The Buchwald vs. Paramount lawsuit has aroused a brief flurry of interest in the mysteries of Hollywood writing credits--normally of less interest to the American moviegoer than the brand of popcorn sold at the concession stand. As a moviegoer and screenwriter--and a consumer torn between Orville Redenbacher and Paul Newman--maybe I can explain where writers' credits come from.
It all began back in the Bad Old Days of Hollywood, when writer after writer was assigned to a script, changing it to fit the whims of executives, directors and stars. Of course, this goes on in the Good New Days of Hollywood, but in the BODs, the directors and producers doled out screen credits as they saw fit--like petty nobles tossing coins to the peasants. Naturally they had no problem awarding themselves screen credit and--if legend is true--even assigning it to a mistress as well. Today, however, a well-defined arbitration procedure determines writing credits--cronyism and nepotism have been banished to the studio executive suites, where they belong.
A Writers Guild arbitration is--in theory--simple. When a film is finished, the studio legal department sends a proposed writing credit to all concerned. If no one files an objection, that credit stands. But given the many hands on a typical picture, invariably there's a writer or two (or three, or five) who feels shortchanged. And shortchanged is the right word, because screen credit is what determines residuals, royalties, profit participation and--if God and the pubescent audience are willing--a share in the marketing bonanza that can go with a successful film. This potential pot of back-end gold--and maybe even artistic integrity--means that in most cases everyone who has laid a hand on a script scrambles to prove authorship.
Once an objection is filed by any writer, three guild members are chosen to read all the drafts, as well as letters from the writers stating their cases. (Some writers labor longer on these letters than they did on the script.) Pertinent notes or transcriptions of story meetings can also be submitted and--like all the drafts--they are photocopied in triplicate for the readers. When a guild arbitration begins, forests shudder. After digesting this mountain of pulp, arbitrators file individual recommendations. Majority rules.
This procedure sounds simple; but when you consider people are still debating who wrote Shakespeare's plays, you begin to realize the arbitrators need some guidelines--and the guild provides them.
First of all, chronological order counts. All subsequent writers are assumed to have read their predecessor's work, even if they insist they didn't. When in doubt, the first writer prevails. In fact, the first writer on an original script can never receive less than a shared story credit, no matter how much it has changed. So if writer A does a Civil War drama and Writer B moves the locale to 21st Century Saturn, changes the field hands to robots and makes the Confederate blockade runner a space pirate, the final credit would be, "Story by A and B, Screenplay by B."
But what exactly constitutes "writing," or, more accurately, rewriting? Consider this hypothetical scene:
\o7 Sheriff\f7 : I told you to stay out of Tombstone, Blackie.
\o7 Blackie\f7 : Guess I'm hard of hearing, Sheriff.
\o7 Sheriff\f7 : (drawing his gun) maybe you can hear this.
Now consider this version:
\o7 Marshal\f7 : We don't want your kind in Dodge, Ringo.
\o7 Ringo\f7 : "We," Marshal? Far as I can see, ain't but one of you.
\o7 Marshal\f7 : (drawing his gun) You forgot to count Col. Colt.
Clearly, every line of dialogue has changed, along with characters and locale--without real effect: This is the sort of rewriting arbitrators are instructed to ignore. Unfortunately, it is also the sort that frequently goes on as film projects are bounced from studio to studio and director to director and everyone gropes to fix it--even when it's working.
Ignoring such pointless changes, the arbitrators try to measure the actual creative and rhetorical contribution of each writer. Although the guild manual warns a page-count isn't enough, it's often a starting point, and arbitrators add up the number of each writer's pages that survive until the final shooting script.
Generally, a writer has to contribute one-third of the finished script to receive credit. The only exception is when the writer is also the producer or director. The logic here is that the producer-hyphen-writer or director-hyphen-writer is in a position to cajole a fledgling writer-hyphen-period into doing all the work for only part of the credit, so the burden of proof must be greater. The memory of past intimidation is so great that when a producer or director seeks writing credit, arbitration is mandatory.
The credit at stake has several variations. "Written by," "Story by" and "Screenplay by" are each unique--though understanding their distinctions is only a little simpler than following recent political events in Eastern Europe.