Tuesday, July 15, 2014

An introduction to the WGA arbitration process for determining screen credit

In seeking out new topics for this blog, it occurred to me that we haven't really covered the issue of WGA arbitration.  This is the process by which screen credit is determined.  The names you see credited at the start of each film and TV show weren't just placed there at the whim of the director or producers. Since many projects have multiple writers and may even have a pretty complicated development history, there needs to be a mechanism for determining who gets the screen credit.  This is significant because screen credit is tied to royalties.  The more significant credit you get, the more money you get.

It's an unfortunate truth that writers are often replaced on projects.  Sometimes this is the result of a studio, director or producer being unsatisfied with a writer's latest draft, sometimes it's a case of a writer stepping out after declining to rewrite, and sometimes it happens when a director wants "his guy" to finish out the project.

In some studio films, an entire army of writers will be hired in succession.  The Flintstones movie supposedly had 60 writers who worked on it at one point or another.  Catwoman had over a dozen writers on it at one time or another.  The Writers Guild of America doesn't allow for all of them to be credited.  In fact, "Story by" credit may only be shared among two writers and the same goes for "Screenplay by." (For the purposes of credits, a screenwriting team is considered "one writer." As an example, Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci were an official writing team, so they count as one writer and may share screen credit with one further writer or team.)

For those of you who don't know, a writing team is always denoted by an ampersand.  (Blogger really likes to screw up ampersands, by the way.  Many apologies if that happens here.) So if you see a credit like "Written by William Goldman and Roberto Orci & Alex Kurtzman," you can understand that to mean that Goldman wrote the first draft alone and was rewritten by the team of Orci & Kurtzman.

In some instances, the writers may work out the screen credits among themselves.  The Guild rules give them the right to do so as long as its unanimous.  This can happen when a writer comes on and is perfectly upfront about not wanting credit.  He or she may be happy with their standard fee and merely getting the project to production.  This isn't uncommon, by the way. A really good rewriter will call up the previous writer on the project and say "Look, I'm the new guy here.  Why don't you fill me in on what's led to this and we'll see if I can't bring this home in a way that'll satisfy everyone.  I'm not here to steal your credit. I'm just here to get this into production."  If you're lucky, it's one of these guys rewriting your script.

If you're not lucky, you've got a credit-grabber who's also seeking credit. I know plenty of writers with stories about credit-grabbers who came on a project after them and couldn't wait to change character names, move action scenes from uptown to midtown, and re-christen certain settings and locations.  Their hope was that some of those changes would last until the end and then their draft would be see as the one that originated enough of those elements to retain screen credit.

Those kinds of writers are the reason WGA arbitration exists.  This process is when three current members of the WGA are assigned to a committee that receives the particular case.  Both the screenwriters and the arbiters are anonymous, and the three arbiters independently review the final shooting script as well as all submitted drafts to determine which authors (identified as "Writer A," "Writer B" and so on) deserve credit for contributing most to the final film.  Each writer may also submit a statement.  The Screen Credits Manual descibes this process as such:

Each participating writer is strongly urged to submit a written statement of his/her position to the Screen Credits Administrator to forward to the arbiters. It is suggested that the statement address the requirements to receive credit as set forth in this Manual, “Section III. Guild Policy on Cred - its.” The statement may include breakdowns and illustrative comparisons between the final shooting script and earlier work or any other information which would help the Arbitration Committee to evaluate the writer’s contribution to the final shooting script.

While I'm quoting the manual, it's probably useful to reproduce exactly how it says screen credit should be determined.

Additional Guidelines for the Arbiters in Determining Screenplay Credit

In each case, the arbiters read any source material and all literary material provided to them in connection with the development of the final screenplay in order to assess the contribution of each writer to the final shooting script.

The percentage contribution made by writers to screenplay obviously cannot be determined by counting lines or even the number of pages to which a writer has contributed. Arbiters must take into consideration the following elements in determining whether a writer is entitled to screenplay credit:

■ dramatic construction;

■ original and different scenes;

■ characterization or character relationships; and

■ dialogue.

 It is up to the arbiters to determine which of the above-listed elements are most important to the overall values of the final screenplay in each particular case. A writer may receive credit for a contribution to any or all of the above-listed elements. It is because of the need to understand contributions to the screenplay as a whole that professional expertise is required on the part of the arbiters. For example, there have been instances in which every line of dialogue has been changed and still the arbiters have found no significant change in the screenplay as a whole. On the other hand, there have been instances where far fewer changes in dialogue have made a significant contribution to the screenplay as a whole. In addition, a change in one portion of the script may be so significant that the entire screenplay is affected by it.

There's also a very important guildline listed under "Irreducible Story Minimum:" "In the case of an original screenplay, the first writer shall be entitled to no less than a shared story credit."

So if you write an original spec, take heart that at the very least, you'll get shared story credit.

That's a basic introduction to arbitration.  If you want to find out more, I really encourage you to look at the "Credits Survival Guide" on the WGA website and read through the entire Screen Credits Manual.

And if that still isn't enough, tomorrow I'll have someone who's actually served on several arbitrations answer some follow-up questions about the process.  Make sure you don't miss it.

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