WGA screenwriting credit system
In the United States, writing credit for motion pictures and television programs written under the jurisdiction of the Writers Guild of America, East ("WGAE") and the Writers Guild of America, West ("WGAW") (collectively, "the WGA") is determined by the WGA. Since 1941, the WGA has been the final arbiter of who receives credit for writing a theatrical, television or new media motion picture written under the WGA's jursidiction. A production company that signs the WGA Theatrical and Television Basic Agreement ("MBA") must comply with the WGA rules on writing credits.
The system affects reputation, union membership, and income.
It affects reputation since some sources list only WGAE or WGAW determined writing credits. John Howard Lawson, the first president of the Screen Writers Guild (the WGAW's former name) said, "A writer's name is his most cherished possession. It is his creative personality, the symbol of the whole body of his ideas and experience."
The credit system can affect eligibility for membership in the union, as one way in which a person becomes a member of the WGAW is by accruing points which are awarded based on the individual's writing credit. Membership points are also accrued through employment by, or sale or option to, a company that is signatory to the MBA. (WGAW Constitution, Article 4, Section 4.d.)
It can also affect income. While all writers are paid when they work, some contracts limit contingent compensation to writers if they are not officially credited. Additionally, only credited writers typically receive residual income from future exploitation of a film on video, pay-per-view, broadcast television, etc.
On completion of a film or television motion picture, the producer submits to the WGA and to all eligible "participating writers" a Notice of Tentative Writing Credits ("NTWC") which sets forth the proposed writing credits for the project and circulates the final shooting script to all participating writers employed on the script. (MBA, Theatrical Schedule A ("TSA"), Paragraph 11; Television Schedule A ("TVSA"), Paragraph 11; New Media Sideletter ("NMS"), Paragraphs 2.(b)(3) and 3.(b)(3).) A "participating writer" is a writer who was either 1) employed by the Company to perform writing services on the project or who 2) sold literary material to the Company AND is a "professional writer" as that term is defined in the MBA. (MBA, Articles 1.B.1.a. and 1.C.1.a.)
If any participating writer objects to the proposed credits, credit for the film enters arbitration. In addition, if a production executive (i.e. the director or producer of the film) is being proposed for writing credit and there are other, non-production executive participating writers on the project, an automatic arbitration is required. (TSA, Paragraph 6; TVSA, Paragraph 5; Screen Credits Manual ("SCM"), Section III.C.1; Television Credits Manual ("TVCM"), Section III.C.1.) An automatic arbitration is also required when three writers are proposed for "screenplay by," "teleplay by" or "written by" credit, when an "adaptation by" credit is proposed, when a "screen story by," or "television story by" credit is proposed and, with television and new media series only, when a "developed by" credit is proposed and there is a writer who is entitled to separated rights in the series. (TSA, Paragraphs 1, 2.c., and 4; TVSA, Paragraphs 1, 2.c., and 3; SCM, Sections III.A.10 and III.B.3. and 4.; TVCM, Sections III.B.1., 3., and 5.)
In arbitration, Guild members review all drafts of the screenplay by each writer and determine writing credit on the project based on the rules set forth in the SCM or the TVCM.
The credit rules differ for theatrical motion pictures and television/new media motion pictures. On a theatrical motion picture, the applicable rules depend on whether the screenplay is classified as an "original screenplay" or a "non-original screenplay." An "original screenplay" is a screenplay that "is not based on source material and on which the first writer writes a screenplay without there being any intervening literary material by another writer pertaining to the project." (TSA, Section III.B.4.b.(1)) "Source material" is defined as "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." (SCM, Section III.A.3.; TVCM, Section III.A.3.) In the case of an original screenplay, the first writer must contribute more than 33% of the screenplay to receive "screenplay by" credit. Subsequent writers must contribute 50% of the screenplay to receive "screenplay by" credit, unless the subsequent writer is a "production executive" (a producer or director), who must contribute more than 50% of the screenplay to receive "screenplay by" credit. (SCM, Sections III.B.4.a. and III.C.3.)
