The original post for this episode can be found here.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig Mazin: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is episode 193 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Craig, you and I both this week were working on rewrites. How did yours turn out?
Craig: So far so good. I made it to the end. And —
John: That’s always a good place to end?
Craig: Well, but, you know, I’m fond of saying that “The End” are the two biggest lies that we can tell ourselves as screenwriters. So, all I’ve really done is reach the end. So, now, Lindsay Doran has the whole draft. I will be spending next week with her going through everything. And then off it goes to Scott Frank and to Working Title and to Universal. So, you know, high hopes. High hopes. How about you?
John: Yeah, I was doing the paper edit this week. And so, I like to print out the script and sort of go through it page by page, really read it, you know, do all of that sort of noticing of typos and mistakes, and then things I could cut, things I could change. And then as I’m going through it, and then figuring out like these are the new scenes, this is what’s swapping out there. I will sort of write on the left-hand page the new stuff that goes in there. So I’m just now typing in those changes. But I feel good about it.
Craig: Well, listen, man. I would like [laughs] for our movies to be out at the same time. They’re both family movies, I believe.
John: Oh, the same weekend.
Craig: Yeah, they’re both family movies. So I think we should go head to head. It’ll be the ultimate Three Page Challenge. It would be a two-hour challenge.
John: That would be fantastic. It would be a two-hour challenge. Speaking of hours, did you buy yourself an Apple Watch this morning? We’re recording this on Friday. Did you buy an Apple Watch?
Craig: Yeah. [laughs] So I don’t —
John: Me too. I wasn’t planning to, but I did.
Craig: No, I was actually planning on not doing it. So I was planning on buying the Apple Watch. Then I checked some reviews and things. And The New York Times was very favorable. There was a pretty good in-depth review that someone else wrote that didn’t seem quite as favorable. And then I remembered that I don’t care about reviews. So then I just thought, “Oh, you know what, I guess maybe I’ll wait. I’ll wait, I’ll check it out. I’ll hear from my friends.” And then, suddenly, there I was at midnight tapping away like a monkey hitting a bar that —
Craig: Spits out cocaine-wrapped bacon. It should be bacon-wrapped cocaine.
John: Yeah, I guess so. Because it’s really hard — you could dust bacon with cocaine.
Craig: Oh, I like that.
John: But you can’t wrap it.
Craig: Yeah, I’m hitting the bar like a monkey —
John: Or like a tempura sort of thing. Like a cocaine in a tempura batter.
Craig: Yeah, like cocaine battered bacon. So there I am. And so, I did it. Now, which version did you get?
John: I got the cheapest one I could get or almost the cheapest. I got the larger size. I didn’t get the little teeny tiny one. But I got the larger one with the sport band, space gray throughout. So it was like $399.
Craig: Is that the Watch Sport? Is that that version or —
John: I think it’s Watch Sport, yeah.
Craig: Yeah. I went for a standard watch. So not the —
Craig: You know, the [laughs] absurd collector’s item. It just —
John: You went for steel rather than aluminum.
Craig: There you go. So I went for the standard watch, the larger size with the Milanese Loop.
John: Well, that should be a nice watch.
Craig: We’ll find out.
John: So mine is just to see what the watch is like. I haven’t worn a watch in 20 years, but this might be a watch I’ll wear. We’ll see.
Craig: I know. That’s the thing. I haven’t worn a watch either in 20 years. But, you know, I remember when I put my wedding ring on, I was like, “What the — what is this? I don’t wear jewelry. What am I, a gypsy? Now I’m wearing jewelry?” And —
John: And now it’s bizarre not to have my wedding ring on.
John: I was the same way.
Craig: It’s just, it fits, right? So it’s just there and you feel it all the time. And I know that the watch will be that way, too. The real question is, from the summaries that I was reading, the great blessing and curse of the Apple Watch is that it uses this Taptic Engine to notify you when things are happening. So, little taps on your wrists of different kinds. Like here’s a tap for email, here’s a tap for text, here’s a tap… — well, sometimes, you’re just getting a lot of texts and you don’t want to and it’s annoying. So, it’s about adjusting how you get notifications. I don’t want my phone tapping me on the wrist every time some Facebook thing happens or something, you know, so.
Craig: There’ll be a lot of customization.
John: A lot to learn.
Craig: Yeah, but it’s fun. And you and I are pretty hardcore dorks. So, it’ll be exciting.
John: Absolutely. One day, you’ll be able to like sit down in your fancy car and the car will recognize you that you’re in the car and will just start.
Craig: Well, yeah. I mean, it kind of already does that.
Craig: Yeah, my car does that [laughs] because —
John: Well, I mean, you have to have the key fob in your pocket to do that, correct?
Craig: Yes, I do have to have the key fob in my pocket.
John: And soon, it’ll be just your watch.
Craig: Yeah. But the nice thing about the Tesla is you don’t have to actually turn the car on. There’s no on button. You sit, you close the door, you put it in gear. You’re off. And there’s no gears, actually. You put it in mode.
John: All right, this podcast, this episode is in the education mode. Because this podcast, we’re going to be talking about screen credits. We’re going to be talking about how writing credits work. So this is going to be one of those really long in-depth episodes. I don’t really want to say long. I don’t know if it’s necessarily going to be long, but it’s certainly going to be in-depth. We talked about screen credits way back in episode 20. That was back when we had like five people listening to the show.
John: And it’s way back in the archives. And I’m sure everything we said in there was accurate. But my goal with this episode, and I think together we can do this, is that I want to have so much knowledge imparted that if you listen to this whole episode, you will understand more about screen credits than 90% of working screenwriters.
Craig: That’s exactly right.
John: Do you think we can do that?
Craig: I know we can do that. We are going to basically deliver the definitive walkthrough of credits, which I hope is not only listened to by members of the Writers Guild or prospective members of the Writers Guild, but also people who write about credits. Because, frankly, they often get a ton of stuff wrong.
So, we can really walk you through the whole shebang here, which is complicated but interesting in its own way so that whether you’re a fan of movies, or you’re a writer, or you write about movies, you will understand exactly what this credit arbitration thing is. How it actually works from top to bottom. You will be an expert when we’re done with you.
John: I hope so. And it was reports in the news this last week that sort of prompted this discussion. Because this last week in Deadline Hollywood Daily, there were articles about the arbitration process over the new Jurassic Park, Jurassic World is the movie.
John: And the final decision came down. And the final credits for Jurassic World when it opens in theaters will read Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and, A-N-D, Colin Trevorrow & Derek Connolly. Story by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, based on characters created by Michael Crichton.
John: At the end of this episode, we will understand what that means and sort of how they got to this place. We will also understand why writers are sometimes frustrated and confused, and sort of unhappy about the writing credit determination process.
This is what Trevorrow said about this whole process. “I have spoken with Rick and Amanda several times over the past few days,” Trevorrow told Deadline. “Though we may not agree on specifics of the ruling, we share a disdain for the arbitration process and the ugliness that it often breeds. Our conversations ended in a spirit I’d like to think the Guild would support — that a credit should be equally shared. Jurassic World is a special film, and I’d rather acknowledge these writers as co-designers of this adventure than bitter enemies who must be avoided at parties. That kind of animosity isn’t in the spirit of our craft, or our organization. Though I remain a proud member of the WGA, I encourage my fellow members to work together to find alternate ways to evaluate our contributions.”
So that is Colin Trevorrow, one of the writers and the director of Jurassic World talking about it. And I think by the end of our podcast, we’ll have a better understanding of what he was going into and sort of what the reality is of getting your name up on that screen really involves.
Craig: Well, let’s begin by taking a close look at something he said here which isn’t quite specific enough. And in doing so, I’m going to kick a little bit of a hornet’s nest. Because the WGA or the Guild does not determine credits the way people —
Craig: Use those, huh? In fact, the WGA West or WGA East determines credits. So we have two unions, West and East. Now, a lot of people will immediately say why? And the answer is, don’t know, it was that way back in the ’40s when long distance was, you know, super expensive. It makes no sense now. That’s a whole other episode.
