This is going to be a bit of a departure from my usual blog posts. Rather than writing up a relatively objective explanation of a concept, I’m going to get a little theoretical and propose an idea I’ve had rattling around in my head about how writers are credited, particularly as it relates to the Writers Guild of America and its rules.
In particular, I want to explore possible ways to maintain the integrity of the WGA’s existing credit structure while also addressing the problem of so many Guild writers being excluded from receiving credit.
According to the WGA Screen Credits Manual, Story credit can be shared by up to two writers (with a team of writers counting as one writer), and Screenplay credit can be shared by up to two writers (again with a team of writers counting as one writer).
Without getting into the specific details of how credit is determined (see the Screen Credits Manual itself for more info), that means that no more than four different writers or teams can receive credit on a film. Assuming that someone receiving Screenplay credit is also likely to receive Story credit, chances are more likely that writers are fighting for one of only two or three credit slots available on a project.
There are some unusual circumstances where, as the result of an arbitration, Screenplay credit can be accorded to three writers, but let’s focus on the standard credit situations for the purposes of this discussion.
In the WGA’s defense, the purpose of these limitations on credit is to preserve the importance and prestige of writing credits. If they were to award writing credit to a dozen writers on every film, it would dilute the significance of the credits for all involved. Like how winning a trophy is a little less special when everyone gets a participation trophy.
Think of it like corporate titles at a company. If you work at a company that has fifty employees and you are one of five people who holds a Vice President title or higher, there’s weight and significance to that title; far more than if you are, say, one of thirty people who have that VP title or higher. Similarly, screen credits will have more importance and greater impact the more exclusive they are.
The problem is, it’s not at all uncommon to have multiple writers contribute to a finished film. Even under the best of circumstances, a company will likely engage three to six writers on an average project. There might be an initial writer work on the draft, then another writer or two come in to rewrite certain aspects (character arcs, certain story beats, etc.) as they try to figure the movie out, and another writer to polish things up (punch up the dialogue, conform to the realities of the production’s resources, etc.) once they’re pretty sure of the direction they want to go in, but aren’t quite in love with certain elements.
Unfortunately, this often means that you have more writers working on a project than credit slots to accord them.
The WGA does have very clear directives on how credit should be determined (related to the percentage of a writer’s work present in the final shooting script), and an arbitration process that attempts to resolve credit disputes as objectively as possible, but that’s often small consolation to a writer who devoted weeks (maybe even months) of hard work to a project only to be denied a credit on the film.
To make matters worse, many writers have significant bonuses tied to receiving credit. So not only are these writers missing out on credit (which even the WGA acknowledges is a key component to a writer’s professional status and position in the industry), but they might also be losing out on a credit bonus worth as much as several hundred thousand dollars, maybe even more.
These two conflicting objectives create a significant challenge:
How do we give credit to as many writers as possible without diluting that credit?
If writers need screen credit to develop professional status and enhance their position in the industry, how do they do that when they are usually performing writing services in a situation where they’re often in direct competition with their fellow writers for a limited number of available credit slots?
THE OTHER GUILDS
One of the interesting things about the WGA is that they don’t have a breakdown of different types of members. The Directors Guild of America (DGA) has members who are Directors, but also members who are First Assistant Directors, Second Assistant Directors, and Unit Production Managers. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) covers both actors and specialists like dancers, stunt players, etc. Every professional member of the WGA is simply a Writer.
That is not to say the WGA’s system is bad or wrong. On the contrary, having one type of member makes it easier to collectively bargain and avoid membership stratification, both of which are key components of effective negotiation with the studios on new contracts every few years.
The DGA credit rules, though, interest me because they have some very specific guidelines. Namely, that the director’s card has to be immediately adjacent to the picture, and the 1st AD, 2nd AD, and UPM credits, in most cases, are to be the most prominent technical credits after the film, in the end crawl. There are nuances of these rules, and waivers that are sometimes sought in certain situations, but the important part of all this for the purposes of this conversation is that the DGA has guidelines that govern multiple locations in a film’s credits where its members are supposed to be listed.
The WGA, as it happens, places their writing credit in relation to the director’s credit. Since the director has reserved the credit that’s adjacent to the picture, the WGA has determined that their credit should be placed “on a separate card contiguous to the credit to the director.”
