Recently in Credits Category
Adaptation?A: That’s a bit complicated for a quick answer.
But you’d think it would be easy, no?
I’ll start with what I think are the Academy rules, based on what the name of “Best Adapted Screenplay” used to be up until a few years ago. For a long time it was “Best Screenplay Based On Material Previously Produced Or Published”, and that pretty much says it all, right?
The Academy has an executive writers committee that meets to determine whether or not they feel a particular screenplay is an adapation. The WGA has far more rigid rules. It isn’t only concerned with prior publication or production. It is also concerned with unpublished and unproduced material of other natures that fall under the larger rubric of “source material”.
The WGA definition of an original screenplay is:
Original screenplays [are] those screenplays which are not based on source material and on which the first writer writes a screenplay without there being any other intervening literary material by another writer pertaining to the project. If a writer is furnished or uses research material, the screenplay is still considered an original screenplay.
Translation: no source material (discounting research material) and no other writer in between the start and completion of your draft. If that happens, it’s an original project.
Obviously, adaptations are therefore screenplays that are based, in any part, on source material. And what is source material?
…source material is material assigned to the writer which was previously published or exploited and upon which the writer’s work is to be based (e.g., a novel, a produced play or series of published articles), or any other material written outside of the Guild’s jurisdiction (e.g., literary material purchased from a non-professional writer). Illustrative examples of source material credits are: “From a Play by”, “From a Novel by”, “Based upon a Story by”, “From a series of articles by”, “Based upon a Screenplay by” or other appropriate wording indicating the form in which such source material is acquired. Research material is not considered source material.
Let’s go through that. First, there’s the obvious: published or exploited books, plays, essays, comics, etc. Interestingly, you can also include exploited story treatments by writers other than the first screenwriter. For instance, if John sells a treatment to a studio, and then George is hired to write the screenplay based on that treatment, the project is an adaptation because George has been given exploited literary material upon which to base his script.
Then, there’s the not-so-obvious. Let’s say John writes an original screenplay for a non-signatory company, i.e. a company whose dealings with writers isn’t covered by the WGA’s collective bargaining agreements, and then that company sells John’s script to a signatory studio like Disney. Disney then hires Sally to rewrite the script. If John had written that exact same script for a signatory, the project would be deemed an original. Since he wrote it for a non-sig, however, his script is considered source material, and John is not eligible for “story by” or “screenplay by” credit. The project is now considered an adaptation, with John’s screenplay functioning the way a book or play might.
That’s the one area where I imagine that the WGA and AMPAS might see things differently. From the WGA’s point of view, they must consider the non-sig script to be source material, because its ability to assign screenplay credit is entirely a function of its collective bargaining agreement, and the non-sig script doesn’t fall under that.
AMPAS, however, seems to be only concerned with what is, in actuality, an original or adaptation. In the example above, I think that the WGA would call John’s project an adapation, and AMPAS would call it an original.
This probably doesn’t come up too often.
The questioner specifically asked about Syriana, which AMPAS has apparently determined is an original rather than an adaptation. The WGA considers Syriana to be an adapation, because the screenplay was based (in some part) on a book. I believe the source material credit was “suggested by”, and that’s enough to make the script an adaptation. However, it appears the AMPAS writers committee felt that the script simply didn’t get enough of significance from the book, and thus they have deemed it an original screenplay.
Oh, me…I’ve talked before about an apparently intractable schism in the professional writing community—one on side you’ve got so-called “first writer advocates”, and on the other side, you have so-called “rewriters”.
Putting aside the relative sloppiness of those names, I’ve decided to lower my lance and tilt firmly at one of the most persistent and inaccurate myths of screenwriting.
The “first writer” does not necessarily do anything special or more difficult than subsequent writers on a project.
Going first isn’t harder. Going first isn’t special. Going first doesn’t earn you a halo or a special place in writer heaven for your sacrifice.
Going first is just…going first.
The martyrous argument sounds a bit like this. “Nothing is harder than the initial act of creation. The first writer faces a blank page, and the first writer creates a world out of nothing. Any writer brought in to revise the first writer is working from a head start. They’re standing on the shoulders of the first writer. Rewriting isn’t real writing…it’s something lesser and derivative.”
I say this as a writer who has done both. I’ve written originals and I’ve rewritten other writers. There is no correlation between chronology and difficulty or effort.
There are many instances in which a company commissions or purchases an original screenplay and then determines that little beyond the basic idea is worth saving. At that point, a subsequent writer may be brought in to do a “page one rewrite”, in which everything is reimagined. Having done a few of those, I will argue that page one rewrites are more difficult than writing originals. Why?
First, consider the nature of the first writer’s generous grant to the subsequent writer—the idea.
Having an idea doesn’t take effort, nor does it earn you any spiritual or professional regard. Ideas are worthless. Literally. They are not intellectual property. They are not possessable. They are not creditable.