John: Wouldn’t the whole history, though, be that television was largely based out of New York and features were largely based out of Los Angeles and overtime that sort of changed. But that was — originally, they were very different beasts. Is that accurate in any sort of historical context?
Craig: No, kind of not really.
John: Yeah, I’m probably wrong.
Craig: Yeah, I mean a little bit, but no. I mean, it doesn’t matter. The truth is, it’s one of those things we live with now and in an age where we’re constantly revising the world around us to be better this has resisted revision for political reasons essentially. But it is important to understand here that in this case, the credit determination process was messy, from what I can see. It did contain a very strange inaccuracy. There was a second review of it. And it was conducted by the Writers Guild East.
Now, let’s talk about who determines credits and why it matters. So, the Writers Guild West or the Writers Guild East determines credits. Here’s the way the rules work. If a majority of participating writers on a project are West members, the West handles it. If a majority of the members on a project are East members, the East handles it. If there’s exactly the same number, tie goes to the West. The West handles it.
Well, aren’t the two unions governed by the same collective bargaining agreement? And aren’t they governed by the same Screen Credits Manual and guidelines? Absolutely. So what’s the big difference? Well, the Writers Guild West has well over 7,000 members. And more importantly, it has probably 50 or 60 attorneys working at the Guild. The credits department of The Writers Guild West handles the vast majority of arbitrations and most of the principals in that department, principal staff members, are attorneys. And they are very, very good at what they do.
Now, I’m not a Writers Guild East member, but I can tell you this. I believe, last I heard, a few years ago, they had one lawyer on their staff. Their staff is something like 20 to 30 people. They really don’t like when I say things like this. They get very, very fussy about it. And generally speaking, this is my opinion, if I could choose which guild would be managing my credit arbitration, I would really, really want the West to do it.
In this case, a very strange decision came down initially where there wasn’t a story credit. There almost had to be a story credit. It was by the rules. I couldn’t begin to explain what they did or how it worked out that way.
But important for you guys to know out there, the West handles most credit arbitrations, but there are cases where the East does. So, be aware of that. In this case, I don’t know who the participating writers were beyond the credited writers, but I believe Colin is an East Coast guy. I don’t know Rick and Amanda.
John: I believe Derek is as well.
Craig: Yeah. So that’s an East Coast team. If there were no other participating writers and except for Rick and Amanda, then I presume they must be East Coast because this was an East jurisdiction. So, that’s right off the bat. There’s a funky little thing.
John: Yes. So let’s talk about why determining credit matters and sort of why we have this system at all. So if we didn’t have the Writers Guild West or the Writers Guild East determining credits, how would we figure out who got screenplay credit?
Craig: Well, we don’t have to ask. We know, because in our inception as a union, we did not have credit protection. And so credits were determined by the companies. And in fact, that system still exists today for feature films that are not covered by the Writers Guild, most notably animated films. So when you go to see a Pixar movie, there are credits up there for writing. And those credits are at the sole determination of Pixar. And if they think you deserve it, you get it. And if they don’t, you don’t. If they love you, probably that would be good. If they do not love you, probably that would be bad.
Craig: Similarly, if you have an arrangement in your contract where you are set to receive a bonus should you get screen credit, it would obviously be in the company’s interest to not give you screen credit if it would cost them a lot of money. And, of course, there are issues of abuse where they could theoretically put, particularly in the case of writer-directors and writer-producers who just say, “Look, I want this credit for myself and we’re all chummy here. You know, just give it to me.” So that’s the major thing we’re avoiding.
And then there’s also the secondary thing that’s actually written into our collective bargaining agreement that says that the WGA is in the business of protecting the dignity of the credit. We want our credit to mean something. It is a special credit. It is not like other credits on a movie, other crew credits. It is both a credit that says I wrote this movie and it’s a credit that indicates proper authorship of a movie. Even though we don’t have copyright, there’s an implication of authorship there. So our credits mean something and we want to protect their dignity.
John: Absolutely. So, while we’ve often talked about on the show how filmmaking is an incredibly collaborative process. So, at every level, everyone involved in the film is helping to make that film possible. People who are writing the film, people who are directing the film have an interest in defining some authorship, defining that their work is the principal creative driving force behind this film existing.
And it’s one of the reasons why, you know, you might see 15 different companies listed in the visual effects in a very visual effects intensive movie. But you should hopefully only see one writing credit that reflects who the individual or the team that was principally responsible for this movie. Even if more than one writer wrote it, there’s been a determination of who is most responsible for this film. And that is the process that goes through arbitration.
Craig: That’s right. And our credit isn’t manipulable the way that a lot of crew credits are where you could say, “Well, here’s 100 people that worked on visual effects. But these people are artists, these people are supervisors, these people are producers. The person is the, you know, the ultimate, the visual effects master.” Writing is writing. And so we don’t have junior writers, senior writers or stuff like that. We just have writers. Did you author this movie or not?
Directors are shielded from this to almost exclusive extent because the job of directing a film is singular. We don’t direct. I mean, by the way, it used to be that they would have three or four directors on movies, but we’re talking about back to the ’20s and ’30s. In modern filmmaking, one director makes the film. You cannot successfully replace that director once, twice, three, or four times on any regular basis.
So you will not really, I mean, there are occasional times where directors are replaced. And there are director credit arbitrations. They’re exceedingly rare. But because of the nature of what we do comes before production, it’s obviously quite common.
John: So the crucial sort of third piece of that creative triumvirate is the producer. And producer credits have, as we talked about on the show before, proliferated. And so one of the things you will start to see increasingly in films these days is a credit after the person’s name saying PGA, Producers Guild of America.
And the Producers Guild attempted to do something like what the Writers Guild already had for writers’ credits. It’s basically to identify who are the producers who were principally involved with the actual creation of the film. And so that if there are 12 producers listed, the ones who have that PGA credit are the true principal producers behind it. And that same sense of authorship. They are the ones who deserve some creative ownership, some creative recognition for what they did for the film.
Craig: Right. They recognize that if you have 14 people that say producer, then the credit producer means absolutely nothing. The PGA is not an actual guild. It’s not a labor union. It’s a club. But they do a good job of their primary goal, which is protecting the dignity of that credit.
So the PGA comes up with their own rules as they wish. We can’t do that. Because we are a labor union, the Writers Guild derives all of its authority and jurisdiction from its collective bargaining agreement with the companies. And so while most writers in the union will never look beyond our Screen Credits Manual, which is the manual the union publishes for its writers and arbiters to list all the guidelines. In fact, all that stuff derives from our collective bargaining agreement. It’s in an area called Theatrical Schedule A, which sounds sexy. It is. It’s —
John: It’s such good reading.
Craig: 50 Shades of Schedule A.
John: I just love it.
Craig: Yeah, it’s pretty hot. So if you’re ever feeling randy.
John: Well, the fact that it comes from this collective bargaining agreement would explain why it actually feels so lawyerly when you go through it. So most writers will encounter these restrictions, these regulations, these, you know, they’re not even guidelines. They really are rules in something that’s called the Screen Credits Manual.
And that is when you are seeking credit on a film or if you are involved in arbitration either as an arbiter or someone seeking credit, you get the Screen Credits Manual. And it really lays out in very clear language exactly what the requirements are for different kinds of credits.
This is important for lots of reasons because this is how we’re going to determine the credit. And if we didn’t use those rules properly, writers would be up in arms. And writers would be not just disappointed, the way that Colin Trevorrow was disappointed, but might sue or might take actions that would potentially break the whole system.
Craig: Yeah, it’s unfortunate because there are things in the Credits Manual that are clear. There are other things that are as clear as mud. And it is. It all derives back to its origin as a legal document and a legal document that is the product of negotiation with companies and lawyers on both sides.
So a lot of times, writers will look at this stuff and think, “My guild is ridiculous. They’ve printed this impossible to understand booklet. And they’re so legalistic and they’re treating me like, you know, I’m in court, and they’re the judge. And it’s very off-putting and it’s very disconnecting.” But it’s not the Guild’s fault. They have no choice.
This was the devil’s bargain. We get to do final jurisdiction over credits but we get to do it within the framework of a large document drawn up by a lot of lawyers.
John: If it were nicer and squishier, it wouldn’t hold up in court.
