Do writers ever get a percentage of the substantial profits from the studios’ licensing their films to international TV networks?
— Marilyn Mallory
Writers do get a portion of the revenue, in the form of residuals. These payments are roughly analogous to the royalties songwriters and novelists receive, but with some important distinctions. (For clarity, I’m only going to talk about residuals for movies, because residuals for TV shows work a little differently.)
For starters, you don’t get residuals on theatrical release. Whether your movie makes one dollar or one billion at the box office, you don’t get residuals on that. It’s only when the movie shows up in subsequent markets, like home video or television, that you start getting more money.
The formulas for how much money the writer is supposed to get are complicated and contentious, and are often a big issue in negotiations between the WGA (which collects residuals) and the studios (who pay residuals). Even a fraction of a percentage can translate into thousands of dollars for a screenwriter. For example, I’ve made far more money from the residuals on Go than I did for writing and producing it.
Residuals are paid quarterly, and arrive in big green envelopes. It’s always a guessing game how big the checks are going to be: sometimes just a few dollars, sometimes well into six-figures. But it’s always exciting to get money you weren’t quite expecting.
It’s important to explain what residuals aren’t. They’re not “a piece of the back end” in the way that a big movie star gets gross points. Residuals have nothing to how profitable the movie is: you get paid the same per DVD or run on HBO whether the movie is a giant success or a dismal failure. (Of course, a hit movie should sell more DVDs and play more often on television, so in the long run, you’ll come up ahead.)