The process of creating a fictional narrative from an idea is writing.
The original writer “has” an idea (and it’s not really original…seriously…find me an idea that no one’s already used in some form or another, and I’ll buy you a car) and then writes a narrative. The owner of the narrative says “this is bad” and hires someone else to fashion a new narrative.
That writer faces the exact same task as the first writer, with one slightly daunting difference: he has less creative freedom. He’s not free to make some of the bad choices that the first writer made. In fact, unlike the first writer, the second writer is aware that there are certain mine fields to be avoided at all costs.
Think that makes writing easier? Nope. It’s harder. It’s useful information, but the task becomes more difficult when you can’t take one or more of the readily apparent or easy paths the first writer was free to wander down.
Still, the first writers will say that the second writer has the subconscious gift…the advantage…of the first writer’s work. The first writer’s work necessarily spawns some kind of narrative “rolling start” that the second writer can use.
That would be a very convincing argument…if the first writer hasn’t read any books or seen any movies or television shows in his life.
We all have a rolling start when we write. The very nature of screenplay is grounded in the collective story sense we all carry in our heads, be it by instruction or genetic code. We constantly crib from mythology, from the Bible, from movies, from plays. My approach to writing an “original” draft is absolutely no different than my approach to a page-one rewrite.
Same process. Same effort.
Entirely different reward.
Ted and I had lunch today, and he told me a funny story that revolved around the phrase “post hoc ergo propter hoc”.
Yes, we have odd lunches.
Anyway, when it comes to screenplays, it seems that many people hold the fallacy of post scriptum ergo scriptum deterioris.
“After the screenplay…therefore a lesser screenplay.”
By the by, if anyone knows Latin, let me know if I’ve gotten the syntax correct.
First writer advocates may carry this slogan into their battle with rewriters, but the only writers they’re hurting are themselves, of course. By classifying rewriting as a lesser process, they’re giving away a secret about their own work process, and the news isn’t good. Rewriting can be, and often should be, just as difficult and demanding and important as the first draft. Only writers can be so odd as to think that a page filling process is superior to a page changing process.
If you have problems getting to the end of your screenplay, that might be true…but that’s not my problem. It’s your problem, and I don’t like be punished or discounted because you think filling pages is harder than deleting the whole mess of them and starting again.
Post scriptum ergo scriptum novum.
After the screenplay…therefore a new screenplay.
So climb down from the cross, wouldja, my fellow first writers?
As most of you know, the credits for the movies and television shows you see are often arbitrated by the WGA. When it comes to films, the credits are frequently divided into two categories: “story by” and “screenplay by”.
Today, I’m going to discuss what the difference between those terms actually is (as opposed to what most people think), and I’m going to talk about how arbiters should approach the extremely difficult task of not only parsing a single literary work into two components, but of assigning portions of credit in two different categories to multiple writers.
First, let’s get some terms straight. When you see that a movie has been “written by” someone (or multiple writers), that credit indicates both screenplay and story. Given that this discussion is about those instances where credit must be divided, we’ll be ignoring “written by” credit for the sake of argument. Also, if you see “screen story by”, feel free to equate it to “story by”. It’s the credit we use when a writer is adapting source material (like a novel) but has created a significantly original story for the screenplay version.
With the housekeeping out of the way, let’s take a look at how the Screen Credits Manual defines “story”:
The term “story” means all writing covered by the provisions of the Minimum Basic Agreement representing a contribution “distinct from screenplay and consisting of basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action.”
Okaaaaaay. That’s a bit dry. But fear not. Let’s jump ahead and look at the definition of “screenplay”.
A screenplay consists of individual scenes and full dialogue, together with such prior treatment, basic adaptation, continuity, scenario and dialogue as shall be used in, and represent substantial contributions to the final script.
Oh God. What the hell does that mean?
The credits manual makes a few additional things clear for us. First, “story” can be incorporated in the screenplay itself. That means that treatments aren’t the only material eligible for story credit, nor are they required to receive story credit.
Oh…wait…that makes it less clear, right? Because now, the arbiter must read a script and parse out what is story and what is screenplay.
The Credits Manual does give one more set of clues. When it comes to determining who gets “screenplay by” credit, arbiters must take into consideration the following elements:
- dramatic construction;
- original and different scenes;
- characterization or character relationships; and
Fair enough. Let’s begin. The most important instruction to keep in mind is this (and if you’re ever an arbiter, this is the key to it all):
STORY AND SCREENPLAY ARE MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE
No, they’re not literarily mutually exclusive. Story and screenplay work together in order to make a good script. However, when it comes to parcelling out credit for one or the other, that which is story is completely distinct from that which is screenplay.
Story consists of basic narrative, idea, character development and action.
Screenplay consists of dramatic construction, original and different scenes, characterization or character relationships and dialogue.
Let’s go into what I think those terms mean.
We’ll knock the easy ones off first.