A "non-original screenplay" is a screenplay that is "based upon source material and all other screenplays" that do not qualify as original screenplays, such as sequels. (TSA, Section III.b.4.b.(2).) In the case of a non-original screenplay, any writer who contributes more than 33% of the screenplay is entitled to "screenplay by" credit. There is no heightened percentage for production executives.
On a television or new media motion picture, the credit rules are the same regardless of whether the participating writer is a production executive. Any subsequent writer who contributes "substantially more" than the first writer on a television or new media motion picture is entitled to "teleplay by" credit. (TVCM, Section III.B.4.a - b.)
Credit can be apportioned separately for the story, and for the screenplay or teleplay itself when all writers were not equally involved in the creation of both. "Story" is defined as "all writing covered by the [MBA] representing a contribution distinct from screenplay and consisting of basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development." (TSA, Paragraph 2; TVSA, Paragraph 2; SCM, Section III.A.4.; TVCM, Section III.B.2.) "Screenplay" - for theatrical motion pictures - and "Teleplay" - for television and new media motion pictures - is generally defined as "the final script (as represented on the 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." (TSA, Paragraph 1; SCM, Section III.A.6; TVCM, Section III.B.4.; see also, TVSA, Paragraph 1.) When the same writer or writers are entitled to both "Screenplay by" and "Story by" credit or "Teleplay by" and "Story by" credit, the credit will read "Written by." (TSA, Paragraph 3;TVSA, Paragraph 1; SCM, Section III.A.7.; TVCM, Section III.B.1.)
A writing team is considered a single writer; a team is identified by the use of an ampersand ("&") between the names of the members of the team. The names of writers (or writing teams) who wrote individually of one another are separated by the word "and." So, a credit reading "John Doe & Richard Roe and Jane Doe & Jane Roe" means that there were two writing teams, John and Richard on one and the two Janes on the other, and they were working on the script at different times, one after the other. An individual writer who works on a script independently of a team or another independent writer will also have his/her name joined to the list of credits by an "and." (SCM, Section I.B.; TVCM, Section I.B.)
In the case of a sequel to a theatrical motion picture, the credited writers of the original motion picture must receive the credit "based on characters created by" if they had separated rights in the original motion picture. If there are no separated rights in the original motion picture, the "based on characters created by" credit is discretionary. (TSA, Paragraph 2.d.; SCM, Section III.A.9.) In television and new media, "based on characters created by" is only required in the case of a sequel to an "MOW" (movie-of the week; e.g., a long-form television motion picture) if the writers of the MOW on which the sequel is based have separated rights. In any other case, "based on characters created by" is discretionary. (TVSA, Paragraph 2.d.)
"Screenplay by," "Teleplay by," and "Written by" credit cannot be shared by more than three writers (or writing teams) and then, only as the result of arbitration. (TSA, Paragraph 4; TVSA, Paragraph 3.)
The WGA also permits use of a reasonable pseudonym if a writer requests one in a timely fashion, but the WGA may also refuse to accept a pseudonym if it is designed only to make a statement. For example, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski wanted to take his name off the Babylon 5 spin-off series Crusade and substitute "Eiben Scrood" ("I been screwed") to protest script changes the production company made. According to Straczynski, the WGAW refused because "it 'diminished the value' of the show and basically made light of the studio."
There is a common misconception that a "story by" credit may be given to a person who simply has the story idea for a film or television program. This is never the case, as all writing credits are for actual writing. A written story document or treatment, or in some cases, a complete script are required to receive "Story by" credit. A writer may be accorded a "Story by" credit, only, despite having written a complete script if, for example, a subsequent writer does a "page one rewrite" that entitles him/her to sole "Screenplay by" credit. For theatrical motion pictures, only, the first writer on an original screenplay is titled to no less than shared "Story by" credit. This is known as the Irreducible Story Minimum. (TSA, Section III.B.6.)
Here are some complicated examples of WGA-approved exceptions to writer-only credit.
- The Rock (1996)
- Armageddon (1998)
- Scary Movie 4 (2006)—the original Scary Movie was based on a combination of two scripts, causing its sequels to have increasingly complicated writing credits.
- The Heartbreak Kid (2007)—a remake of the 1972 film of the same name, which was based on a short story.
- Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)—the fourth film in the series based on the theme park ride; the plot of this film was taken from a novel.
Some WGA members have criticized the arbitration process. The WGA, however, has won most lawsuits against them, and in 2002 the WGA membership overwhelmingly rejected changes to the arbitration procedures. In 2010, however, the WGA membership approved a reformat of the Television Credits Manual and a change to the rule for "non-original" screenplays in the Screen Credits Manual, allowing any writer who contributes more than 33% of the screenplay to receive credit, thereby eliminating the heightened percentage for production executives.
A credit arbitration consists of three WGA members reading all of the literary and source material for a project and, based on the applicable rules in the SCM or TVCM, determining what the appropriate writing credit on the project should be. Each participating writer may elect to submit a statement to the Arbitration Committee making their case for writing credit, but such statements are not evidence and the Arbitration Committee must base its decision solely on the literary materials. (SCM, Section II.D.4.b.; TVCM, Section II.D.6.)
The identities of the arbiters are secret. Each participating writer on an arbitration, however, is given a list of all writers who are eligible to act as arbiters. Each participating writer has the right to challenge a reasonable number of names on the Arbiters' List and those members who have been challenged will not be solicited to read the arbitration. (SCM, Section II.D.1; TVCM, Section II.D.1.)
Each member of the Arbitration Committee reads all of the materials selected by the participating writers for consideration (and any source material) independently of the other members and makes his/her credit determination. The decision of the Arbitration Committee need not be unanimous and if a unanimous decision cannot be reached, the majority decision is deemed the decision of the Arbitration Committee. (SCM, Section II.D.6; TVCM, Section II.D.6.) Once the Arbitration Committee has reached its decision, each participating writer is notified of the determination.
Each writer has 24 hours from the time s/he is advised of the decision of the Arbitration Committee to request an appeal before a Policy Review Board ("PRB"). (SCM, Section II.D.7.; TVCM, Section II.D.7.) This is a strict 24 hour period; if a writer is notified at 10:35 a.m. on Monday of the decision, s/he has until 10:35 a.m. on Tuesday to request an appeal. In order to determine whether to seek a PRB, the participating writers are entitled to see the written decisions of the Arbitration Committee, which are coded to preserve anonymity. (SCM, Section II.D.7; TVCM, Section II.D.7.) A PRB is a procedural review only; the members of the PRB are not permitted to read the material and substitute their judgment as to the proper credit for that of Arbitration Committee. Rather, the PRB can only review the conduct of the arbitration to determine if any of the following grounds exist: 1) dereliction of duty on the part of the Arbitration Committee or any of its members; 2) the use of undue influence upon the Arbitration Committee or any of its members; 3) the misinterpretation, misapplication, or violation of Guild policy; or 4) availability of important literary or source material for valid reasons not previously available to the Arbitration Committee. (SCM, Section II.D.7.; TVCM; Section II.D.7.)
WGA members have criticized the way the process handles existing material, such as a book, that is adapted to film. Generally, the first writer to work on such a project naturally appropriates the most cinematic elements of the story. Other teams that subsequently work on the script, however, may base their work on the original text rather than that first draft. Barry Levinson, the director of Wag the Dog and a disputant over screenwriting credit for the film (which was adapted from a novel), says:
If a writer creates an idea from scratch, that's one thing. Even if the script is given to other writers and rewritten, that first writer created the seeds of that idea and he or she should get some regard. But for a script from a book, it's different.
Even if little of the initial efforts remain in the final script, the original writer is often awarded credit because he or she was first on the scene.
Conflict and resolution examples
Frank Pierson, former WGAW president (and former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), says that, "The large majority of credits are still straightforward and uncontested," but "When they go wrong, they go horribly wrong." Writer-director Phil Alden Robinson says, "No one can trust the writing credit. Nobody knows who really wrote the film."
When Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was adapted for the screen, Alex Cox and Tod Davies wrote the initial adaptation. When Terry Gilliam was brought in to direct, he rewrote it with Tony Grisoni. The WGA initially denied Gilliam and Grisoni any credit, even though Gilliam claimed nothing of the original adaptation remained in the final film. "As a director, I was automatically deemed a 'production executive' by the Guild and, by definition, discriminated against. But for Tony to go without any credit would be really unfair." After complaints, the WGA did award Gilliam and Grisoni credit, in addition to Cox and Davies, but Gilliam resigned from the union over the dispute. "It's really a Star Chamber," said Gilliam of the arbitration process, which he claimed took more work than the screenplay itself.
