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'Cable,' 'Rock' in Disputes on Writing Credits

Movies: Controversies highlight debate swirling around arbitration procedures used by the Writers Guild of America.

May 21, 1996|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two of this summer's biggest movies--"The Cable Guy," starring Jim Carrey, and "The Rock," with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage--are at the center of a raging controversy in Hollywood over how the Writers Guild of America determines screenwriting credits.

In "The Rock," the guild's decision leaving screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh's name off the credits has so infuriated the director, Michael Bay, that he has written an open letter to the guild calling its arbitration process "a sham, a travesty."

In "The Cable Guy," writer-producer Judd Apatow is suing the guild, claiming he was unfairly denied screen credit even though he supplied most of the dialogue and scenes in the film.

The two cases highlight the intense debate swirling around the guild's arbitration procedures--in which three unidentified members review the submitted materials, decide independently who deserves credit and provide no written opinions on why they voted as they did.

"Very little is revealed in the process," complained attorney Robert Marshall, who represents Apatow. "The names of the arbitrators are not revealed. The final opinions of the arbitrators are not revealed. The statements other writers supplied to the arbitrators are not revealed. Everything is directed toward preventing accountability, scrutiny and review rather than the contrary."

But guild officials said the process is fair and has been consistently supported by a majority of its 8,500 members and also upheld in key court cases.

"It's a system designed by writers to serve writers," said Doreen Braverman, general counsel of the Writers Guild of America West. "An overwhelming number of members recently endorsed the process and the credits rules. We also have obtained judicial confirmation of the fundamental fairness of the system from both the California state and federal appellate courts."

Braverman said the reason panelists' identities are kept confidential is to shield them from possible retribution since many of them are actively working in the industry.

In the case of "The Rock," an action film from Hollywood Pictures about terrorists who take over Alcatraz and threaten nearby San Francisco, director Bay said he was stunned to discover that Hensleigh, with whom he worked side by side on the movie for nine months, will not get screen credit.

A guild arbitration panel held that the credits read: "Screenplay by David Weisberg & Douglas F. Cook and Mark Rosner. Story by David Weisberg & Douglas F. Cook."

In an interview with The Times, Bay said Hensleigh deserved screenplay credit over Weisberg and Cook, who wrote the spec script, and Rosner, who supplied rewrites.

"The bottom line is, you got Mark Rosner and Weisberg and Cook who get the credit," Bay said, "but they cannot come out of a theater and look their friends in the eye and say, 'I wrote "The Rock.' "

"Jonathan was really good working with the director and seeing what I saw," Bay added. "Weisberg and Cook had a cool idea, but if you took either draft, it would have been a bad movie . . . Weisberg and Cook had the idea I set out to do, but not the movie I made."

*

The original screenplay was purchased by Disney for Caravan Pictures, but studio chief Joe Roth transferred the project to the producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, who brought in other writers to retool the material.

In an open letter he plans to publish this week in trade-paper ads, Bay writes:

"I have more intimate firsthand knowledge of the evolution of this screenplay than any individual involved in the project with the exception of producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Thus, I can confidently, knowledgeably state that this result is a sham, a travesty. It embarrasses me.

"No objective person could read Mr. Hensleigh's shooting draft, compare it to the previous writers' drafts and come to this conclusion."

Weisberg responded: "What Michael Bay thinks is interesting, but he is not the jury in this case."

"Obviously in these cases, people walk away burned and disappointed," Weisberg added. "I certainly understand that. If we were not recognized, the way we thought we were entitled to, we would be angry ourselves."

He noted that, in all, seven writers worked at various times on the script, including Aaron Sorkin ("The American President"), who receives no credit on "The Rock."

"Nobody is going to stand there and say [Hensleigh] didn't do great work on the movie," Weisberg said. "So did Mark [Rosner]. Aaron Sorkin wrote great dialogue."

Screen credits are important to writers because they not only determine residuals but also often lead to other work.

Since 1940, the guild has been empowered through its contracts with studios and production companies to be the final arbiter of writing credits. Each year, the studios submit to the guild tentative credit lists on about 250 movies and, typically, 100 of these end up in disputes that require arbitration.

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