Credit for dialogue must go into the screenplay pile. This doesn’t mean “credit for the meaning of the dialogue”. We’re talking about one-liners, clever phrases, individual jokes or any situation in which the dialogue in and of itself is unique and credit-worthy. For instance, Writer A might have written “Be quiet! I was ready to renew our relationship the second you showed up.” Writer B might have written “Shut up. Just shut up. You had me at hello.”
The meaning and dramatic purpose of the lines are the same, but the dialogue is different, and Writer B has just earned some points for “screenplay by”.
The idea of the movie. Obviously, this is “story”.
Original & Different Scenes
These fall under screenplay. The idea here is that, as always, screenplay credit is about execution of the underlying story. The basic subunit of story is “plot point”. The basic subunit of execution is scene. A subsequent writer can keep the same plot point (Joe must escape from Harry and bring the secret plans back to Kelly) but execute it in a completely different way (motorcycle race through rush hour instead of wearing a secret disguise and walking right past the villain…)
Now let’s look at the first of our story/screenplay dichotomies.
Basic Narrative Vs. Dramatic Construction
Basic narrative, a function of story, is the group of story events that unfold in a particular sequence. I’ll use Finding Nemo as an example, because it’s so elegantly simple.
The basic narrative of Finding Nemo is: Marlin’s wife and most of his children are killed by a predator. Marlin is raising his remaining child, Nemo, by himself. Nemo is caught by a fishing boat and taken to Sydney. While Nemo works with his fishtank mates to escape, Marlin goes on a journey to find him. He meets a forgetful friend named Dory, is challenged by sharks and jellyfish, encounters some wise turtles and then is swallowed by a whale before finally reaching Nemo. When Dory is captured by a fishing net, Marlin lets Nemo try and save her. He does, and they all live happily ever after.
All of the above is STORY. It’s a basic narrative, with plot points fixed in relation to each other. If a subsequent writer decided that the turtles should come before the sharks or that the field of jellyfish should be replaced by scene where Marlin has to beat a flounder in a swimming race, that would earn that writer some story credit points.
Dramatic construction is different. Dramatic construction defines how the basic narrative is executed. While “Nemo rescues Dory” is basic narrative, the dramatic construction of Nemo swimming into the net and urging the other fish to swim down while nearly losing his life in the process is dramatic construction. It’s SCREENPLAY. If a subsequent writer were to keep the plot point and locus of “Nemo rescues Dory” but have Nemo rescue Dory from the mouth of a barracuda, that would earn that writer some screenplay credit points.
Note that these definitions pass the “mutually exclusive” test. That which is basic narrative shall not be dramatic construction, and vice-versa.
Character (Development & Action) Vs. Characterization (and Relationships)
The other major story vs. screenplay dichotomy is character and characterization. “Character” describes the basic profile of the character, as well as his arc and plot actions. “Characterization” describes the execution of the character and the manner in which he relates to other characters. For instance, while the character of Marlin is “neurotic father who desperately searches for his son”, the characterization of Marlin is embodied in the way he gets frustrated by Dory, fumbles joke-telling around the other fish, constantly underestimates himself, etc. Let’s say, then, that Writer A creates the character of Marlin and adds the characterization that he’s flirtatious with Dory. Writer B comes along and decides that the character should remain the same (still neurotic, still searching for his son), but the characterization should change. Specifically, he should resist Dory’s charming personality, and scold her as often as possible.
Writer B has earned no story points, but has earned screenplay points.
Now that I’ve talked about the differences between the mutually exclusive category of “writing that is story” and “writing that is screenplay”, here is another handy Artful guideline for discriminating between them.
Story is material that can be completely described in a treatment. Screenplay is material that can only be completely described in script format.
I don’t know how many credit arbiters approach material with this mindset, but I hope many do. Hell, I hope they all do. However, I have a sneaking suspicion.
I worry that some arbiters mistakenly award screenplay credit for literary material that is (and can only be) contributory towards story credit. It’s easy to read Writer A’s script, then read Writer B’s script, then say, “Boy, Writer B’s script is just a version of A’s. A gets screenplay credit.” One arbiter once told me, “I just ask myself…if I saw Writer B’s movie after seeing Writer A’s movie, would I think I’d just seen a whole new movie, or just a version of the first?”
That’s just wrong. By confounding “story” contributions and “screenplay” contributions, the arbiter is shortchanging the participants, failing to properly determine authorship, and not judging his peers in accordance with the terms of our MBA and our Screen Credits Manual.
The Credits Manual is, by and large, a good thing, but in the months to come, I’m hoping to get a little more explanation and plain English into it. Our writers deserve arbiters who completely and intuitively understand the subtle distinctions between our credits terminologies.
Are these folks
the answer?It’s been a while since I’ve written about credits, so I thought I’d return to one of the great third rails of the WGA credits manual: the penalties levied against so-called “production executives”.