A NEW CATEGORY
My hypothesis is simple:
Why not create a new category of credited writers?
If the DGA can say, “You have to put the director adjacent to the picture in the main titles, and the UPM, 1st AD, and 2nd AD at the top of the end crawl,” why can’t the WGA say, “In addition to putting the writer card contiguous to the credit of the director, you also have to put this other category of writers in the end crawl, after the contractual DGA credits.”?
I’m tentatively calling it the Additional Writing by credit.
The way I see it, this credit would be separate from the debate over the Story and Screenplay credits, reserved for writers who, in the WGA’s discretion, contributed something substantive to the writing and development process of the film, but not enough to warrant traditional, higher-profile main title writing credit that comes with having their material survive into the final shooting script. They could even put a cap on it; maybe up to three to five additional writers, maximum.
As I see it, here are the positives to such a credit:
First, it fits into the WGA’s existing credit structure. It’s an addition, not a replacement. The WGA wouldn’t have to completely rewrite their credits procedures or throw out any of their longstanding precedents. They’d just have to figure out some ground rules for how the new credit is to be awarded or applied.
Second, it allows for more writers to be credited without diluting the actual main title writing credits. The additional writers would be recognized on screen for their efforts, but their new category would mean not having any more Story or Screenplay writers credits than currently allotted.
Third, the Guild arbitration process as it currently exists is already built to deal with disagreements over a new credit like this. If a writer feels strongly that they should get Story or Screenplay credit rather than being relegated to the Additional Writing credit, that’s the kind of dispute that can be resolved by the arbitration process the Guild already employs.
Fourth, it allows writers to have an additional shot at a credit bonus. Most contracts with credit bonuses have the largest bonus for Sole Credit, and a smaller amount (often half of the Sole Credit Bonus) for Shared Credit. If a writer gets no credit, no bonus is payable. If an additional credit option were possible to attain, writers who made meaningful contributions to the project could have an additional bonus built into their contract that would pay them something in the case where they received Additional Writing credit. It may not be a lot, but it’s something more than writers are currently getting.
I am by no means an expert on WGA history or its inner workings, so I’m not naive enough to think that there are no pitfalls or red flags for proposing an additional writing credit.
I don’t know how residuals would play into this, and whether this new Additional Writing category should get some fraction of the residuals, or not.
I don’t know if there are aspects to labor law or the relationship with the studios that would prevent the WGA from just doing it and instead require it to be negotiated alongside the minimums and other deal points each time the studio contracts are renewed… and if so, if the studios would even support it.
I don’t know that it would be a complete fix for all the WGA’s credit problems. There are so many diverse projects out there, chances are that even with an unlimited Additional Writing category, some writers will be left off of some projects for some reason. This probably isn’t going to be a magic bullet for all credit concerns.
Ultimately, the idea behind this post is not to upend the credit process, or to throw it out and start over. Rather, it’s to propose one possible way the industry could recognize writers who provide value to the project but are, for whatever reason, not included in the final Story and Screenplay writing credits.
Writers should still fight for Story and Screenplay credit if they believe they’re entitled to it under the credit rules of their Guild. They should still take advantage of all the WGA has fought for by still protesting credits they believe are unfair, and relying on the WGA’s credit arbitration process to reach as fair a resolution as possible.
If a writer has a chance at a prominent main title credit and a six-figure credit bonus plus residuals, it may be little comfort to have a credit stuck in a block of other writers in the end crawl, accompanied by a less-impressive bonus (if any) and fewer to no residuals.
But even that scenario would be a screen credit more than they would have received under the current credit determination rules.
In the end, my hope in writing this isn’t to get readers to say, “Yes! This is how it must be done!” Chances are there are a dozen angles I’m not considering, and a hundred reasons why this hypothesis would never work in practice. But that’s why my goal with this post is to simply create a starting point for a conversation about how to improve the work experience of professional screenwriters.
When conversations like that happen, there’s a very good chance that someone smarter than me will come up with a better solution better than this.
And, ultimately, it’s that potential for positive progress that’s the real objective with hypotheses like this one.