So, I’m watching “Gosford Park” and I notice that the film is “based upon an idea by Robert Altman and Bob Balaban.”
My question is: How does one get that credit? Do you have to do some actual writing for it or is it some sort of a vanity credit? (I assume it isn’t, because otherwise every producer or executive type would have a whole stack of those on their record.)
Craig Mazin is on the screen credits committee, so he can likely answer this more thoroughly. But I can at least give you my take on it.
For feature films, the official WGA credits are “Story by” and “Screenplay by,” which can be combined to make “Written by.”1 When something is based on preexisting source material, like a book or a play, that original writer gets a “based on a novel/play by Original Writer.” 2
Your instincts are right: Producers often have ideas for movies, but rarely do they get a specific, additional credit for it. However, if they wrote those ideas down, even in prose form, they could very likely get “story” or “source material” credit.
Per the Screen Credits Manual, the requirements for these two credits are as follows:
3) Source Material
Source material is all material, other than story as hereinafter defined, upon which the story and/or screenplay is based.
This means that source material is material assigned to the writer which was previously published or exploited and upon which the writer’s work is to be based (e.g., a novel, a produced play or series of published articles), or any other material written outside of the Guild’s jurisdiction (e.g., literary material purchased from a non-professional writer). Illustrative examples of source material credits are: “From a Play by”, “From a Novel by”, “Based upon a Story by”, “From a series of articles by”, “Based upon a Screenplay by” or other appropriate wording indicating the form in which such source material is acquired. Research material is not considered source material.
The term “story” means all writing covered by the provisions of the Minimum Basic Agreement representing a contribution “distinct from screenplay and consisting of basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action.”
It is appropriate to award a “Story by” credit when: 1) the story was written under employment under Guild jurisdiction; 2) the story was purchased by a signatory company from a professional writer, as defined in the Minimum Basic Agreement; or 3) when the screenplay is based upon a sequel story written under the Guild’s jurisdiction. If the story is based upon source material of a story nature, see “screen story” below.
When you see a credit like “based on an idea by,” that’s clearly a “source material” type of credit. In the case of Gosford Park, it may have been the strange way Robert Altman shoots. Apparently, rather than a complete screenplay, they had a framework upon which his actors improvised, with screenwriter Julian Fellowes on set to help shape the scenes.
Regardless of the specific situation, I’m not a fan of the “based on an idea by” credit, and would like to see it stay rare. It over-emphasizes the vague conception of a movie, at the expense of the distinctions provided by characters, narrative, theme and action (that is, story).
For example, “a movie about the Civil War” is an idea. Gone With The Wind is a story. For them to have rough equivalence is absurd.