For the purposes of determining credits, production executives are defined as any participating writer who is also serving as either the director or in any capacity as a producer. If you’re a production executive, the rules skew mightily against you.
For starters, if you’re also the first writer of an original, you lose most of your protections (I’ve already written about how stupid that rule is here). Even if you’re a writer on an adaptation, you still get screwed. If you’re working solo, you must always show that you contributed at least 50% to the final script (whereas non-production executive writers need only show 33%) for screenplay credit.
Even worse, all other writers have no specific threshold anymore for credit. The arbiters can reward screenplay credit to the other writers for practically any level of contribution.
Ah, but that’s not all.
If you’re so unlucky as to have written as a team with a production executive, both you and the productive executive really get screwed: you must now show a 60% contribution for screenplay credit, and again, all other writers are subject to no standard for that very same credit.
So let’s review. You work on a screenplay as a team with the director. You and the director write just over half of the final script.
No credit for you.
The path to this particular hell is paved with intentions that are understandable, if not good. The theory is that directors and producers are in a position to glom on for credit. It’s happened to me, it’s happened to others. As such, the standards for directors and producers are made more stringent in the hopes that they will be deterred from taking advantage of opportunity and dabbling with the script just to get credit (and the residuals that go along with credit).
When it comes to directors, there’s not much one can do about this. The rule is what it is. But producers…well, that’s another story.
The problem is that the rules make no distinction between producers who are writing, and writers who are getting a producing credit.
Wouldn’t it be great if the stringent rules applied only to actual producers, and legitimate screenwriters weren’t punished simply for bargaining themselves an “above-and-beyond the call of screenwriting” credit like Co-Executive Producer or Associate Producer?
Until recently, no one really knew what the hell any of those credits actually meant, so it was impossible to imagine credits guidelines that used them as a basis of discrimination.
To be quite clear, the PGA isn’t a federally certified collective bargaining organization like the WGAw or the DGA or SAG. It’s an umbrella organization that represents some pretty big time movie producers who are pooling their resources to try and get some things done. One of their goals is to set some ground rules that define what all those producing credits mean, in order to preserve some legitimacy for the most important of producing credits…”Produced by”.
By defining the sub-producer credits, the PGA may have given us a road map we can use to better define who should be penalized in the WGA credits process for being a “production executive”. The fact is that Associate Producers have no real power to hire or fire writers or influence the writing of the screenplay in any way. “Co-Executive Producer” is often a vanity credit awarded to key studio executives, folks who were around when the project was set up, etc.
I believe that other than directors, the only people who should be penalized for being production executives are those who earn the credits “Produced by” and “Executive Produced by”. The other production credits should be available to legitimate writers to earn freely and without detriment.
Defending writers and their credits against predatory producers is a good thing. Limiting writers’ ability to earn additional recognition as filmmakers is a bad thing. A stupid thing. To date, the Guild hasn’t done a very good job of balancing the need of protection with the right of entrepreneurialism.
Until they do, many writers will continue to anonymously perform filmmaking duties above and beyond the call of screenwriting…because of the punitive policies of their own union.
Call it “counter-productive” in every sense of the word.
In an article on his blog, Steven Peterson makes an argument that credits arbitrations are best examined in the context of game theory.
It’s the right argument. While the architects of the WGA credits guidelines may have been motivated by prosocial concerns or dramaturgical theory, it’s always safest to assume that the participants in arbitrations will be motivated by self-interest.
Steven suggests that this creates a serious flaw in the system, inasmuch as “gaming the rules” will affect the manner in which writers approach rewriting.
…if I get a chance to do a rewrite of a script, I have a strong (self-interested) incentive to substantially change at least 33% or 50% of the material, even if the material doesn’t need that much changing. In fact, it’s an interesting little game by itself: I’m best off if I change enough to get as much credit as possible, while making the story something good, and retaining key elements from the earlier drafts that the producers, director, and actors aren’t willing to sacrifice (otherwise I get removed from the project or the project dies). This is markedly different from when I do a rewrite of my own script — then I keep the good bits and eliminate the bad bits, and, hopefully, after a few iterations of this I have a screenplay composed mostly of good bits.
I’ve seen this argument made a number of times.
I do not find it compelling.
There are two major reasons why “rewriting to the rules” is impractical and ultimately not in the game player’s best interest.
The first is that the goal is not objective, and accurately targeting a subjective goal is impossible. You may think that you’ve “done enough” to pass the 33% or 50% threshhold, but your impression is irrelevant. The judges are three other writers you’ve never met. Their standards of judgment are almost necessarily different than yours, not only because they’re different people, but because readers always approach material from a different perspective than authors of that material.
The second is that credits are awarded for quantitative contributions, but the game player’s continuing success is contingent on his qualitative contributions.