Craig: It would not.
John: And then we would be in a real bad situation.
Craig: It would not hold up in court. And ,in fact, a number of writers have sued the Writers Guild because they felt that they were unhappy with the outcome of going through the credits process for one reason or another. And in the Writer Guild history — Writers Guild’s history — they have never lost. They have never lost one of these credit cases.
And they have never lost in no small part because the credit staff at the Writers Guild West, at the very least, is full of lawyers who specialize in this area of law. WGA credits [laughs], that’s their area. And they follow those rules. It can, at times, be distressing when your own guild seems to be applying rules to you with no sense of mercy or fairness or rationality. But that is the job they’re tasked with, unfortunately.
John: So before we get into the process of determining the credits, let’s make it clear what we’re talking about and what we’re not talking about. So you and I both have a lot of experience with screen credits for feature films. And that’s mostly what you and I have done. I’ve done some TV, we’ve done some other things, I’ve served as an arbiter in some TV situations.
But mostly what we’re talking about here is theatrical films. And that’s really our sort of bread and butter. That’s where we have the most experience with. And you’ve also served on the screen credits subcommittee for the WGA. You’ve had like a lot more intense first-person experience with how these rules are made, is that right?
Craig: That’s right. I am the co-chair. There are three of us along with — I’m the co-chair along with Robert King who currently is a television guy because he and his wife, Michelle, have created and run The Good Wife. But prior to that, he was a feature guy.
And it’s a joint committee for West and East. So our East co-chair is Stephen Schiff who wrote a number of fine films as well, a sequel to Wall Street being one of them, Deep End of the Ocean I think. Maybe the other —
John: Yeah, that sounds right.
Craig: Great guy. Awesome guy. Very, very smart. So we have this joint committee. And over the years we have been tasked to take a look at our rules, consider revisions, put those revisions to the membership to vote on. And happily, they have approved all of our proposals. And I think we have done a very good job of fixing some things that needed fixing.
I also, because of the fact that I serve on that committee, I get calls all the time. People call me all the time with their problems, complaints, questions and suggestions.
John: Yeah. I will confirm that behind the scenes Craig is a go-to person for questions about is this how things are supposed to work. And if things are working improperly, Craig is the person who can help steer people towards better answers.
John: The other thing I want to make clear that we’re not talking about is we’re not talking about copyright. So if you think back to the Gravity lawsuit, if you think back to other copyright claims, this is not copyright. This is… — copyright on feature films, the kinds of things we’re talking about, it’s the people who made the movie are going to own copyright. They are the people who are considered the authors of the film for copyright purposes.
So this is determining whose name shows up as written by or screenplay by or story by. We’ll get into specifically what those mean. It’s important for those writers because sometimes it is a form of compensation. It can influence what they are paid for the day the movie comes out, but it’s also a huge impact on what the residuals will be down the road.
So even though this is not copyright, it’s incredibly important, both creatively and professionally but also financially.
Craig: Yeah, you’re right. So we work on a work-for-hire basis. The screen credit is the as if version of your name on your book. And residuals are the as if version of getting royalties on your book. So we don’t have the legal copyright. But that’s so much of what credits are about are essentially compensating us for that and allowing us to have attribution which would be one of the moral rights that go along with copyright.
John: Great. Let’s walk our way through the process. And so let’s imagine a theoretical film that has gone into production, it is finishing production, maybe they’ve wrapped, or maybe they’re about to wrap. Let’s talk through the process and what the stages are of figuring out who should get credit on a given movie.
So Craig, start us out. What’s the first thing that’s going to happen?
Craig: Well, interestingly enough, the first thing that happens is the studio says, “This is what we think.” It begins with the studio. They get a chance to propose what they think the credits ought to be. They are restricted really only in one sense. They cannot propose credits that are essentially illegal or impossible.
For instance, there can be no more than three writers listed as credited for screenplay with a writing team counting as one writer. There can be no more than two writers credited for story by, again with writing teams counted as one writer. So they can’t propose something with three story bys and five screenplay bys.
So they report to the Writers Guild and they say, “Here it is.” And it’s a fixed form that is defined down to the letter in the collective bargaining agreement called the Notice of Tentative Writing Credits Theatrical.
Now, while this is going on, the companies do have a little bit of flexibility. You may, out there, have noticed that you went to go see a movie, and in the lobby saw a poster with some names on it for credit. And then months later, when the movie came out, the names were different.
Aha. Well, the companies are allowed to use their tentative writing credits for promotional purposes when they need to do things in advance. One of the rules that we have is that if they credit a director on something, they have to credit the writer. So if they put a poster out there and say, “From Jim Blue,” they need to also say, “Written by Alice White.” Well, they may not know the final credits, they’re allowed to use their temporary credits.
Once the credits are fixed and placed by the Guild, then those are the only ones they can use. So it’s all kicked off by the studio.
John: A tiny sidebar here. As we talk about those posters, those sort of teaser posters, it’s worth noting that the rules stipulate that the director’s name has to be equal to the writer’s name. So it has to be the same size, the same color.
John: The director’s name cannot be highlighted in a way that the writer’s name is not highlighted.
If you know this rule and you start looking at posters, you will notice some really interesting trends. So the teaser poster for Big Fish says “From the visionary mind of Director Tim Burton”. And so Tim Burton is big there and it’s in the blue sky and brown letters. And then it says, you know, “Based on a novel by Daniel Wallace, Screenplay by John August”. And our names are also in that same type size and they’re also in brown.
But our names are like on top of like some dirt. [laughs]
John: So it’s actually much harder to see our names. But technically they met every stipulation that we are the same font, the same size, same color.
Craig: Yeah. Sometimes, they will do things like that. Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing. When the promotional stuff for the second Hangover came out, they made a big deal about Todd Phillips’ name because he was so, he directed the first one, it’s his franchise. So his name was really big. So then suddenly my name and Scot Armstrong’s name were really big. And people were like, “Dude, who do you think you are?” [laughs] And I was just like, “It’s a rule. I didn’t ask for it. It’s a rule.”
So here’s what you get. The Writers Guild will receive this Notice of Tentative Writing Credits Theatrical and then send copies to the participating writers or their current agents if the participants so elect. And the sheet will list all of the participating writers that were involved, the title of the movie, the executive producer, producer and director, other production executives and their titles if they were participating writers.
And then here’s what we think the credit should be, here’s what a source material credit will be, like based on a novel by. And that’s basically the deal. And it kind of ends with this will become final unless a protest is communicated by this time. So that’s what the company thinks.
John: Let’s define what production executive means because that trips a lot of people up.
Craig: Yeah, yeah.
John: So production executive does not necessarily mean a studio employee. It means somebody who was involved in the production of this movie with a different title or a different sort of controlling interest. Producer is often one, but so is a director. There may have been cases where an editor or somebody else has a —
Craig: No, no.
John: That was production executive. No? Is it only producer and director?
Craig: Yeah, it’s defined and it’s basically defined as anybody that has a producing credit or anybody that has — and it’s an onscreen producing credit. Or anybody that has a directing credit. And it is strange that they call it a production executive because in the real modern world production executives are basically studio executives who never write on movies. Well, extremely rare, rare exception.
But it’s quite common for there to be writer-producers and writer-directors. And so their presence in this process will — well, you’ll see why it matters. But, yeah, the way that they define these things is, yeah. You got to be a director or producer.
John: So let’s say you are one of the writers of this theoretical movie and you receive a Notice of Tentative Writing Credits. So hopefully, it went to your agent, your lawyer, hopefully, it went to you. And you see this and you say, “Well, I don’t think that’s actually the appropriate credit for this film. I believe I deserve, for example, screenplay credit.” Or, “Something about this does not strike me as being right.” Or perhaps there was a writer whose name was left off the list of participating writers. This would be a time for me to say, “Something here is not correct.”
Craig: Yeah. Well, first of all, let’s hope that you actually get the damn thing. So that’s been an issue.
John: It has been.
Craig: They should be just emailing these things directly to us. I think now they can do that, but they still need to send copies to your agents or your managers. You need to make sure if you’re working on a movie that the Guild has your current representative information. Must have it.
