The Writers Guild is currently engaged in one of its semi-annual screaming matches over whether to amend the credits manual. Long
ago, the WGA assumed the right of final determination over who gets to have their name come after the words, "Written by..." on a movie. This
was a good thing since too many screenplays wound up being credited to a star or a producer or a studio executive's nephew who didn't write a
consonant. (Mae West used to have it in her contract that she would be credited as the writer of her movies, regardless of who actually filled
the pages. There were other, less blatant but still unfair applications.)
The WGA established strict rules as to how much you must have contributed to a screenplay in order to get your name on the movie.
These rules have always been a source of contention but lately, with Hollywood on a kick of having 93 people work on every script and end-credits
that run longer than some movies, the sore feelings have gotten exponentially sorer. The guidelines favor the original writer, even when little
or nothing he wrote makes it to the screen, and prevent any more than (usually) three writers from receiving screen credit.
As per usual for WGA brawls, emotions are running high and a lot of writers are accusing one another of unconscionable greed and
un-writerlike motives. Also as per usual, both sides have some valid points. One group argues that it demeans the role of the writer to
put a laundry list of authors on-screen; that saying "Fifteen people wrote this movie" is tantamount to saying nobody wrote it and certainly not the
first guy, who probably did most of the heavy lifting. Against that, another faction argues that it demeans the role of the writer for someone
to make a large contribution to a script and not receive any credit at all. If the Caterer's Assistant gets a credit and someone who wrote
several key scenes doesn't, that doesn't say much about the importance of the writer. Or of the believability of screen credits.
I think both sides are at least partly in the right. The trouble is they're working towards separate goals. You can
configure the rules so that their main goal is to reflect the reality, whatever it is. That means if 22 guys worked on a script, you put 22
names on the screen in some fashion. Or you can hold, as some do, that it's desirable to discourage producers from hiring 22 guys; that they
shouldn't be so hasty about firing one author and bringing in the next. Awarding all or most of the credit to the first guy might nudge the
business towards that attitude.
As I said, there's a lot of yelling and screaming about this, in part because loads of money is involved. A movie earns its
credited writers all sorts of residuals and home video fees. If you write a movie and it's rewritten, you would not only lose prestige if the
rewriter gets screen credit, you could lose a hell of a lot of cash.
What we have in the current credits manual creates, I believe, a lot of problems. Credits often do not denote who really did
what, and dishonesty is never the best policy. It also does cause some to assume that the guy who got his name on the movie is just the guy who
got his name on the movie, and not necessarily the person whose work we're seeing. At the same time, I think it's Head-in-the-Sand Time to not
admit that restricting the number of screen credits has utterly failed to stop producers from calling in a legion of rewriters. Producers are
going to hire as many of us as they want and nothing will stop this, other than the WGA passing and enforcing a rule that forbids rewrites. The
majority of the Guild membership would never forego the income and allow such a rule, let alone the studios.
So am I therefore on the side of those who want to revise the WGA Credits Manual to allow more "reality?" To make it easier for
production executives, directors, stars and other rewriters to get their names on a movie with which they fiddle? No, I don't think I'm in
favor of that, either. I believe that we presently have a flawed system which can only grow more flawed via repair.
As with the last time credit manual revisions were proposed — a stormy, angry vote that went down to overwhelming defeat —
the changes being proposed are relatively minor and are barely a baby step to addressing the problems. The main amendment presently before us
hinges on the dubious (I think) concept of assessing the percentage that a given writer contributes to a script. Presently, for a production
executive to receive credit on a script he or she rewrote, that exec has to have written more than 50% of what gets on the screen. The proposal
now before us would lower that to the same standard as any participating writer, which is one third.
Those numbers are discussed as if someone could just feed a script into a calculator, punch two buttons and arrive at a firm
percentage. This is ridiculous. You can study different drafts of a script and say that Writer A wrote 40% of the final version but
that's going to be a very approximate number. A writer's contribution is just too subjective, too open to different weighings. If you
write an unfilmable 300 page screenplay and I go in and, without adding a word, rearrange all the scenes and chop it down to a filmable 105 pages,
what is the exact percentage of my contribution as a writer? If I write a murder mystery that doesn't make a lot of sense and you come in and
author two key scenes that clarify everything and change whodunnit, what is the percentage of your contribution?
Suppose someone writes a movie for Eddie Murphy to star in and Eddie hates all the dialogue and you're called in to rewrite it.
You paraphrase everything and then, when it gets before the cameras, Eddie starts ad-libbing and he further paraphrases everything. What is the
precise percentage of your contribution to the finished film? (Keep in mind that arbitrations are based wholly on what's committed to paper, so
what Eddie does is not considered writing. What you did is, even though little of what you did got on screen.)
This is all so arguable that it's not worth fiddling with. Why substitute one set of vague numbers for another? It is
certainly not worth the level of rage we had the last time this kind of proposal was made. I am all for protecting the credit of the first
writer, especially when we're dealing with his or her original idea. I am all for making it difficult for production execs, stars, rewriters
and especially directors to claim they wrote or co-wrote the movie. On the other hand, there are cases where the film that gets made is the one
the rewriters wrote and, for good or ill, it bears little resemblance to anything the first scribe envisioned. In those cases, I think it's
unfair to history — let alone, the individuals involved — to give all or most of the credit to Writer #1.
Those who think our system of credits is imperfect are right. But that's not because of the difference between someone writing
33% of a movie and someone writing 50%. It's because weighing the respective contributions of several writers to a collaborative project is an
impossible judgment that can only ever be approximately correct. And it's because, as a Guild, we can't decide if the goal of screen credits
should be to reflect who actually writes the movie or to try and influence who actually writes the movie.
If the latter, there might be merit in a much talked-about suggestion, which is to allow participating rewriters to receive some
acknowledgement in a film's end credits — like, say, "Additional Dialogue by..." This idea is not part of the current proposal. I
need to hear more debate on that one before making up my mind, if and when that's ever actually proposed.
But with regard to the current proposals, changing arbitrary percentages is silly. Given that the last thing the Writers Guild
needs is more of its members yelling at each other, I think we ought to accept the current credits manual, flaws and all, and leave it alone.
And by the way, this entire article was written by one person.