There is only one successful objective to motivate the task of rewriting a screenplay, and that is to write a screenplay that will please the studio and become a movie that pleases the audience. If you write with any ulterior goal in mind, you will fail. I believe this with every ounce of my professional conviction. Readers aren’t stupid. If you take a good scene and make it worse, they will blame you, regardless of your intentions. Given that, it’s best to only try and improve what you can, and preserve what you cannot.
If the game strategy is to “do the best job you can, with no consideration for quantity of change”, then you improve your chances for continued employment on the project. Continued employment on the project improves your chances for increased quantity of contributions. Emphasis on quantity of contributions will necessarily hurt the quality of contribution. This will result in you being rewritten.
In other words, rewriting with a goal of credit will get you hoisted by your own petard.
As always, game theory is instructive, if counterintuitive. I believe the optimum strategy for achieving credit recognition as a screenwriter is this: don’t try and get credit…just do the best job you can do.
Or as Alanis Morissette put it:
The moment I let go of it
Was the moment I got more than I could handle…
Even though I suspect most of you haven’t been in a credit arbitration, it’s never too early to start thinking about it.
You do plan on being successful in the business, right? Well, one of the true costs of success is credit arbitration. It’s emotional, it’s harrowing, and when it doesn’t work out in your favor, the result can be the indignity of sharing credit with someone you don’t think deserved it…or even worse, getting no credit at all for the work you did.
Actually, I think the worst thing is knowing that someone else is getting credit for the work you did, but that’s a tangent.
When you are involved in a credit arbitration, you are asked to write a statement. This statement is the only input you have in the process. Your statement and the scripts you wrote are it, baby. You can’t plead your case in person to the arbiters. You can’t call them. You can’t email. You will never know their names (and theoretically, they’re not supposed to cheat and figure out your name through IMDB).
It’s no surprise, then, that with our dignity, recognition, residuals and credit bonuses on the line, our one shot at making our case suddenly takes on mythic importance.
Having been on both sides of the arbitration process, and having spoken at length with a number of fellow writers who have been arbiters, some common “best practices” have emerged for a good arbitration statement. Take heed—I offer these not as an official WGA recommendation, but as my own personal opinion of what’s best.
Keep the statements short. No, really. I know how difficult it is to be economical when you feel like the other guys are probably submitting volumes of evidence against you. Besides, you have a thousand line-by-line arguments for why the credit ought to be a certain way. The problem is that the arbiters are writers with lives. They have to read three, four, ten…occasionally twenty drafts as part of this unpaid task! Burdening them with an additional novella isn’t going to help your case. How short is short? If the statement is more than two pages, you’re entering the red zone. More than five, and you’re in danger of seriously annoying the reader.
Do not badmouth the other participating writers. This is crucial. Going negative will never help you. The kind of guy who volunteers his time for his fellow writer, aka your arbiter, is precisely the kind of guy who doesn’t like seeing one writer crap on another. Furthermore, it’s a weak move. It’s all-too-easy to assume that you’re battering the other guy because the argument in favor of you ain’t that compelling.
Talk about what you contributed to the final screenplay, and nothing else. Who hired you, what you had to put up with, the bad notes you got, the fact that you didn’t deserve to get fired, the producer who pushed you around and made you do things…honestly, no one gives a good sweet damn. The readers have been given one simple assignment: determine the proper credit for the final screenplay.
Avoid the percentage trap. I must admit, I wrote a terrible statement earlier in my career, and serving as an arbiter and reading other writers’ statements made me realize it. My major error was a common one. Given that our arbiters are supposed to assign credit for contributions of a certain percentage to the final script, it’s awfully tempting to try and do your own mathematical analysis of the writing and help “guide” them to a number. “See, by following my logic and spreadsheet here, you can see that I’ve objectively contributed 58%!” No, no, no. The arbiters don’t want you to throw numbers at them. They want to make up their own minds by reading the scripts, and since they’re going to…why attempt to sway them with groundless arithmetic?
Thank them for their service. This one doesn’t help you win anyone over per se, but you ought to do it nonetheless. These people are giving their time, and they want to be spoken to nicely at the very least and gratefully at the very best. Don’t be a sycophant, but offer appreciation.
Cite the rules. The arbiters are going to have to cite the rules when they write their decisions. You’d best cite them as well. No, don’t quote the whole damn manual. Simply cite the one or two rules that you feel are most relevant. It will help frame the debate. If you have a slightly subtle point (God forbid), you must cite a rule to support it. Otherwise, it will simply flutter away into a cloud of ignored rhetoric.
Accept your fate. Some writers are tempted to look into the future when they write their statements. They say things like, “If I don’t get credit, then I’m just going to lose my mind.” Avoid this. In fact, it’s best to simply say, “I’m glad the decision is in the hands of my fellow writers. I trust you, and I will accept your answer whatever it is”. No, you don’t have to actually believe this. You might really want to say, “And seriously, if you blow this, I will track you down and kill you.” Showing the poor guy on the other end a little faith, though, certainly can’t hurt.