I have spoken to writers who have suffered because they didn’t get the statement in time. And it is a disaster. So make sure, if you’re working on a movie, the Guild has your proper information. But, yeah, basically, you’re looking at this. And if you agree, great.
And by the way, if everybody agrees, guess what? Done.
Craig: If one person, one single person says, “I don’t like this,” all bets are off and now you go to arbitration. So like I said, any participating writer can ask for a protest. We should probably define who exactly is a participating writer. Aha.
John: So a participating writer is anybody who wrote on the movie, was paid to write on the movie, correct? Because if they were just, let’s say, somebody’s niece wrote one scene and they weren’t paid for it, they shouldn’t have been writing the movie anyway, but they would not be considered a participating writer, is that correct?
Craig: I don’t think — well, probably, because she’s not a professional. But if you are a professional writer and you do write literary material, in the absence of a contract, I think what happens is the Writers Guild will go back and say, “Okay, they’re a participating writer. But they must — ” you have to go pay them. You have to get a contract put together for them.
But the way it’s defined in our collective bargaining agreement, it says, “Contributed literary material or employed under a WGA contract” which means, by the way, somebody could be employed and not actually write anything, and then suddenly they’re a participating writer. But it’s an exceedingly rare circumstance.
Typically, all the participating writers are people that were paid under a contract to write on the movie. Sometimes, though, there is an argument about that and we’ll get to that in a second. But let’s say nobody protests but one of the participating writers happens to also be the director. Automatic arbitration.
John: Yeah. If one of the participating writers was a producer or director, it automatically kicks into arbitration.
John: And talk to me about the rationale behind why that is, that rule exists.
Craig: Well, the notion is that if you are a lowly writer — let’s say you’re just starting out, you’re 26 years old and the producer is a legend. And the producer comes to you at the end of the process and says, “By the way, you know what, I want credit on this movie.” “Uh, well, you didn’t write anything.” “Yeah, I want credit. I’ll tell you what, I’m going to put my name on there for credit and don’t arbitrate. Because if you arbitrate, I’m going to have to destroy you. I’m going to ruin you. Everywhere I go, I’m going to ruin your name.”
Well, that’s potentially quite horrible. And I wish I could say that there aren’t people that behave like that in Hollywood. But I think we all know that there are.
So the Guild’s solution quite elegantly is to say, “If anybody is in a producer or director position that is participating in this process, there is going to be an arbitration. Nobody has to make a choice. There’s no ability for anyone to say don’t do it. It’s happening no matter what.” So you will remove the potential for undue pressure —
Craig: From people with authority.
John: So going into these situations, if you are writing on a movie that has, you know, a writer-director or you wrote something and a writer-director came on board and re-wrote your script and it’s now going into production, you should know that will automatically trigger an arbitration.
John: And so the situation with Jurassic World, Colin Trevorrow was hired on to direct this movie.
John: He ended up re-writing the movie. That was always going to be an arbitration.
John: There was no way that could have avoided arbitration.
Craig: That is exactly right. So that was a necessary arbitration. An arbitration will occur if any of the writers protest. An arbitration will not occur if all the writers agree.
And by the way, the writers don’t have to agree necessarily with the studio. If none of the writers are directors or producers, they can agree amongst themselves. They can come up with their own agreement. It happens quite rarely but it is possible.
John: It’s happened to me probably on three or four different movies. So, you know, I try to always have open discussions with any writers involved in the movies I’ve worked on, to talk through those issues before we get to arbitration.
And in some cases, we have decided like, “Oh, this would be a fair way to split the credit.” And that’s great and we all agree and we sign off on that and that’s done.
In other cases, we’ve had that conversation and disagreed but it was actually incredibly collegial. And we explained very clearly where we were coming from, what we thought the credits should be, we disagreed, and we went to arbitration. But there were no bad, hurt feelings. It was actually a pretty happy process.
So I would just encourage people to try that discussion if it makes sense.
Craig: Now, in the cases where you guys agreed on things, did you still have to write statements for an arbitration because it was an automatic arbitration or —
John: In those cases, it was not an automatic arbitration. I do recall writing a letter saying, “I believe these credits should be this credit.” And we basically all sent that in at the same time.
Craig: Yeah. So that would have been an automatic. So sometimes, in the case of an automatic arbitration where everybody really does agree, they can all send in one joint statement. And we’ll get to participating writer statements.
But before we can get to that, first, we can’t get to an arbitration if there is a disagreement about who is supposed to be in the arbitration.
Craig: So what happens if somebody says, “I should be a writer and I’m not listed,” or somebody says, “That guy didn’t write anything. He shouldn’t be listed,” or if someone says, “Well, wait a second. She’s listed as the third writer but she was really the second writer,” or somebody says, “Hey, whoa, whoa, whoa, that guy is submitting that material? That material wasn’t before me,” all sorts of issues.
So there is a procedure in place called a pre-arbitration. It’s also at times known as a participating writer investigation when that is the focus of what it’s doing. And these are the things that a Writers Guild member, hopefully a seasoned, well-informed Writers Guild member under the careful watch of the staff makes a decision about what material should or should not be included in the arbitration, who is or is not a participating writer, is the project really an original or is it an adaptation of source material, what is the chronology of the material. All of these fussy, fussy questions will get hashed out before it even goes to arbitration.
John: Now, this is a unique situation and it doesn’t happen all the time. But this is really an investigation. And so they may actually call you in to say, “Can you talk us through what actually happened here? Can you explain what this is? Where did this come into existence?”
And so I’ve been in some of these situations where I have had to literally go in and talk in front of some people and they would ask me some questions. I wasn’t there opposite the other writer who was seeking credit, but there were things that needed to be figured out. And so I’ve had to physically go in and do these kind of things.
Craig: They were somewhat rare when you and I started. They are growing increasingly more common, because the way that studios develop movies now has gotten loosier and goosier.
It’s actually quite common for studios to purchase spec screenplays and repurpose them as sequels to things. And there are quite a number of notable examples. For instance, Ocean’s Twelve started as an original screenplay written by George Nolfi and was then repurposed.
Well, what do you do about that? Is that still an original or is it an adaptation? There are all sorts of things that need to be figured.
Sometimes, studios will purchase a screenplay from another company. They’ll buy a company. That company has screenplays but they weren’t Writers Guild screenplays. What happens to those? By the way, answer, those become source material not subject to Writers Guild credits.
But there’s all this stuff that needs to be figured out. And as companies get stranger and weirder about how they suck up material from the culture and spit it back out in the form of movies, these pre-arbitrations will become increasingly common.
John: So there’s a lot to figure out. Especially, studios now are doing these kind of bake-off competitions where they’ll hire two writers at the same time to work on different drafts of things —
John: Which to me just feels like a disaster waiting to happen. And yet the studios are banking like, “Well, one of those drafts we’ll shoot, or if there’s things we like in both of them, we’ll piece it together.” And God bless them, but that makes it very, very complicated. And this pre-arbitration hearing could become a very important part of the process of figuring out who deserves credit, when stuff happened, which characters originated in which draft.
Craig: Absolutely, absolutely. And to be clear, as we go through this section, as we walk you through this section, the Writers Guild has a duty of fair representation. That’s a fact of law. They have to represent all participating writers equally, even when one of them is the director or one of them is a producer, or one of them is new, or one of them wrote a spec, or one of them is a re-write, it doesn’t matter.
At times, writers will feel like they’re siding with one person or another. And that’s only because they are [laughs], because somebody has to be right, you know. This is where, unfortunately, people get really emotional and upset about this because nobody wants to lose. And when you think you’re getting jobbed, it’s a terrible feeling. But, alas, it’s a dirty job, someone’s got to do it.
John: So, Craig, as we come out of the pre-arbitration hearing, as we come out of the participating writer investigation, what information should be agreed upon? It’s basically these are the writers who participated in this draft, this is the order in which the scripts sort of come in. And at that point, do we start to impanel real arbiters?
Craig: Yeah. So now we know that we have a number of participating writers. There are no more participating writers than these and no fewer. These are they. We have a chronology for the work that they’ve done.
