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The rites and wrongs of crediting script rewriters

November 30, 2002|Burt Prelutsky | Burt Prelutsky is a Writers Guild member whose credits range from "McMillan and Wife" and "Diagnosis Murder" to "MASH," "Newhart" and TV movies. He lives in North Hills.

As anyone who's been reading Calendar lately must be aware, there is a vituperative battle being waged in the Writers Guild of America. (Right. So what else is new?) The question on the floor is, just how hard should it be for rewriters to take credit away from the original writer -- particularly when the subsequent writer is a director or a producer? What complicates the issue and makes the battle so heated is that very often those people also happen to be, themselves, members of the WGA.

Original writers feel that they've done all the hard work and that it's already way too easy for these hyphenates to swipe half or even all the writing credit. And of course they're right.

For their part, rewriters feel that without their creative contribution, the script would have remained a good concept lurking in a cheesy script, and would never have been produced. And of course they're right.

The way things are now, the hyphenated rewriter has to contribute more than 50% of the screenplay in order to get credit. A proposal just turned down by the guild's membership ("WGA rejects credit rules change," by Dana Calvo, Nov. 19) would have lowered the bar to 33% -- or maybe it was 24.8% or perhaps 5.67%. Let's face it, the very idea of trying to dole out percentiles on a movie script is a notion the likes of which even Jonathan Swift would have deemed too wacky for satire.

What to do?

Well, I have always said that the only thing wrong with the WGA's arbitration process is that it exists. My solution has always been to give the original writer sole credit, with all subsequent writers-for-hire, be they directors, producers or the star's brother-in-law, in it strictly for the dough.

The rewriters claim that if it's their talent that enables a movie to be green-lighted, they're entitled to on-screen acknowledgment. They're wrong.

Except possibly for poets, writers are always having their work tampered with. Legendary editor Maxwell Perkins took a very active role in revising Thomas Wolfe's novels, using a blue pencil shaped like an ax. Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" and Ross Lockridge's "Raintree County" would have never seen the light of day if other editors hadn't cut half the verbiage out of their original manuscripts.

Scriptwriters covet the playwright's contract, under which they get to approve any and all changes. But the fact of the matter is that, through the years, major stage directors, such as George Abbott, Mike Nichols and Elia Kazan, don't sign on without the clear understanding that changes can and will be made. And when it comes to rewriting, it's as rampant a practice on Broadway as it is in Hollywood. When the late Abe Burrows wasn't writing "Guys and Dolls" or "How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying," he kept busy "doctoring" plays. After all, it's all well and good to say that playwrights can't be rewritten, but when half the New Haven audience is walking out in the second act, it's no time to stand on ceremony.

The difference is that when it comes to books, plays and musicals, only the original writer gets the credit, no matter how many chefs have had a hand in concocting the broth. And that's as it should be, seeing as how he was the guy working on spec.

Whether it took the playwright or the screenwriter a month or five years to write the darn thing, he was the schnook taking all the risks. The idea that a hired gun should not only get paid handsomely for his services, but also expect to get his name plastered on the screen, is chutzpah with an oak-leaf cluster.

Finally, when you consider how lousy most Hollywood product is, wouldn't you think all parties would prefer to remain anonymous?

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