When she agreed to enter the writers' room for the Hulu comedy series "Woke," writer Kyra Jones knew her finances would suffer.
The first payment she received for her share of the show's digital rentals was only $4 before taxes, not even enough to purchase a latte. The streaming residual check represented one-third of the $12,000 in residuals Jones received for penning an episode of the ABC drama "Queens."
Jones stated that she knew it would be less than broadcast networks received in residuals. However, I had no idea it would be that awful.
Residuals have become a central issue in the strike by 11,500 members of the Writers Guild of America, who are demanding greater pay and staffing commitments from Hollywood studios.
The authors argue that streaming services, which have upended decades of business practices in the television industry, have substantially reduced their compensation. They claim they intend to partly recover lost revenue by proposing streaming payments that account for the number of times an episode is viewed and the number of international subscribers.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the group negotiating on behalf of the studios, asserts that streaming has been a blessing for writers, providing them with more opportunities for assignments and allowing them to earn money from shows that were canceled or would not have reached syndication otherwise.
When broadcast networks dominated the living room, writers enjoyed multiple lucrative opportunities. In addition to their weekly salaries, they received a script fee for each episode they wrote and residual payments each time the program aired again, typically during the summer.
Once a show reached 100 episodes, it could be sold into syndication, filling daytime programming schedules for local television stations, rerunning on cable networks, or airing abroad. When their episodes were broadcast on television, writers would receive payment.
Residuals Were 'Very Healthy'
Streaming has altered the compensation structure and is now the greatest contributor to TV residuals.
"We used to receive very substantial residuals. Kristine Huntley, who worked as a writer and producer on the AppleTV+ series "Surfside Girls," said that a writer could go a year or two without work and still live adequately off of residuals. "You would still be paid for the work that you have done."
These figures have "fallen so low that where you might have received a five-figure residual, you may now receive a three-figure residual," she said.
Streaming series typically have fewer episodes per season, which results in fewer opportunities to receive writing credit and reduced compensation for writers.
Streaming does not base residual payments on the number of times an episode is viewed. Rather, there is a fixed annual fee based on the number of subscribers, with Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ paying writers more.
Starting in 2022, writers negotiated a 46% increase in residuals for streaming programs, according to a studio executive. These larger paychecks are just beginning to arrive. Another industry source, who also requested anonymity, reported that residuals reached an all-time high last year, with almost 45 percent coming from streaming, with Netflix accounting for the lion's share.
The most recent guild proposal would increase foreign streaming residuals by 200 percent, a figure that, according to studio executives, fails to account for that subscription fees vary from country to country.
The guild has desired to narrow the disparity between domestic and international residual payments.
Netflix currently pays a residual of $20,018 for an hour-long episode that airs in the United States, but only a third of that amount for the same episode to be streamed by more than 150 million subscribers internationally.
Over a decade-long career as a Hollywood writer, Leila Cohan has contributed to network television shows and streaming series, including as a co-executive producer on the popular Netflix period drama "Bridgerton."
"Bridgerton" is one of Netflix's most-watched series, but the lesser-known MTV Network comedy "Awkward" generated higher residual payments for Cohan, who wrote five episodes for the show's final seasons.
"It wasn't enough residuals to live off of, but it was a pretty healthy supplement," Cohan said. I still earn a few thousand dollars per year from it.
The eight seasons of "Bridgerton" resulted in a solitary writing credit in 2020 and a royalty check that Cohan claimed did not reflect the show's significance to Netflix.
"Residuals are intended to be some form of profit sharing," said Cohan. "If 'Bridgerton' is one of the most successful shows and is bringing Netflix a large number of subscribers or helping them retain subscribers, I believe I should be compensated for that value."