And each one of them gets a letter because everything’s done anonymously. We’ll get into the why of that. And we have material assigned for each one of them. So we know what material has been allowed and what material is no longer there.
And now, we reach out to three writers who will become the arbitration panel. Before the guild can select them, all the participating writers receive a list of all the screenwriters in the guild that are eligible to be arbiters. And the participating writers can red-pen through people they don’t want.
Why would you want to strike people’s names? You may have had a bad experience with some of them, some of them you may not like, some of them you —
John: Some of them you may know that they are just a dummy.
John: You may just realize like, “You are not a clever person and I would not want to trust your opinion.”
Craig: That’s right.
John: Now, keep in mind, you as the participating writer, you should be anonymous. They shouldn’t know which was your draft. So they shouldn’t be able to hold any personal bias against you. But in the Internet era, it’s very hard to have no idea of what a movie is or who might have been involved with it.
John: So there’s lots of reasons why you might want to, you know, not select certain people.
Craig: Correct. It’s virtually impossible at this point to presume anonymity.
The way the process is set up, the writers obviously are familiar with each other. But the writers will not know the identities of the arbiters. And that’s easy —
Craig: Because they’re not going to see them or address them.
The arbiters receive materials and all the participating writers are identified by letters. So there’s writer A, B, C, D and E. They don’t know the names of the people who have written them. But if they go on IMDb and there’s only writer A and writer B, they’re probably going to be able to figure it out.
Craig: The great hope is that they don’t do it. And certainly if they indicate at any point that they have, then they’re bounced. The double blind anonymity — arbiters don’t know each other, arbiters don’t know the participants, participants don’t know the arbiters, maybe triple blind, that has essentially been the cornerstone of the Writers Guild’s defense of itself.
Essentially, they’re saying, “We have fulfilled our duty of fair representation because the process excluded the possibility of some people being favored over others for any reason other than the material itself.”
John: So let’s talk about the requirements of an arbiter, because you and I both served as arbiters on screen credits decisions.
John: So to be an arbiter, you’re supposed to have been a member for five years, you should have had a minimum of three on-screen credits. So you should know what it is you’re talking about. You should have been through this system before. You should know what, you know, a movie looks like when it’s written down on a page. And you hopefully sort of have some exposure with what this whole process is.
Now I get the call to be an arbiter probably five times a year.
John: And I say yes maybe twice a year based on sort of like how busy I am. It’s a tremendous responsibility. And I will credit the guild as being very upfront about how much work it’s going to be and how many drafts there are to read, how complicated it is, how many writers there are on board. They will tell you the name of the project just so you would know, like, oh, I can’t do that because I know exactly who wrote. I know too much of the history of it.
John: Or like that was the thing I wanted — I was up for that job but I didn’t get it. Like, there would be really obvious situations where you should not be involved with it. But my instinct is to always say yes if I can say yes, because I know how incredibly important it is that smart and dedicated guild people take these arbitrations seriously.
Craig: No question. And so the struggle is always when they call and they say, “Well, there are seven participating writers, so seven drafts, plus a novel.” Oh, and you know you have a deadline and it’s just, you know — I try not to automatically say no to those. I have done a couple of those monsters. Generally, when they call me, I tend to get problem cases. [laughs] I’ve noticed.
Craig: They haven’t indicated this but I tend to get complicated ones. I tend to get big ones. And I often get comedies. So I don’t know if they’re doing that on purpose or not. It’s just the way it kind of comes.
Not everybody can be an arbiter. There’s three rules that govern this. One is, okay, you can be an arbiter if you’ve been a current member for five years, or you can be an arbiter if you have a minimum of three on-screen credits. So if you’ve gotten that in fewer than five years, Mazel tov.
And then the other issue is that of the three arbiters, two of them have to be what they call experienced arbiters. Meaning that two of the three have served on at least two other arbitration committees which you start —
John: Oh, I wasn’t aware of that. Wow.
Craig: Yeah. So there’s an interesting bottleneck there of experience. So in every arbitration, they can only put in one rookie. So every time — so once they put in one rookie, they’re like, “Okay, they can be a rookie one more time and then we get to use them as experienced.” But you can see how the pool of available arbiters is fairly compressed.
The Writers Guild struggles endlessly to find arbiters willing to do the work and willing to do it in the short amount of time we get. And the amount of time, that window has shrunk and shrunk and shrunk and shrunk and shrunk over time because post-production has taken longer and longer and longer and longer, there’s additional writing going on.
And then of course the studios are turning around. The release is incredibly quickly. And they’re saying, “My God, we need the credits because we got to do the — literally put the credits on the movie. We’ve got four days.” It can get really bad.
John: Yeah. And in television, just imagine everything is about 15 times faster.
John: So as tight as the schedules can be in features, television is nuts.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, the great boon for televisions is that in television the credits are often decided before the arbiters even get them, because in television when you work on staff everyone’s going to get a credit. It’s not the, you know, I would say that movies are like basically one episode television series. So, yeah, the credit is super important. [laughs] It matters. And if you don’t get it, you’re never getting it.
John: Yeah. So these arbiters and impaneled. They are receiving the scripts that are labeled writer A through writer F. Sometimes there will be multiple drafts given by a writer if the writer thinks it’s really important to show the progress from this thing or that thing or an idea that was taken out of a draft but then appears later on in a different writer’s script. There may be a reason why she wants to show that.
But the arbiter gets this big stack of scripts. The arbiter also gets a statement from each writer. And those statements can be long and detailed. Those statements can be short. But in that statement, the writer is laying out a case for why they believe the credit should read a certain way and hopefully making a good case based exclusively on the Screen Credits Manual why they believe that the credit should read a certain way.
Craig: This statement is essentially your only day in court as a participating writer.
Craig: It’s your one chance to express to the people deciding your fate why you feel the way you do. And so naturally this document becomes loaded with all sorts of emotion. And that’s unfortunate because this would be the last time you’d want to do that. This is when you want to be as rationale as possible. Since you and I are both arbiters, I assume you like I have read some terrible, terrible statements from writers.
John: Absolutely. And you read these statements which are basically just explaining the hardship that they faced and sort of what the struggle was to make the movie and how unfair things were. And it doesn’t matter because that doesn’t help me reach my decision in which my decision is based on the words on the page.
So the great statements that I really enjoy are the ones that very clearly explain why the writer is seeking the credit that she’s seeking and can provide some roadmap for how she gets to that decision. Will I get to the same decision? Maybe yes, maybe no. But I at least one want to be able to see what the writer is thinking as I’m going through this.
In some cases that statement may help elucidate something that I might have missed otherwise. And so as I’m writing my own statement I try to provide just that same kind of this is the roadmap that gets me to this decision, maybe you will want to follow the same map. And thank you so much for your service. I think any statement that doesn’t acknowledge the incredible amount of time that the arbiter is putting into this is a foolish statement.
Craig: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I would argue that the most foolish statement is the one where the writer has paid somebody to write it for them. This is a scourge and I’m sorry to say it exists. And if you are in the Writers Guild and you’ve heard of people doing this and they’ve had success, yes, much the same way that Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc works in homeopathic medicine and so forth. It’s a disastrous idea and an enormous waste of money.
There are people out there who charge thousands of thousands of dollars to write a professional statement for you as you, analyzing all the material, making their case. These statements tend to be quite long which arbiters don’t like. But more importantly they’re the same. They’re the same. You’re getting ripped off.
So what will happen is for instance I did an arbitration recently. And when it was done and the decision had been rendered I then called the staff and said, “So I don’t know if you’re able to tell me but this particular statement smelled like a professional statement to me. It didn’t impact my decision one way or another. But it just smelled like it.”
And they said, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, we see that statement [laughs] with like various versions of it.” I mean basically these people — you know how it works. You know the way the world works, right?
John: Absolutely. I will say that as friends go into an arbitration situation they will invariably email me saying like, “Hey, can you share one of your statements with me?” And I will usually do that but I always caution them that each statement needs to individually, you know, reflect the needs of that project. And so I’ve written long ones for things that really, truly were complicated where I came on and off the projects several times. And like without some sort of map it could be very easy to forget sort of what happened along the way.
