont have a good system for this.. never have. Hence why so many artists die penniless, and only the promoters usually live on to enjoy the fruits of the artists labor.

..there needs to be a balance between innovation, compensation, and production. ..something we have yet to strike. ..although one could say that if volume and quality is any kind of metric hollywood must come about as close as anyone.

Posted by: davidb | Nov 8, 2007 9:29:31 PM

Architects are not entitled to receive a percentage of the yearly rent from landlords on buildings they designed. How is this different from WGA writers?

While attractive, the whole Marxist theory that one should be paid on the worth they put into a product is too ambiguous for me. Who decides on the worth?

let's just let the free market work its magic.

Posted by: anon | Nov 8, 2007 9:43:19 PM

What principle is at work here? That no possible question of justice or fairness can exist in disputes between well-off parties? I can see the case for not worrying as much about it, but you seem to be denying here that anyone can be in the right in any meaningful way, as long as everyone involved is sufficiently well off.

I don't mean to suggest that - I am basically just saying there's no reason anybody but writers and producers (and maybe TV viewers who have to watch re-runs) should really care about it.

Remember back in the day when Pennzoil sued Texaco for like $10 billion? I'm sure that one party was in the right there too, but it's not really something that anyone outside of either company would have any intrinsic concern about.

On the other hand, take the recent UAW strike. I don't have any connection to either party, but it seemed important somehow to support the workers in that case. When it comes to traditional labor issues, there seems to be something more at stake, like it's another battle in an ongoing class war.

Posted by: Jason C. | Nov 8, 2007 9:49:11 PM


These are not issues that they can put off any longer- many of the new media issues are here now. They have been putting them off for years. Nor can they put off the reality tv writer issues. Sizeable chunk of TV is now reality tv. I don't want to go through the issues here, but they are pressing and will only become more so in the coming years with the mega deals with the various comgloms happening right now. Even forgetting that, there are the issues of DVD sales which make up a HUGE chunk of from where the studios derive income off the writers intellectual capital.

Also, you must understand how labor practices work- especially with unions- the issues, and this is true of residuals, become what industry practice. The longer they wait without a uniform standard in the collective bargaining agreement or leaving it to ambiguity a) the more money writers lose and b) the harder it is to say that this is industry prior practice if say one goes into arbitration. I also don't want to get too legalistic about this.

The point is- no one wants the strike- but it was either going to happen eventually because the existing agreement ignores from where the revenue streams are starting to grow and have been mainly coming from for a while.

To me, like the MTA strike in NY state, their tactics are fair. The reason why they are fair is that if you don't stand in solidarity with them now, it's another aspect of the American work force that also pays for it later. I hated having to walk during that strike, but every time I heard someone bitch- I pointed out "and that's why you don't have benefits." The employers know you don't get how they screw us over in the macrosense of that word.

You also make the very dumb mistake of talking about Tina Fey rather than Bob Nobody who has only one or two hits or one sucessful series. A sucessful show that lasts 4 years can expect to reap tens of millions to hundreds of millions in licensing fees. But such a show is rare for both the studio AND the writer and other creative inputs involved. I read somewhere that for every 5mil/year salary you see with a Shonda Rhimes, there are the staff writers making 50k a year. The problem is you are fixed on the 5 mil/year. That's a little like paying attention to the CEO who makes 20mil a year and comparing that person to the mom and pop shop owner who makes 20k after expenses. It's just not reasonable to make a judgement based on the people at the stop of the intellectual capital scale,a nd what that means for the people at the financial bottom of that scale. Shonda's going to make $5mil no matter what. She's an A lister. The staff writer probably even after having gotten as far as a being a staff writer probably will not. There is a saying I remind people that I heard when I started down the path to wanting to change careers from law to film- every great career in Hollywood took 15 years to happen. Meaning you don't see all the work and capital that goes into it. You as the audience get to see only the end product. Most of the time, that's fine. but here it produces an unrealistic idea of what it takes to make movies or tv.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 8, 2007 10:00:55 PM

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