Conspicuous Hollywood writers lament the drop in residuals

LOS ANGELES, May 22 (Reuters) – Author Kyra Jones knew she was going to take a financial hit when she agreed to star in the writers’ room for the Hulu comedy series Woke.

The first payment she received for her share of the show’s digital distribution was a mere $4 before taxes, barely enough to buy a latte. The streaming balance check was one-third of the $12,000 Jones received as balance to write an episode of ABC drama Queens.

Jones said she knew it would be lower when broadcasters paid balances. “But I didn’t know it would be that bad.”

Backlogs have emerged as a central issue in the strike by 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America demanding better compensation and staff commitments from Hollywood studios.

The authors argue that streaming services, which have upended decades of television industry practices, have significantly undercut their compensation. They say one of the ways they plan to make up for lost revenue is by proposing streaming payments that take into account the number of times an episode is viewed and the number of non-US subscribers

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group that negotiates on behalf of studios, says streaming has been a boon for writers because it gives them more opportunities for commissions and allows them to earn revenue from shows that are cancelled were or otherwise would not get into syndication.

When radio stations dominated the living room, writers experienced multiple paydays. In addition to their weekly salary, they received a screenplay fee for each episode they wrote and then collected residual payments every time the show was re-aired, often during the summer months.

Once a show hits the 100-episode mark, it could be sold to syndication, filling daytime programming for local television stations and allowing it to be rebroadcast on cable networks or outside the United States. Writers received a check each time their episodes appeared on a television screen.

The leftovers were “very healthy”

Streaming has changed the compensation structure and now accounts for the largest portion of TV residuals.

“We used to get very healthy residues. A writer could go a year or maybe two without a job, and you could live comfortably on those leftovers and still get paid for the work you put in,” said Kristine Huntley, who worked as a writer-producer on the AppleTV+ series “Surfside Girls “.

Those numbers were “so low that you could get maybe a five-digit balance today, but maybe a three-digit balance,” she said.

Writers still receive weekly paychecks and per-episode writing fees, although streaming series typically have fewer episodes per season — meaning there are fewer opportunities to earn writer credit and less compensation.

With streaming, balance payments are not based on the number of episode views. Rather, there’s a fixed annual fee based on the number of subscribers, with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ paying more to authors.

A studio executive said the writers had negotiated a 46 percent increase in remaining balances for streaming programs beginning in 2022. These higher checks only come into effect now. Another industry source, who also asked not to be identified, said residuals hit an all-time high over the past year, with nearly 45% coming from streaming, the lion’s share from Netflix.

The guild’s latest proposal would increase foreign streaming providers’ leftover stocks by 200%, a number that studio executives say doesn’t take into account that subscription fees vary by country.

The guild says it wants to close the gap in domestic and international balance payments.

Netflix currently pays a balance of $20,018 for an hour-long episode that runs in the US, but a third of that amount for streaming the same episode to more than 150 million subscribers worldwide.

Over the course of a career spanning more than a decade as a Hollywood writer, Leila Cohan has worked on network TV shows and streaming series, including serving as co-executive producer on the popular Netflix historical drama Bridgerton.

Bridgerton is one of Netflix’s most-watched series, although the lesser-known MTV Network comedy Awkward raked in bigger paychecks for Cohan, who wrote five episodes in the last two seasons of the show.

“It wasn’t enough leftovers to live on, but it was a pretty healthy addition,” Cohan said. “Even now, I’m still making a few thousand a year.”

Bridgerton’s eight-episode seasons resulted in a single writer and a royalty check in 2020, which Cohan said didn’t reflect the series’ importance to Netflix.

“Remaining amounts are intended to represent some profit sharing,” Cohan said. “If ‘Bridgerton’ is one of the most successful shows and Netflix brings in a large number of subscribers or helps them retain their subscribers, then I think I should be compensated for that value.”

Reporting by Dawn Chmielewski in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Rollo Ross in Los Angeles; Edited by Mary Milliken and Bill Berkrot

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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