John: But I’ve also written like the two-page statement. I’ve written the half a page statement that basically says, “This is how I think it should end up. I thank you for your service. God speed.”
John: It really depends on the situation. So I would never urge people to write the long statement to spend, you know, six days writing a long statement because people will go crazy writing it.
Craig: Well, yeah, I mean, look a bad statement from you is always better than any professional statement. The arbiter will understand whether they realize the statement is a “professional” or not, they can feel a personal touch on a personal statement.
So I’m going to give my advice to people on general advice when they’re writing these statements what I think makes a good one. And then I guess by elimination what makes a bad one. Generally shorter is better. If you can keep it under four pages, you will be loved, you will be loved by your arbiter.
Avoid math. A lot of the guidelines refer to percentages. You will get screenplay credit if you hit 33% of a screenplay or 50% of a screenplay. Well, we actually don’t do math on our end. We’re kind of just 50% to I think a lot of us is half or more and 33% is a good amount, you know, I mean. So we’re not counting words or lines so don’t do it for us.
Don’t be a jerk. No matter how you feel about who rewrote you or who you rewrote, be polite and be professional about it. Don’t treat the arbiters like they can’t read. This is my biggest complaint about participating writer statements. They will go and on about some obvious point. And while I’m reading their statement I’m thinking, “Can’t I just read the screenplay? I’ll read it and I’ll know that. I don’t need your chart.” You know what I mean? Like I know how to read, I can do — yes there are certain things that it’s great that you track for me. But other things like a whole page about how this one thing is really just like this thing. It’s a scene, I’ll read it.
Context in small doses is helpful. It’s helpful although not determinative for to me to understand how you came on the job, what your task was, how you approach the writer’s material before you, how you may have been replaced. It doesn’t change necessarily what I’m reading but it can place it in some sort of meaningful context. It doesn’t matter that you’ve spent 12 months on it as opposed to another guy spending a week. But I think it’s at least interesting for the arbiter to understand some of that sort of thing.
And lastly just to remind people, they try this all the time and the guild has to bounce it back to them. You can’t send in recommendation letters, so the producer can’t send a letter saying, “Yeah, we’re backing this guy.” And other than that you’re free to write anything you want in your statement with one exception. You can’t breach anonymity. You can’t identify yourself and you can’t identify any of the other participating writers.
Craig: All right.
John: And as the arbiter you get all these scripts, you get these letters. I tend to — I go both ways. In some cases I’ve read all the letters first. In some cases I’ve read all the scripts first. Both ways make sense. If you read the letters first, you have a sense of what the individual writer thinks is important about that draft. But if you read all the scripts first, a lot of times I’ll end up with like, you know, well, this is what sort of makes sense to me and then you’ll sort of see which writers are completely insane and which writers are like, “Oh, I can see how they got to this place.”
Craig: Right. And that’s part of the shock of doing the job of being an arbiter is that you will read the scripts and then you’ll look back again at the statements. And someone who’s truly contributed nearly nothing to the final screenplay will have written a seven-page passionate creed about how they really wrote it all. And it’s scary but I understand it.
It’s not — that is not a schizophrenic delusion. That’s just part of being a writer. They’re inner world is rich and fulfilling and everybody else is just a bunch of words on paper. And so this is why sometimes I think people are shocked.
There are ways to process the work if you have a bunch of scripts. You can choose to read the final script first, that’s the shooting script and then go backwards or can start from the beginning. It doesn’t really matter. The only thing that matters is you read all of it.
And while you’re doing that you’re in touch with somebody who’s called a screen credit’s consultant. That’s not a staff member. That is another Writers Guild member. Often they are emeritus. They’ve been doing it for awhile, they may be retired, they may live somewhere else.
And their job really is to just — they’re not reading the material. They’re just there to advice you on the applicable rules. Because there’s all sorts of rules depending on what kind of project it is. So they’re there if you have any questions about things. And they’re also there to collect your decisions. Because once all three arbiters have rendered their decision, if it’s unanimous, that’s it. It’s done.
John: You’re done. Yeah. You’re almost done. Each of those arbiters is going to be asked to write up their decision. But it is done. There’s not going to be any further discussion.
Craig: Correct, as long as that decision is in fact a legal one. And so staff is — the screen credit’s consultant will then convey to staff, “Okay, awesome. All three of them on their own came up with the same decision.” Staff goes, “Yes, that is a legal decision.” And then off we go.
John: It’s a permissible decision. It meets the requirements of what a screen credit can be.
Craig: Permissible, perfect word. There may be a case where all three arbiters have three different versions of the credits. So the screen credit consultant will sort of kind of horse trade a little bit and say, “Well, how firm are you on that? Would you be at all? Could you entertain the idea of adjusting your decision to be more like this person or this person?”
What they’re trying to do is see if they can avoid a stalemate. A stalemate is kind of a disaster. It’s incredibly hard as I mentioned to get three people to do this. If all three of them disagree, they got to basically toss them and start again with three new arbiters which they don’t want to do.
John: No one wants to do that.
Craig: Nobody wants to do that. But on the other hand, they don’t want to force writers into making decision they don’t want to make. So they’re very gentle about this. They just say, “Okay, well, could you or would you consider this?” And if they say, “Absolutely not.” “Fine, no problem. We’ll do another panel.”
If there are two writers, two arbiters that agree and one that doesn’t then what we do is we have teleconference. All three arbiters get on the phone along with staff monitoring. The arbiters are identified to each other only as arbiter 1, 2 and 3. And they talk it out.
And the reason they talk it out is to see if they can actually achieve unanimity because two to one is sufficient. Two to one means, yeah, that’s the decision. But if you can be unanimous it frankly sits better with everybody. So it’s worth taking a look to see if you can get to unanimity.
And there have been times where, you know, the person standing there in the one slot has pointed out to the other two, “Hey, you know, you actually probably agree with me more than you agree with each other.” And so interesting things can happen there. But it’s a chance for arbiters to agree more closely than maybe they would have before.
John: And so the arbiter teleconference is a relative innovation or something that’s happened new. It’s the last six or seven years?
John: How long has that been around?
Craig: Yeah. It’s about probably coming up on five years. This is something that we cooked up in our committee and brought to the membership and they approved. And it’s been extraordinarily successful.
John: And it really is. Thank you Craig for doing it. Because it actually does make the process much better. Because there’ve been times, twice in this last few years, I’ve been in one of these teleconference situations and it’s great to hear what the other writer, arbiters are thinking and sort of why they reached their decision.
Sometimes I’ve been able to sort of persuade people over to my side. Sometimes we’ve ended up in the two-to-one, but I’ve at least understood why we got to this two-to-one. It wasn’t just like who could possibly think that that, you know, it should be shared story credit. Like it seems impossible to me. It helps you really understand why they got to that decision. So I think it’s a really good process.
Craig: It also comes with another benefit. The staff is on the phone listening. And it’s their opportunity to hear the arbiters talk and defend their own positions. And if they’re hearing that one of them is a dummy or is nuts, or is ideological in a prejudiced way then they know not to ask that person to arbitrate again. So it’s another nice side effect of that.
John: Yeah. Because otherwise they would have the written decision but that’s not necessarily clear about what the thinking was behind it. The written decision that each individual arbiter makes is very carefully constructed to be sort of unassailable. That like you’ve reached this decision based on exactly these points and nothing more is said.
You’re not talking about the nature of the project. You’re not talking about the history of things. You’re talking about how you reached your decision. And at times the Writers Guild staff will ask you to adjust something in your statement just so it’s absolutely clear that you understood what you were doing.
Craig: That’s right. The statement is your — I think that is the evidence of your good work as an arbiter. In your statement, you know, certainly this is how I do it. I cite the rules, I go carefully through story and screenplay. I go carefully through why I felt some writer deserved something or some writer did not.
Some no nos. You cannot refer to anything that one of the participating writers put in their statement because other participating writers can view your decision statement. And we need to keep those statements completely walled off.
I think as an arbiter you need to really make a clear judgment because participating writers can ask to see your statement. They don’t always have to but they can ask if they are contemplating a Policy Review Board.
