To pen a living as a Hollywood screenwriter has always required fortitude and patience. Given the ratio between number of writers and available work, the odds of success are long.
Now it looks like the odds have become a whole lot longer.
Thanks to a recession-driven downturn forcing studios to make fewer movies and TV shows, coupled with a screenwriters strike last year that ground production to a halt, the wordsmiths of Hollywood have seen jobs and income evaporate.
That's the bleak take-away from the annual financial report of the Writers Guild of America, West, the union that represents about 8,000 movie and TV screenwriters. It has been the worst year for writers since at least 2003, with total earnings well below levels of five years ago. According to the WGA, only 4,163 writers reported earnings last year, down 10% from a year earlier, with the total earnings declining 18% to $801.4 million.
Not surprisingly, with a strike that paralyzed the television industry, TV writers took a big hit. Employment in 2008 declined 11% and total earnings dropped 3% to $437.5 million.
"For the second half of the year, we found that while WGA series rebounded, the companies responded to the economic downturn by reducing the size of TV series staffs," the report said.
Even harder hit were movie writers, who saw employment drop 14% and total income plunge 30% to $361 million. The guild blamed the sharp downturn on "pre-strike stockpiling" and a decision by the studios to release fewer movies in response to the weakening economy.
Although the WGA said declines in union dues were offset by improved collections and higher residuals from reuse of TV shows overseas, the guild ended the fiscal year with a $5.1-million deficit because of "investment losses caused by the struggling economy."
Hollywood's actors also have been buffeted by similar circumstances. The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists both experienced deficits in the last fiscal year largely because of a decline in investment income. The actors unions, however, do not release earnings reports similar to the writers guild's.
The weak job market has deepened anxiety among the writers guild's members, who are getting ready to elect a new leader.
The heated election pits writer-producer John Wells, a former guild president, against the guild's secretary-treasurer, Elias Davis, who has the backing of outgoing President Patric M. Verrone.
Although members are divided over which candidate to support, they agree on one thing: Times are hard.
The erosion of scripted prime-time shows on broadcast networks, a result of the popularity of reality TV and NBC's shift of Jay Leno to prime time, has left writers with fewer job opportunities.
Cable television is expanding, but the pay often is lower and many shows aren't covered by union contracts.
Writers are having a difficult time getting bumps in their fees. And studios are hiring feature writers for shorter periods of time and paying for one draft of a script instead of two.
"There is a sense in the community, whether it's among agents, writers or even producers, that things have really tightened up -- and not in a good way," said former board member Craig Mazin, a Wells backer and co-publisher of the widely followed screenwriting blog "The Artful Writer."
Davis is on the same page. "John and I certainly agree that these are tough times," he wrote in a recent statement to guild members. "Every writer I know is feeling more than a little uncertain about the future of our business world and our place in it."