Screenwriting Blog
Posted on by Victoria Lucia

How to Determine Screenwriting Residuals

Determine Screenwriting Residuals

When it comes to screenwriters getting paid, there can be a lot of confusion, questions, acronyms, and fancy words. Take residuals, for instance! What are they? Is it just basically getting a check long after you've written something? Yes, but there's more to it, and since it has to do with getting paid, you should know more about how screenwriting residuals are determined.

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What are residuals?

In the US, residuals are doled out when a Writers Guild of America (WGA) writer is paid to reuse their credited work for a WGA signatory company (meaning a company that's agreed to follow WGA rules) under a WGA agreement. Rather than being paid for writing something, residuals are when you're paid for your work being reused, for example, a television episode you wrote airing as a rerun or if the feature you wrote is now on DVD or airing on television. You are entitled to compensation for that.

In America, writers sell their work to the studio system so they can profit off its commercial success; therefore, they don't own the copyright. In other countries, this can be different, and writers may always maintain their work's copyright. American writers are compensated for the reuse of their work via foreign levies rather than residuals in other countries.

Why are writers entitled to residuals?

The WGA was founded more than 70 years ago to ensure fair compensation for writers and to make sure they are accurately credited for their work. As the industry, technology, and how we watch film and television have changed, the WGA continues to represent writers' interests, making sure they receive fair compensation. Before television, there were no residuals, as there was nowhere to watch a film again (also known as an aftermarket.)

The first residuals were negotiated back in 1953 and were exclusively for reuse of content made specifically for television. Over the years, the WGA continued to negotiate residuals; in 1960, negotiations were made for feature films reuse on television, and in 1971 residuals for home video were negotiated.

Who exactly is entitled to residuals?

Credited writers on a produced project can receive residual compensation. For residuals, it doesn't matter how much you were initially paid or how much you contributed to the final product. If you're credited with one of the following credits on a film or television project, then you are entitled to residuals under the WGA's Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA).

For theatrical motion pictures:

  • Written by

  • Story by

  • Screen Story by

  • Screenplay by

  • Adaptation by

  • Narration Written by

For television motion pictures, including episodic television:

  • Written by

  • Story by

  • Television Story by

  • Teleplay by

  • Adaptation by

  • Narration Written by

  • Created by

Usually, residuals are distributed equally amongst writers on a project unless otherwise specified by a contract. A person receiving a "Story by" credit is entitled to 25 percent of residuals, and the remaining 75 percent is given to the other credited writers. An "Adaptation by" credit will earn you 10 percent.

How residuals are calculated

Commonly, there are two types of residual calculations, revenue-based and fixed.

Revenue-based residuals are most often used for theatrical films and are based on a sliding scale. The figures are based on the distributor's grosses and apply to various aftermarkets.

A fixed residual is often used in television and is a fee paid for a set number of reuses over a specified time. Fixed residuals are based on the MBA and are renegotiated every three years.

How can I determine if I'm entitled to residuals?

To figure out whether or not you're entitled to residuals for the reuse of a project you worked on, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • Was the work covered under a WGA contract?

  • Did you receive a writing credit on this work?

  • Was the work reused in an aftermarket?

If you answered "yes" to these questions, you should further research residuals on the WGA's Residuals page. They even have an inquiry desk where you can claim outstanding residuals.

Hopefully, this blog was able to shed some light on the world of screenwriting residuals! There's a lot to residuals, so if you're interested in learning more, I'd highly recommend checking out the WGA's info on their website about residuals linked above! Happy earning!  

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