Craig: Uh-oh. Policy Review Board, what’s that Craig? I’ll tell you people. A PRB, a Policy Review Board, is essentially an appeals. Well, wait a second, how would the guild ever manage to that because everybody that loses will want to appeal, right? Isn’t that what’s destroying our nation’s court system as we speak?
Yeah. Well, here’s the deal. The Policy Review Board is an appeals process. Three different writers are now on that Policy Review Board. They are the new judges. But here’s the deal, they can’t read any of the scripts. They’re not there to decide if the arbiters had good opinions or good judgment or good taste. All they’re there to do is determine if any procedural errors were made or misapplication of rules. That’s it.
John: Yeah. So unlike a court of law where an appeals court can examine the facts of the case, can examine sort of testimony and other things. In this case the appeals process is only about like did they follow the rules. And that’s it.
Craig: Yeah. That’s right. So, you know, if an arbiter writes something in their statement that’s seems fishy or strange and a participating writer asks for a PRB. Well, what will happen is the people at the PRB will call the arbiter and say, “Explain this. What did you mean by this?” And if they say something that’s wrong, the PRB will throw out the decision. It happens very, very, very rarely. Have you ever gotten called by a PRB as an arbiter?
Craig: I got called once.
John: You got once.
Craig: I’ve had PRBs before, you know, where they just go, “No.” One time I got called. It was a very, very complicated arbitration with so many bizzarities in it. I know it’s not a word but I don’t care. And but they did call and they just said, “We’re picking up this one line from your statement and we’d like you to explain it more.” And I did.
Craig: And I [laughs] very clearly remember I explained it. And then I heard one of them go, “Yeah, I knew that’s — it’s obvious that’s what he was going to…” It was like, “Duh.” But they had to do it, you know. And then the PRB was the, you know, the appeal was denied.
John: So in most cases a Policy Review Board will not happen. It did not happen in the Jurassic World decision. In most cases, the arbiter’s decision will come in, the arbiters will file their statements and then what is the document that the Writers Guild East or West will produce that says, “These are the credits.”
Craig: Well, they will send — first they will call. If you’re in an arbitration, the staff member assigned to your case will call you and say, “The arbitration has reached a decision. And the screen credits will be as follows.” And then you go, “Yay” or “Huh,” or “Nah.”
And then they send a letter to the studios and to you that confirms the precise wording with a bunch of legalese about how it has to be presented and so forth. And those are the credits, period, the end, forever.
The IMDb has a deal with the WGA. Once the WGA credits are confirmed, it’s also piped over to IMDb. And those become the official IMDb credits. And then we have working rules as writers that govern us. Once the credits become final, we have to abide by them, we can’t contradict them in public and the studios must abide by them as well.
John: Yeah. So, what are some take homes we should have from this whole discussion of screen credits? So, one thing we need to really sort focus in on the end is we’re determining written by credit. And written by credit is of course two different credits combined. There’s screenplay by credit, there’s story by credit. If a writer receives both of those things and there’s no other people who will get a portion of those things, they collapse and become written by credit. Those are the two basic areas that an arbitration will be determining. But every once in a while, there will be weird, fluky kind of things that will show up on screen. Adaptation by for example.
John: What are the other —
Craig: There are screen story by.
John: Screen story by.
Craig: Which is common. Adaptation by is extraordinarily uncommon and it also isn’t what it sounds like. It’s probably why it’s extraordinarily uncommon. Generally speaking, the credits that you’ll see are story by, screen story by, screenplay by, written by. Those are the various versions and various combinations.
John: Those are the permissible credits.
John: And in permissible credits, a writing team may share one of those slots or share one those credits. That’s why you see the ampersands. So, in the case of Jurassic World, you see two writing teams, you see they’re joined by ampersands then the word and, A-N-D, combining the two of them to indicate that there were two writing teams involved in a film.
So now as you look at any poster, you will be able to determine which people who are credited as writers were working as a team and which people are working solo. In some cases, you will find weird situations where a person was writing solo and then they joined a team and so they have multiple credits in strange ways. But generally, the ampersand is the indication that those people were a team from the start.
Craig: Yeah. And these things I would imagine most — most Writers Guild members probably know, surprisingly — surprising number of them don’t. The arcane stuff almost no writers know which is always shocking to me because that’s the stuff that’s you’re subject to. You kind of need to know. So, you know, an appeal to — oh, do you want to play stump the ump? Want to play stump the ump? Let’s stump the ump. All right, John.
John: Great, do it.
Craig: Okay. John August, we have a case of a remake, a 1978 film written by some guy, he’s dead now. And they come to you. You write a draft of this remake and then they go to a second guy and he writes a draft. Then there’s a third guy who comes along and says he actually wrote a treatment before the two of you. Who is A, B and C?
John: I will ask you a question first.
John: Was the movie originally produced under the Writers Guild contract?
Craig: It was.
John: If it was, then writer A is the person who wrote the first movie.
Craig: The dead guy is writer A. What did he win? What did he win?
John: I hope something.
Craig: Nothing. You know what you won?
John: I get nothing.
Craig: You won my goddamn respect, sir. [laughs]
John: I would say that the treatment — if the treatment guy can prove that he wrote that treatment beforehand, that treatment guy became writer B, is that correct?
Craig: The treatment guy became writer B, yes. And then the treatment guy is basically vying for a shared story credit with the dead guy, I believe.
Craig: If there’s going to be, you know, if he can show that he significantly changed the story. So, yeah, there are cases for instance, the remake of The Omen, sole screenplay went to the writer of the first Omen because they felt that the remake just didn’t change it enough. So anyway, see, these are the things you know. You’re smart.
I’m saying to our fellow writers out there, be smart like John August. Take a look at the book before you go into the movie. If you’re working on a project and you’re not the first writer, read the book. If you’re going into the project and you’re the first writer, and then somebody comes to replace you, read the book because it’s common. Right? Know what’s going on.
And similarly, if you do know what’s going on and you’re a smart writer, please do arbitrations. Serve as an arbiter. Let the guild know, if they haven’t called you, that you are volunteering, that you want to be an arbiter. But please, only do it if you’re smart and you’re rational and you know the rules.
John: The other take home I would like to urge our writers to keep in mind is if you’re going into a situation where there are preexisting materials, know that it could get bumpy down the road and I see so many people who they’re so excited to sign onto this movie and they’re going to get going and they were the person who wrote it in production and they’re like, “But what’s happening now? I was the person who wrote the movie, how could there be all this hubbub and Sturm und Drang?
Well, you weren’t the original writer. And those original writers, they feel the exact same thing you do. Like, “Well, I was the person who created that movie. You were just the person who delivered it over the finish line.” Very likely there’s going to be some issues down the road. And so as long as you go into it knowing that those could happen, that’s great. It doesn’t mean you need to change a single word of what you put on the page. You can’t — that’s never going to serve you well to try to change more things on the page. Just know that it could happen down the road so it does not blindside you. And you don’t feel like it’s some vast conspiracy against you. It’s the situation, it’s going to happen whenever there are multiple writers on a movie and the movie’s been in development for a while.
Craig: Yeah. I mean this is — this is our court system guys. You’re a fool to walk in a court not knowing how court works. And you’re a fool to walk into credit arbitration not understanding how credit arbitration works. It is an awkward, ungainly, overly legalistic, rigid, and occasionally infuriating system, but it’s probably the best system that we can offer ourselves at this stage of the game.
Craig: So learn it.
John: Whenever I read an article that’s like the Jurassic World decision, it’s always the filmmaker who feels incredibly frustrated by how this all happened. And they are wishing and pining for a better system, a more fair system, a more just system. The frustration is, I don’t know what that system would be and no one has ever been able to articulate what that more fair system would be.
There have been overtures towards, “Well, what if we had professional arbiters so you knew the quality of the people who were going to be doing the arbitration?” Certainly that’s an idea. There’s been a discussion of, “Well, maybe credits should reflect all of the writers who worked on a film to acknowledge that there were other writers before this.” That’s certainly a possibility as well. For each one of these suggestions, there are many negatives that come along with it too. Any proposed change to the system is going to have a whole host of problems as well. So this is where we’re at. And Craig is on the committee trying to make this work as well as it can work.
