For screenwriters, writing credit is a big deal. It’s a significant milestone that separates you from the majority of other working and aspiring writers out there, and there are often considerable financial benefits tied to receiving writing credit. This post will look at how writing credit is determined and what benefits are typically connected with receiving credit.
First, it’s important to differentiate between projects that are signatory to the Writers Guild of America and non-guild projects. For non-guild projects, how the credit is determined and the financial ties to that credit are whatever the agreement states.
If your contract guarantees you “Written by” credit, congratulations… you’ve got “Written by” credit on the film no matter what. If your contract guarantees you some form of on-screen credit and a credit bonus of $50,000, congratulations… you’re guaranteed to get some kind of screen credit and that $50,000.
Conversely, and far more likely, if your contract says the credit is at the sole discretion of the company, the company can choose to give you whatever credit it wishes, including none at all.
PROTIP: Be very careful before agreeing to a contract where there’s significant financial bonus tied to credit, where the company is also the one determining credit. In those cases, the company has a financial motivation to not give you credit.
We’ll get back to non-guild projects in a bit, but first let’s look at the WGA process.
Every company and project signatory to the WGA agrees to allow the Guild to be the sole arbiter of credits, which means that neither company nor writer can guarantee any writing credit that isn’t specifically approved by the Guild.
Here’s a quick, general overview of the WGA credit determination process:
- The company submits a Notice of Tentative Writing Credit (NTWC) and a copy of the final shooting script to the Guild and all participating writers. The NTWC is a brief form that provides production details as well as the writing credit the company is proposing. This should be sent to every writer who performed work on the project, regardless of whether they are being put forth for credit. All writers then have the opportunity to review the final shooting script and decide whether they agree with the proposed credit based on the material in the final shooting script.
- The NTWC is either finalized or protested. If there are no protests, the WGA will approve the credit proposed in the NTWC, and that becomes the final writing credit for the film. However, any participating writer can notify the WGA of their protest of the company’s proposed credit in the NTWC.
- In the event of a protest, the WGA conducts a credit arbitration. If a protest is made, the Guild will initiate a credit arbitration, which means a panel will be convened to review all script and underlying material and then make an independent determination as to what the writing credit should be. The company submits the materials, and participating writers are also permitted to submit a statement that makes a case for why they believe they should receive credit.
- The arbitration is completed and final credit determination is made. At the end of the arbitration process, a final credit determination is issued by the panel and becomes the final credit for the film.
There are quite a few other steps in the process that I can get into in future blog posts, but the above is the general process for how the Guild goes about determining writing credit.
Guild writers should keep a few important things in mind:
- Make sure the WGA and the company have your most recent contact information on file. If you’ve changed addresses or changed reps since signing your contract, notify both the WGA and the company so that there’s no question of where they need to send the NTWC and other important correspondence.
- The WGA has the right to conduct a Participating Writer Investigation to determine if a particular writer is entitled to be included in credit determination process. They also have the right to re-open a credit determination and conduct a secondary arbitration hearing if necessary. Notify the Guild if you have reason to believe that you’re a legitimate participating writer who’s being left out of the process.
- Make sure you keep tabs on the film’s release date. If you find that a movie you worked on is three months from release and you haven’t received an NTWC yet, follow up. This should be the company’s responsibility, but mistakes and oversights do happen. If credit is important to you, bring the issue up while there’s still time to fix it. The Guild can go back and re-open the credit issue if they have reason to believe there’s been an oversight, but that revised credit won’t be seen by too many people if it’s implemented, for example, after the movie is already in theaters and the home video version has already locked and shipped.
For Guild writers who do end up with on screen writing credit, there are a number of potential bonuses and perks that come with that credit:
- Many standard contracts include some kind of a monetary credit bonus.
- Almost any time a writer receives participation (however bad the definition may be), that participation is dependent upon credit.
- Many perks, such as premiere invites, are often dependent upon credit.
- Residuals are only paid to credited writers on a film.
- In the case of an original screenplay, separated rights are dependent upon credit.
Now let’s revisit the non-guild credit situations. If you’re a non-guild writer working on a non-guild production, as mentioned above, credit is whatever you agree to in your contract. Some contracts will guarantee a particular type of credit, while others will state that the credit is at the discretion of the producers.
Another common phrasing of a credit clause in a non-guild deal is that credit will be determined “in accordance with WGA policies,” 0r something to that effect. What’s important to note about that language is that while the spirit may be to honor general Guild policies, that does not mean the Guild determines the credit.
As fancy and honorable as that language may sound, it’s still ultimately the company, or whoever else is designated in the contract, that gets to decide. [NOTE: See above warning about credit bonuses being tied to company-determined credits.]
In a lot of cases, non-guild deals will attempt to emulate a WGA deal for the sake of convenience, standards, and precedent. There’s nothing preventing a non-guild company from agreeing to pay residuals, or award separated rights, for example, to a non-guild writer. But you have to understand how those elements will be handled since there’s no actual WGA presence to enforce them.
In other words, the company may agree to pay residuals, but since residuals won’t be reported to the Guild, you need to understand who will calculate them and how they will be paid instead.
The company may agree to give you separated rights, but since they’re not signatory to the WGA, you need to understand what they specifically mean by separated rights and how those separated rights will be handled.
And the company may agree to use “Guild practices” to determine credit, but since the credit won’t actually be determined by the WGA, you need to understand how what policies and procedures they intend to use to actually determine that credit.
For example, do they actually have a policy in place (e.g., a certain percentage of your work in the final shooting script guarantees a certain credit), or is the language so vague that the company will ultimately just get to decide for themselves what the credit should be?
What happens in the event of a dispute between writers? Or between the company and one or more of the writers? What resolution processes do they have in place?
Writing credit is too important an issue to ignore.
If you’re a Guild writer, you at least have policies and procedures in place to help govern the credit determination process… but it’s on you to pay attention and make sure you’re not left out of the process, inadvertently or otherwise.
And if you’re a non-guild writer, you have to be extra vigilant about the credits clause of your contract. Don’t be satisfied with generic language that promises it’ll be like the WGA process… the WGA can’t enforce that contract so it’s on you to do it for yourself.