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Giving Credit Where It's Due

COLUMN ONE

Screenwriters are often pitted against each other in a film industry arbitration process that's a story in itself. Not everyone lives happily ever after.

May 11, 1998|ROBERT W. WELKOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the upcoming "The Mask of Zorro," Antonio Banderas and Anthony Hopkins defend the weak and free the oppressed with daring duels and the mark of the "Z."

But behind the scenes of the swashbuckling action film, which TriStar Pictures will release this summer, another drama was playing out over which screenwriters would be included in the credits.

Looking back, said director Martin Campbell, he believed that the credits should include David Ward, a veteran screenwriter who won an Oscar for best screenplay in 1973 for "The Sting" and has also directed films such as "Major League" and "King Ralph."

"I think he damn near rewrote every single line of dialogue in the script," Campbell said of Ward, who produced two different "Zorro" scripts and worked with the director during a physically demanding 98-day location shoot last year in Mexico.

Yet as it now stands, Ward's name will not appear on screen.

A committee of his peers from the Writers Guild of America, after studying the evidence, determined that three other writers should share the credit: John Eskow, whose script prompted the studio to green light the film, and the team of Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who created the original screenplay.

What happened to David Ward is not uncommon in Hollywood.

Between 1993 and 1997, the credits on 415 films--over one-third of the number submitted for credits--were decided through arbitration conducted by the Writers Guild. Of these, about 40% involved disputes pitting writer against writer in a contest over money, fame and prestige.

"Arbitrations are so common, I believe every single picture that I've ever been involved with, whether I got credit or not . . . has had some arbitration," said Daniel Petrie Jr., president of the Writers Guild of America, west.

As any casual moviegoer knows, movies today are overflowing with credits. From gaffers and best-boy grips to seamstresses and even caterers, nearly anyone who works on a film gets listed in the end credits.

Yet, the odd fact remains, writing credits don't often tell the full story.

"No one can trust the writing credit," complained screenwriter Phil Alden Robinson. "Nobody knows who really wrote the film. I think that's a shame."

Attorney Linda Lichter, who advises many writers going to arbitration, said she has seen clients who spent months working on a film--from long before pre-production through principal photography--end up without a screen credit.

"I think it's offensive that writers can spend six months working on a film and their names do not appear anywhere on the credits, where someone who worked as an A.D. [assistant director] for a month or two gets credit," added screenwriter Nicholas Kazan.

And who is responsible for this predicament? Why, the Writers Guild of America.

A Storied History

Since the 1940s, the guild has been empowered through its contracts with studios and production companies to be the final arbiter of writing credits in movies. The guild also determines writing credits in television.

The 8,500-member union jealously guards this power, believing it is far better to have writers make the decisions than producers, because Hollywood lore is filled with tales of unscrupulous producers who put their mothers, girlfriends and even bookies on the credits.

But as studios increasingly rely on multiple writers to craft a script--particularly on big-budget action films--the task of determining who should get screen credits has become a tension-filled, high-stakes endeavor that has placed the guild's arbitration process under a spotlight.

Critics complain that the arbitration process--in which each case is decided by a three-member committee chosen at random--is so shrouded in secrecy that it prevents accountability, scrutiny and review. The guild maintains that the confidentiality is a keystone of a fair and impartial system.

"We have rules in place to ensure [arbitrations] are unbiased," Petrie said.

The guild president points out that as recently as 1995, no less than 82% of his membership voted down efforts to make changes in the manual governing screen credits.

Still, frustration abounds.

Director Barry Levinson threatened to withdraw his guild membership after an arbitration panel denied playwright and screenwriter David Mamet a first-position writing credit on Levinson's recent political satire "Wag the Dog."

Another controversy was sparked last year when Steven Zaillian, the 1993 Oscar winner for best screenplay adaptation on "Schindler's List," failed to receive a credit for his rewrite on director Steven Spielberg's historical slavery drama "Amistad."

In 1996, two of the summer's most hyped films--"The Rock" and "The Cable Guy"--were involved in very public skirmishes over their writing credits. In the case of "The Rock," an arbitration committee's ruling leaving a screenwriter's name off the credits so infuriated director Michael Bay that he called the guild's process of determining credits "a sham, a travesty."

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