Employment of screenwriters has been at lower levels in recent years than in previous periods. Tight spending policies adopted by the studios have driven some of the worst abuses to high levels. Free rewrites, pre-writes, roundtables, sweepstakes pitching and late payments are all symptoms of the studios starving the film industry of development funding. Ample script development has long been a primary source of our industry’s advantage over those in other countries and the proliferation of one step deals dampens both compensation as well as the opportunity for a writer to develop their craft. That suggests a hope that the studios will respond to emergent competition with a change of course.
In the meantime, a review shows that the triggers for this downward pressure on development are structural. One result of the analysis: the 2007-2008 strike did not precipitate the changes in the screen business.
The earnings reported to the Guild by members illustrate the problem.
|Year||# Writers Employed||Total Earned|
On one view, employment during the 7 years from 2000 to 2006 averaged 1,970 writers earning $422.8 million. For the 7 years from 2009 through 2015, the average is 1,781 writers earning $383.1 million. That’s 10% fewer writers earning 9% less in total. An analysis of the detail behind the averages also shows that the earnings have skewed in favor of the higher earning writers, disadvantaging the middle class and new writers.
The strike-affected years of 2007 and 2008 make a natural pivot around which to evaluate this trend. The 2007 activity was inflated 4% in employment (84 more writers) and 25% in earnings ($103.6 million more earned) when compared to the 7-year average leading into that time. This increase was due to stockpiling in anticipation of what was a long-forecasted difficult negotiation. The 2008 results were deflated 7% in employment (140 fewer writers employed) and 11% in earnings ($47.6 million less earned) when compared to that trailing average period. This was due to several months of the strike period when writers were not working and to the use by the studios of the stockpiled scripts. Also, development funds had been somewhat depleted due to the run up.
Averaged together, these two years turn out to be better than the average for the preceding period.
Indeed, the next year, 2009 falls very much in line with the trend for the preceding 9 years. The decline in screen employment came in 2010. Employment decayed from that point for two further years, through 2012; earnings fell for three further years, through 2013. Results in 2014 and 2015 have showed growth in both employment and earnings. If 2016 follows with growth, the soft market for screenwriting may been seen as a four-year recession from 2010 through 2013.
So, the strike years, when averaged out, are not the pivot they appear to be; they are consistent with employment levels before and after. If the strike is not the precipitating incident for the changes to screenwriting, what was?
There are three factors to examine: First, the decline in DVD revenues. Second, the rise of tent pole and franchise films. And, third, the choice by the studios to release fewer films.
As to DVDs, they emerged at the end of the 1990s. DVDs replaced every VHS cassette dollar with two DVD dollars of revenue. In addition to increased revenue for new releases, Hollywood enjoyed the rerelease of their entire film libraries over about a decade. This was an influx of new revenue unlike any other, save the first wave of home video in the 1980s. Yet, a major threat to this revenue stream also grew in that era: Netflix was founded in 1997. It launched its DVD-by-mail subscription rental service in 1998 and by 2007 had shipped its billionth DVD. While it would take until 2010 for Blockbuster to file as bankrupt, the damage was done by about 2007: Netflix had reduced the value of DVD rentals and had undercut the value of owning DVDs by making them readily available. Their accomplice in this campaign was Redbox, which had started setting DVD kiosks next to water filling machines outside grocery stores in 2002 and by 2007 had surpassed Blockbuster, then on its way down.
Just as this devaluation was occurring and the motive to own DVDs was undercut, Hollywood suffered what could be seen as an unforced error by engaging in a public, protracted, format war for high definition DVDs. Both the HD-DVD and Blu-ray formats released films starting in 2006. By 2008, Blu-ray had won the war and HD-DVD faded. What also faded was the consumer’s interest in collecting high definition discs. While waiting for two years while the industry picked a single format, consumers got out of the habit of buying. Rather than upgrading from DVD to Blu-ray, consumers rented. DVD revenues would decline starting in about 2009, due to the exhaustion of the film library rereleases and the exhaustion of consumers worrying about pricing, format wars and the possibility streaming would make all physical media unnecessary.
As revenue from home video declined from 2009 on, the studios looked for places to save money. One of the softest targets was film development. There is no law that says the studios must develop ten projects to find the one to greenlight. That rule of thumb gave way to longer periods of development for projects, so the crop of possible films remained active longer, reducing the need to seed a new field with fresh projects. Holding projects in development two years rather eighteen months can mean a third less development is needed each year.
Among the several evils spawned by the contraction of development is the one-step deal. Traditionally, script deals include a first draft, rewrite and polish. To spread a smaller development budget across more projects, the practice has emerged to give writers only one shot at getting a script right. This is, of course, antithetical to the task of uniting the imagined films of writer and studio into one concrete script; that task takes several drafts, at least. It is also antithetical to a writer’s development as a writer. Writing, the aphorism goes, is rewriting.
Contributing to this stall in development was the rise of tent pole films, particularly franchise films. These films are identified as greenlit films when announced, or shortly thereafter. If studios generally develop up to ten projects to generate a greenlit film, the other nine projects need not be written when a release slot is committed to a specific franchise years ahead. To be sure, these films can receive ample development. But it’s not enough to compensate for up to nine projects not developed. With up to 20 franchise films released per year, upwards of 150 development projects are foreclosed each year by the presence of franchise films on the release schedule.
Finally, the studios have gradually released fewer films between 2006 and 2013, dropping from 204 studio releases to only 114 during that time. A 50% decline in the number of non-franchise releases yields a 50% decline in development.
These three factors – the decline of DVDs, the rise of franchises and the decline of the number of studio releases – conspired between 2007 and 2010 to undercut the employment of screenwriters by the studios.
The number of releases by the majors has grown in 2014, 2015 and 2016. Netflix and Amazon are investing in a small number of theatrical releases. Growth in the employment of screenwriters has been slow enough and is new enough that it must still be regarded as nascent, not arrived. But the signs are actually positive.
Yet, screen employment continues to exist as a two-tier industry – those writing big studio films and those writing everything else. It remains to be seen whether recent signs will help those in the middle and those getting in. The worst offenses – pre-writes, free rewrites, sweepstakes pitching, screen writing rooms, and, one-step deals – are often exploitive at all income levels, but they are especially pernicious at lower levels of compensation. Many of these are enforcement issues, as free writing is already outlawed by the guild’s MBA. One-step deals are currently permitted by our contract. Curtailing these is a goal in the current negotiation.