In the end, there’s no real way the style of a statement can sway an arbiter to decide in your favor. I do believe, though, that a bad statement can really hurt a writer’s chances. If you’re a writer who deals with one of these every year or two or three, then I highly recommend becoming an arbiter (call the Credits Department and let them know you’re ready and willing), because it will inevitably make you a better statement-writer.
If you’re a rookie or unproduced, bookmark this. Put it in your “when I make it big” folder. It’s going to happen to you sooner or later. The last thing I’d want is for any of you to repeat some of the mistakes I’ve already made.
Want to anger screenwriters? Show them the summer movie preview in the recent issue of Premiere Magazine. They tell you that Tim Burton directed Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but they don’t mention that John August wrote it.
Here’s the usual explanation for this all-too-typical omission.
“No one respects screenwriters.”
Baloney. If you were to ask the editors of Premiere or Newsweek or the L.A. Times or Film Threat, I’m pretty certain they’d all express an honest respect for screenwriters…particularly those of John’s caliber.
No, if you want the real answer, take a look at the entry for the upcoming skateboard movie Lords of Dogtown. The WGA credit for that film is “Written by Stacy Peralta”, but Premiere candidly points out that director Catherine Hardwicke did a rewrite.
How much of a rewrite? A little? A lot? Who knows? Not the media. Not the readers.
The real reason that publications typically avoid giving screenwriters their due is because they do not trust our credits.
I was speaking the other day with one of our union’s most prominent writers (and he’s a famous director to boot). He’s a true-blue union man, and he believes in the WGA and the promotion of writers. A few years ago, he took on an initiative to try and get writers better publicity in the media. What he heard time and time again was, “Gee, we’d love to, but we’re not in the business of printing lies that come back to bite us in the ass.”
You might scoff at the notion that entertainment reporters have any concerns with credibility or journalistic standards, and if you’re talking about The Star, you’re right. What about Premiere, though, which hires and features “real” journalists like Peter Biskind? Or Time and Newsweek? Or The New Yorker? Or even the much-maligned New York Times?
These magazines and papers don’t like the idea of printing someone else’s version of the truth. If the government says that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the media’s job is to question that rather than accept it (you may argue that they failed in that task, but that’s another debate).
The reason periodicals promote the director is because they know that person is the director.
They do not know who really wrote the movie. They read the same stories we do. The Mike Rich “Miracle” debacle. Julia Roberts thanking Richard LaGravenese at the Oscars.
Some writers insist that the solution is “one writer per movie”. My belief is that this is an impossible pipe dream, and I’ll write about why another day. Let’s stipulate for now that this isn’t likely any time soon.
So what then?
Maybe the answer is end credits. Maybe the answer is a more inclusive series of credits guidelines.
One thing’s for sure. Our credit system isn’t passing the sniff test with the rest of the world, and the victims aren’t just the writers who really have written the movie.
We’re all suffering. Stop complaining about the anonymity, folks. It’s our own fault.
We have a number of credits guidelines that I consider “bad”, but one stands out as truly awful. Why? Because I don’t think it’s good for anyone.
There’s basically two philosophical credits camps among WGA writers. One camp believes that the first writer (particularly in the case of original or spec material) must be more protected than they are. The other camp believes that these kinds of preferences are irrelevant, and the rules ought to be the same no matter what the hiring chronology is.
Our current rules state that if you write an original screenplay, anyone who comes along and rewrites you must ultimately show that they contributed at least half of the final shooting script in order to even receive shared credit. Any amount less than half and you get zippo. The rule states:
In the case of an original screenplay, any subsequent writer or writing team must contribute 50% to the final screenplay [in order to receive screenplay credit].
For everyone else…meaning the first writer of an original or any writer involved in an adaptation…the threshold for screenplay credit is 33%.
This means you could contribute the same amount of material for two different movies, but only receive screenplay credit for one of them. Personally, I think that’s nuts, but that’s not the worst rule we have.
Here’s another rule. If you’re a “production executive”, which basically means director or any kind of producer, and you do some rewriting, you always have to show a 50% contribution (even in the case of adaptations). Why? Well, producers and directors have influence over the hiring and firing of writers, and so some argue they ought to be held to a higher standard. I think that’s also ridiculous (given that a contribution is a contribution no matter who makes it or for what reason), but hey, it’s still not the worst rule we have.
Remember how if you write an original screenplay, subsequent writers must show a contribution of at least 50% to share credit? Well…what if you write an original and you’re a producer on it? Here’s the rule:
In cases where the Arbitration Committee finds that the production executive has made a sufficient contribution to the final script to warrant screenplay credit, any other writer or writers employed may, at the discretion of the Committee, share screenplay credit for any substantial contribution without necessarily meeting the usually required percentage.
What that means is that if you sell a spec and are a producer on your spec, you get penalized. The subsequent writers no longer have to meet a 50% threshold. They don’t even have to meet a 33% threshold. They can pretty much get credit for “any substantial contribution”.