Similar problems arose for the film Ronin. According to director John Frankenheimer, "The credits should read: Story by J. D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet. We didn't shoot a line of Zeik's script." Instead, Mamet received credit under a pseudonym. After the controversy over credits for Wag the Dog, Mamet reportedly has decided to attach his name only to movies on which he is the sole writer.
An example in television is the show Lost. This began as an idea from ABC television executive Lloyd Braun for a series similar to the Tom Hanks movie Cast Away. Writer Jeffrey Lieber was brought in to flesh out the idea into a treatment. Lieber wrote a pilot script for a series he called Nowhere. ABC passed on Lieber's idea and instead brought in J.J. Abrams to create the show. Abrams and Damon Lindelof produced the version of the show which would eventually be aired. Lieber, however, asked for WGA arbitration and the WGA ruled that he had contributed significantly enough to the final concept of Lost to receive credit.
From 1993 to 1997, there were 415 arbitrations, about one-third of all films whose credits were submitted.
- Acknowledgment (creative arts)
- Billing (filmmaking)
- Character generator
- Cinema of the United States
- Closing credits
- Credit (creative arts)
- Opening credits
- Title sequence
- Television in the United States
- WGA script registration service
- Writers Guild of America Award
- Willens, Michele (May 17, 1998). "FILM; How Many Writers Does It Take...?". The New York Times. Retrieved February 25, 2009.
- Welkos, Robert (May 11, 1998). "Giving Credit Where It's Due". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved February 24, 2009.
- Mamet Versus Writers Guild, the Action Thriller Sequel
When the article focuses on certain films, they are noted in parenthesis after the citation
- Michael Cieply and James Bales. "Legal Clash Over 'Samurai' Credit". The Los Angeles Times. June 6, 2004. C1. (The Last Samurai)
- Jane Galbraith. "3 on the Towne, or How to get a 'Firm' writing credit". The Los Angeles Times. July 4, 1993. (Adaptation of John Grisham's The Firm)
- "Giving credit where credit's due". Hollywood Reporter. October 8, 2002. 97.
- Michael A. Hiltzik. "Untangling the Web". The Los Angeles Times. March 24, 2002. A1. (Spider-Man)
- Shawn Levy. "Hollywood Tale: Writing the Script, Losing the Credit". The Oregonian (Portland, Oregon). January 25, 2004. A1. (Miracle)
- Nick Madigan. "Scribe tribe on warpath". Daily Variety. June 8, 1998. 1.
- Dennis McDougal. "Hollywood Screenwriters Weigh a Real-Life Revolution at the Ballot Box". The New York Times. September 18, 2004. A17.
- Dave McNary."WGA mulls credit rules". Daily Variety. October 24, 2002. 2.
- Dave McNary. "Scribes nix bid to ease credit rules". Daily Variety. November 18, 2002. 1.
- Dave McNary. "A thorny debate continues to plague the Writers Guild of America". Daily Variety. December 18, 2003. A10.
- Kate O'Hare. "The "Bus Guy" Triumphs on Boomtown. Zap2It.com. May 23, 2003
- Tom Shales. "Sometimes Giving Credit When It's Due Isn't Easy". Chicago Tribune. May 3, 1985. 5. (A television miniseries on Raoul Wallenberg)
- Virginia Wright Wetman. "Success Has 1,000 Fathers (So Do Films)". ' The New York Times. May 28, 1995. Arts section, p. 16.
- Robert W. Welkos. "'Cable', 'Rock' in Dispute on Writing Credits". The Los Angeles Times. May 21, 1996. F1. (The Rock and The Cable Guy)
- Robert W. Welkos. "Giving Credit Where It's Due". The Los Angeles Times. May 11, 1998. A1.
- Michelle Williams. "How Many Writers Does It Take...?" The New York Times. May 17, 1998. Arts section, p. 17.