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In the United States, screenwriting credit for motion pictures and television programs under its jurisdiction is determined by either the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) or the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW). Since 1941, the Guilds have been the final arbiter of who receives credit for writing a screenplay or original story, or credit for creating the original characters. A production company that signs the Guild Basic Agreement must comply with the Guild rules on screenwriting credits.
The system affects reputation, union membership, and income.
It affects reputation since some sources list only WGAE or WGAW certified 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 affects eligibility for membership in the union, which is determined on points awarded based on what a writer has been credited for.
It can also affect income. While all writers are paid when they work, some contracts limit payments 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, the producer presents proposed screenwriting credits to the guild and circulates the final script to all writers employed on the script. If any writer objects to the proposed credits, credit for the film enters arbitration. If the director or producer of the film is being proposed for a final writing credit, this triggers an automatic arbitration (WGA Screen Credits Manual, section III.C.1)
In arbitration, Guild members review all drafts of the screenplay by each writer and follow a formula that determines the credits.
The WGAE and WGAW both resolutely reject the auteur theory—that only the director is the "author" of a film—so a "production executive" (a producer or director) who claims a writing credit must meet a higher standard than others to receive credit. An original writer must contribute at least one-third of the final screenplay to receive credit. Subsequent writers who work as script doctors must contribute more than half of the final screenplay to receive formal credit on a film. A production executive who works on a script must contribute at least half the final product to receive credit (WGA Screen Credits Manual, section III.C.3).
Credit can be apportioned separately for the story, which is defined as a short treatment of the plot and characters, and for the screenplay itself when all writers were not equally involved in the creation of both. A credit might read "Story by John Doe. Screenplay by John Doe & Richard Roe." If an original screenplay is written, but then not used and a new screenplay is written, typically the original author receives at a minimum a shared "story by" credit.
Where a team of writers works together on a screenplay, their names are joined by an ampersand (&), and when two teams of writers work successively on a script, the teams are joined by 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."
Where a film has been based on a previous film, but does not remake it, a "based on characters created by" credit is given, such as on the show Frasier. Every episode gives credits to James Burrows, Glen Charles and Les Charles, the creators of Cheers, the show where the character of Dr. Frasier Crane originated.
Only three writers may be credited for the screenplay if they collaborated and a maximum of three teams of no more than three writers may be credited no matter how many actually worked on it. For example, Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) had about a dozen writers, as did Hulk (2003). The film adaptation of The Flintstones (1994) supposedly had over sixty writers. This limit doesn't include those awarded credit elsewhere for creating characters or the original story.
The Guilds also permit use of a pseudonym if a writer requests one in a timely fashion, but the Guilds 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. In such cases, a screenwriter produces an original screenplay that subsequently undergoes a "page one rewrite" by a different writer or writers that produces a new and significantly different draft, as determined by the WGA. In many such cases, the original author receives the "story by" rather than "screenplay by" credit. This is known as the Irreducible Story Minimum.
Here are some complicated examples of WGA-approved exceptions to writer-only credit.
Some Guild members have criticized the arbitration process. The Guild, however, have won most lawsuits against them, and in 2002 the WGA membership overwhelmingly rejected changes to the arbitration procedures.
A chief objection by guild members is the secrecy of the process.[who?] Identities of the arbiters are secret, so concerned parties have no way to object to the qualifications or possible biases of their judges. Also, any explanation of the decision itself is secret, even from the parties to the dispute, so they have no way to know why they lost or won credit. Secret rationales make an appeal impossible, and define no precedent for future disputes. There is an appeal panel, but it only concerns itself with technical details as to whether the decision followed the rules.
Guild 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:
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.
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 Guild 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 Guild 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.
From 1993 to 1997, there were 415 arbitrations, about one-third of all films whose credits were submitted.
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