This is the worst credit rule we have.
Why? Well, if we believe in protecting the first writer, why are we punishing them for being entrepreneurial? The entire point of protecting the first writer is to discourage rewriting, reward the origination of the material and hopefully…in the end…enhance the prestige of the screenwriter.
Personally, I don’t think social engineering our credits guidelines will ever do that, but hey, if you believe in that sort of thing, then why the hell would you punish the first writer for getting more control over his or her project by serving as a producer???
Now, if you don’t believe in protecting the first writer at the expense of other writers but you also don’t think writers should ever be penalized for being producers, this is one limited way you can at least achieve some small progress. I don’t think we’ll ever get rid of the 50% protection for first writers, so hey…here’s a chance to at least preserve the ability to safely produce movies for some writers.
If you have to show a 50% contribution to get screenplay credit as a subsequent writer on an original screenplay, then that’s that. It shouldn’t matter if the first writer is a producer or not.
What do you think?
It’s sweeps week here at TAW, so in order to keep the traffic up, we’ll stick with our popular “credits” theme. There’s been some interesting chat over at WriterAction about the Tentative Notice of Writing Credits, that horrifying piece of mail that so often kick-starts the bloodbath known as WGA arbitration.
When a film has completed principal photography, the company must send each participating writer a copy of the final script along with their proposal for the writing credits. How does the company arrive at this proposal? Good question. On the one hand, I’d like to think that a credits expert well-versed in Schedule A of the MBA carefully analyzes all of the writers’ contributions, and then formulates a tentative award of credits per the Guild’s credit guidelines.
On the other hand, they could be jumbling names in a hat. My best guess is that it’s probably somewhere in between.
The larger point here is that it’s the studio that makes this initial determination. Not the WGA. Why the studio? Theoretically, they are the entity most familiar with all of the drafts. Furthermore, if they make a proposal with which the participants agree, there’s no need to burden the WGA with any work at all. Ultimately, however, the studio must make a proposal that is within the limitations of the MBA, and those limitations are actually more strict than the ones the WGA arbiters have. For instance, the studios can only propose that two writers share screenplay credit. WGA arbiters, however, can award screenplay credit to three writers.
Once we receive the TNoWC (which comes directly from the studios, although the WGA is cc’ed), we then have a bunch of options. We can:
- Do nothing. If the credits necessitate an automatic arbitration (e.g. a producer is seeking credit), then the Guild will initiate it. If they don’t, inaction means you consent to the studio’s proposal.
- Reach a separate agreement on credits with the other participating writers, which then becomes the final credits for the film (as long as the credits are MBA legal).
- Protest the tentative credits by contacting the Guild. This initiates an arbitration.
I’ll make a point that Ted is pretty adamant about, and I agree that it’s one worth making. While it sure seems that writers protesting credits are essentially attacking each other, the reality is that a writer is really challenging the studio’s actions.
One of the ideas floated is to publicize the TNoWC, so that writers can make sure that they’re not included on one that never made it to their mailbox. Personally, I’m against publicizing the notices for the same reason I’m against web sites publishing reviews of screenplays that are going into production: the information is tentative, but that subtle distinction often gets lost on folks in the press.
In our Committee On Credits Administration (Lord help me, I can’t remember the real name), we’re trying to come up with better ways to notify writers about tentative credits…and also make the entry into the credits process a bit more considerate of the emotions involved. The TNoWC is a very business-like document, and the WGA materials that shortly follow it are also very impersonal.
What can we do to make the very beginning of the credits process a bit more respectful of the intense emotions involved? Is there anything we can do institutionally to help make option #2 (participating writers determining their own credits) more popular or easy to achieve?
Arguing about end credits is a bit like debating whether a parachute or a glider would be the best way off the roof of a burning building…even though you have neither.
We can discuss the merits and drawbacks, but there’s always this sense that the membership won’t vote for them anyway. Regardless, this is an important debate to have, because it’s possible that the membership would vote for end credits, and their justification goes to the heart of the differing credits philosophies.
Currently, our credits system is designed to recognize authorship. The problem with our system is that in cases where the first script written is an original script (i.e. not based on underlying material), a subsequent writer must show that he wrote at least 50% of the final script to receive credit.
In short, you could write nearly half of a script, and not only receive no credit…but no residuals, no awards, no separated rights, no official acknowledgement from your peers. Nothing. Zippo. It’s like it never happened. Even worse (in my opinion), the work that you did do is now fully attributed to someone else. That’s the criminal part.
I’ve never been shy about my view of this situation. We currently award credits based on a socioeconomic scheme designed to reduce the firing of first writers and the hiring of subsequent writers. I consider that immoral. In my mind, writing credit ought to be for writing done. Contributions made. And that’s it.
Suffice it to say, I’m not the only one who thinks this way, but there are plenty of Guild members who disagree. And so, into the breach…end credits.