Craig: Yeah. There’s this thing that happens where people perceive a problem in some system. Their local schools, the way their town is governed, the Writers Guild. And they see something and they go, “Isn’t it obvious what to do? Just do this. Everyone would agree on this.”
Now, actually, finding things that everybody agrees on is extraordinarily difficult. And when it comes to credits, nearly impossible. Simple common sense changes that we made took months and months of diplomacy and discussion and negotiation. And people should also be aware, there are some things that we can’t change on our own. We have to renegotiate those with the companies if we want to change any term that’s in the collective bargaining agreement. Well, we have to ask them for it. And you know what they say? “No.” [laughs]
John: They’ll say no. They’ll just say no to spite us.
Craig: They will say no to spite —
John: Because the negotiation committee —
Craig: Absolutely, they — if you said to them, “Well, we want the right to give you guys some nice warm tea,” they’ll say, “No.”
John: Absolutely. It would be struck the very first day.
Craig: That’s right. You ask for it, you want it? No. Then the answer is no. It’s a —
John: Yeah. It’s absolutely no.
Craig. Yes. So, people have to understand, this may be the best we can do. Maybe it will get a little bit better. But it’s pretty much it is what it is. Again, just my personal bias, it’s not up to you. But I’d root for getting the Writers Guild West to run my arbitration.
John: Yeah. I’d also just, again, urge any smart writer who’s eligible to serve on an arbitration, serve on an arbitration. And Craig, I have a question for you. If a person has never been asked to serve on arbitration but they are otherwise eligible, can they reach out to the guild saying like, “Hey, I would love to do that?” Will they actually take an incoming call?
Craig: Yes. Absolutely. You just call up the credits department and they will check your eligibility and they will note your interest and they will put you in the hopper. They’re careful. They don’t want kooks, you know, and unfortunately, a lot of our members are nuts.
John: But if you are WGA member and you are — this podcast has encouraged you to try to do this. And you believe you’re eligible and you believe you could do a good job, call them and tell them that John and Craig urged you to do it because we really do want smart folks doing it.
Craig: [laughs] Only for smart. So, you really got to look in the mirror here people, really look in the mirror.
John: Yeah. We do. Maybe they’ll be emailing us to look through like previous people’s comments and things they sent in to make sure like, have they asked really stupid questions on the show?
Craig: Yeah. How many times in the last month did somebody call you stupid? More than two? Don’t call them.
John: Yeah, don’t call them.
Craig: Don’t call them.
John: I believe it’s time for One Cool Things.
Craig: All right.
John: My One Cool Thing is also WGA-related because it’s just sticking with the theme. The WGA redid the residuals site. Basically, if you’re a member and you sign in to check your residuals, it’s much better than it used to be. And I’m not quite sure when they updated the whole system. But you can finally sort things by individual movies, by studios, by total amounts of checks. And so I spent, you know, a good hour on it this week looking through stuff, making sure that everything had actually gotten paid out right.
And it’s really fascinating to see what percentage of really my income comes from it. Like, when you actually see your residuals totaled up you realize how incredibly grateful we should be that the residual system exists and that we are paid for our work in the time after we’ve, you know, delivered it.
Not surprisingly, the single film that’s paid me the most residuals is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was, you know, successful out in the theatre but also of course sells really well on home video. The least successful by far is my film, The Nines, which has, you know, made almost nothing in residuals. And yet, it still gets tallied up. And I’m just incredibly grateful to the people who built this new system and who keep the system up-to-date to make sure that we are paid accurately and quickly for our residuals.
Craig: Huh, I wonder which one — I guess we should — do you want to guess which ones of mine are the most? And I’m looking at it right now.
John: I’m going to say Hangover II is your most rewarding residual.
Craig: Okay. All right. I’m looking career view by project.
John: Had you seen this new whole thing?
Craig: Oh, yeah. Yeah. They sent me a beta of it. I just never actually thought to ask questions. So, no, you’re not right.
John: Oh, what is your most successful project?
Craig: Well, because here’s the thing. Remember, on Hangover II, I was splitting three ways.
John: Oh, that’s right. I forgot.
Craig: So, for me, it’s Identify Thief. Although I guess the total, if you’re looking at the total pie, Hangover II would probably be the biggest total pie. And then the lowest, well, poor RocketMan, it’s my first movie, RocketMan. You know, and it’s interesting, RocketMan came out actually — it was like pre-DVD era. So it wasn’t even out on DVD for a long time. It missed the boom. [laughs]
John: It missed the boom.
Craig: It missed the boom.
John: Just ranking through mine, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which obviously a successful movie, I’m also solo credit so I get 100% of that pie.
John: And Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle, I share with the Wibberleys, and so that also did well, but I’m sharing it with the Wibberleys. Big Fish is a solo credit but it is not anywhere near the success of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Then we can down to Charlie’s Angels, Go, and the rest. Including my TV show, D.C. which only aired three episodes in the U.S., it aired all seven episodes overseas. And so I will tell you that I made a total of $23,000 in residuals on a horrible, disastrous fail of a TV show.
Craig: That’s cool.
John: So residuals do matter folks.
John: If you are a writer in WGA and you want to look up your residuals, I would say that the menu system to find this page is not the most straightforward. So we’ll have a link for this in the show notes. But if you’re on the WGA site, wga.org, it’s in residuals and then residuals look up is the page that we’re looking at now.
Craig: Yeah. Pretty cool.
John: Craig, do you have a One Cool Thing?
Craig: Yeah. What? [laughs]
Craig: Huh? Hmm? What? Huh? No.
John: Your One Cool Thing can be my One Cool Thing. Bruce Joel Rubin, we did a whole episode about Ghost.
John: And I’m going to host a WGA screening of Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder on, what’s the date? April 25th?
Craig: It’s April 25th. Yeah, right there.
John: Yeah, you’re looking at the same thing.
Craig: I’m looking at the same thing you are. Yeah.
John: On April 25th, I will be hosting a screening and a Q&A with Bruce Joel Rubin. We’ll be looking at two of his films, Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder. So if you’re a WGA member, you can RSVP for that now because it may very well sell out. If it doesn’t sell out, there’s a chance that they’ll open it to the public, which would be great too. So, if it looks like it’s going to be available for other people to come to, I’ll let you guys know on the podcast or on Twitter. But it should be really great and Bruce is really wonderful and smart. And especially after our discussion of Ghost, I’m looking forward to sitting down with him and really talking through everything terrific he did in that movie.
Craig: Great. Awesome.
John: It’s time for our boilerplate. Our outro this week is by Rajesh Naroth who has written some of our great outros. Thank you for that. If you have an outro you’d like to send in, you can send it to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also where you can send questions. We love to answer questions, so please send those through.
On Twitter, I am @johnaugust. Craig is @clmazin. You can find us on iTunes and we just love it when you give us ratings.
John: So if give us some stars, that would be awesome.
John: Just search for Scriptnotes. You and also search for Scriptnotes to find the Scriptnotes app which lets you download all the back episodes back to episode 1 or even episode 20 where we first talked through screen credits. So you can see what we did then and what we did now. We also have an Android app. You can search to the Android app store for that as well. Our show is produced by Stuart Friedel. It’s edited by Matthew Chilelli. And we will be back next week to talk through more stuff.
Craig: Oh, we got a —
John: Craig, thank you so much.
Craig: We got a good one next week.
John: Oh, it’s going to be really good.
Craig: We got a good one.
John: If next week’s works out the way I hope it works out —
John: I think it’s going to — it could easily be in the top ten.
Craig: That’s right.
John: Craig, have a great week.
Craig: You too.
- Scriptnotes, Ep 20: How credit arbitration works
- Jurassic World Script Credits Resolved; Helmer Colin Trevorrow Speaks On Arbitration Process on Deadline
- WGAw Screen Credits Manual
- Big Fish poster
- WGAw Credits Department contact information
- WGAw residuals look up
- RSVP here for the April 25 WGAw screenings of Ghost and Jacob’s Ladder, featuring a Q+A with Bruce Joel Rubin moderated by John August
- Outro by Scriptnotes listener Rajesh Naroth (send us yours!)