The idea of end credits is simply to add a list of participating writers in the back credits, somewhere in there between the grips and the gaffers. It’s a way of acknowledging that these writers worked on the movie. After all, as it’s often been pointed out, if you write almost half a movie you don’t get a credit, but if you work for a month at the craft services table, you do.
You’d think I’d be in favor of end credits.
I am…sort of…a little bit.
My basic view is that end credits will clearly diminish the value of the front credits, no matter what the specific form they take (Ted argues that “consulting writers” is the best phrasing, since that doesn’t necessarily imply that they made a contribution). The question is: how can we limit end credits in order to not unfairly diminish the contributions of the author(s) of the movie?
Remember, end credits are blanket. They don’t discriminate between the guy who wrote nearly half the movie and the guy who wrote one line of dialogue. If it’s a crime to suggest that someone who writes nearly half the movie isn’t one of the writers, it’s also a crime to introduce the notion that someone who wrote 99% of the movie may have only written a little over half. That is, in effect, what a blanket end credit could conceivably imply, and since we’re dealing with a public acknowledgement, we ought to consider that equally.
Here’s my stab at how end credits ought to be implemented.
You will receive an end credit if you are a participating writer not receiving a front credit, and:
- You were employed to write, at the very least, the equivalent of a polish.
- You were not employed as a participant on a “round table” or the equivalent.
- You clearly contributed at least two unique elements to the film as it appears on screen. Those elements can be any combination of: a specific scene, a specific primary or secondary character, a specific characterization of a primary or secondary character, or the equivalent of five standard script pages of dialogue.
Obviously, these changes would require membership approval as well as a negotiation for inclusion in the MBA. It’s a starting point. What do you think?
Boy, I’m getting better at provocative titles, huh?
When WGA arbiters sit down to figure out who deserves credit for the screenplay of a movie, they’re not giving credit for Writer A’s draft or Writer B’s draft.
They’re giving credit for the screenplay. What’s the screenplay? The MBA, Schedule A, Paragraph 1 states:
The term “screenplay” means the final script (as represented on screen) with individual scenes and full dialogue, together with such prior treatment, basic adaptation, continuity, scenario and dialogue as shall be used in and represent substantial contributions to the final script.
All of that’s important stuff, but right now the key phrase is “as represented on screen”.
Of course the arbiters are given individual drafts written by the various participating writers, but they are also given the most important draft of all—the shooting script. The shooting script, or final script, is essentially the last compiled draft that was used during production. In theory and typically in practice, no one has written this script. It’s the frankenscript culled together by the production. On projects with only one or two writers, its relationship to individually written drafts is often clear. On projects with ten writers, it’s a thing-unto-itself.
So if no one specifically sat down and authored the final script, then who can we say is its author?
That’s for the arbiters to decide. Screenplay credit is not given for the scripts we write. It’s not given for our efforts or for our time. It’s not given for our struggles. It’s not given for our role in getting the movie greenlit.
It’s only given for our contributions to the final script—the 120 pages no one actually wrote as such, but someone very certainly authored.
For as long as I’ve been a Guild member, our credit policies have been the single largest nexus of discontent among our membership.
Many years ago, the Guild won the right to determine the writing credits on films, and since that time, the policies have been debated and massaged like the U.S. Tax Code.
And still, no one seems very happy. Just like the U.S. Tax Code.
There are two main areas of credits policy. The first is the Great Quagmire—our credits guidelines. These guidelines are the rules by which our member arbiters determine who ought to get credit. Any changes in those rules must be ratified by the membership.
The second area is the administrative, or procedural aspect of credits. How are participants notified? How does Guild staff interact with them? What are the qualifications for arbiters? How do appeals work? Should arbiters work together or separately?
At Monday night’s Board Meeting, we created a new subcommittee of the Board that would only work to make recommendations about the administration of credits. We can’t touch the guidelines at all. If a recommendation requires membership approval, we’re not allowed to make it.
The committee is co-chaired by Ted Elliott and me, and it also includes Robert King, J.F. Lawton, Aaron Mendelsohn and Irma Kalish. That gives the committee a nice mix of first-writer advocates and subsequent-writer advocates. Better yet, those divisions are essentially irrelevant to a committee like this.
Our mandate is improve the process of credit arbitration in the hopes of reducing the level of emotional trauma that seems to go hand in hand with credits determination.
If you’re a WGA member, go ahead and use the comments function to suggest any ideas. Remember, we can’t touch the credits guidelines themselves. Stay tuned; I’ll have more updates on opportunities for you to be heard on this issue. Member input is crucial to this committee.
So, the theoretical question has arisen: how is it ever possible that a group of writers could write scripts connected by a single chain of title, and yet some of those writers would not be considered participating writers by the WGA in an arbitration?
Here’s my explanation, informed by my reading of the MBA, but no less informed by a discussion I had with Ted Elliott, who crystalized the “as if” theory (more on that later).