You will undoubtedly have noticed that when I refer to a movie in this blog I include the credited screenwriters in parentheses. That’s only logical, given that this is a blog on screenwriting! I also hope that some of you may notice particular screenwriters you weren’t aware of appearing again and again next to movies you like and check out their other work. I had that experience early on when I first realized Lawrence Kasdan had written not only Body Heat but Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back.
Given the nature of development in Hollywood, screenwriting credit is a complicated subject. Often many writers work on a film. Not all of them get credit. Certainly in many cases not all of them deserve credit. When Steven Sommers wrote The Mummy reboot in 1999, there had been over a dozen previous screenplays written attempting to reboot that particular franchise. Some were decades old and had nothing to do with Sommers’s version. Yet they had to be considered in determining who got credit on the 1999 movie.
If you write under a WGA contract then the WGA determines who gets credit. This is, in fact, one of the main reasons the WGA was formed. Prior to that, producers often determined credits, and could give screenplay credit to themselves or even their girlfriend or a buddy without having to prove any contribution to the script.
In some cases the credit determination goes smoothly. Only those who have written under a WGA contract are eligible for screenwriting credit. It doesn’t matter how many good lines the actor came up with on set, if they weren’t hired as a writer, they can’t be considered. If all of the writers who worked on a film under WGA contract agree on specific credits that conform to WGA rules, then those are the credits – with one exception. (Thus if only one writer worked on a movie, that writer gets credit without much bureaucracy.)
The exception to the above is if one of the writers is also a “production executive” – the director or a producer. Then an automatic arbitration is triggered. This is because it is believed that the director or producer can wield undue influence on the writers to agree to a specific credit. Production executives are also held to a higher contribution standard. This is controversial because it can end up punishing a writer who has the clout to get a producer credit on a film. (EDITED TO ADD: The WGA has changed this last part of the rules.)
An arbitration is also triggered when writers disagree on what the credits should be. In a Guild arbitration, three members who meet certain qualifications (including having screenwriting credits of their own) read all the drafts without the writers’ names attached and determine who gets credit. (It’s actually a little more complicated than that, but in essence that’s what happens.) There’s a saying that you know an arbitration is fair when none of the participating writers are happy with the outcome.
Credit arbitrations can be vicious because there is often a lot of money at stake. Only credited writers are eligible to share in the residual pool, and many writers have contractual bonuses contingent on getting screen credit. Whether or not a writer gets credit can be a million dollar decision.
There are various credits that can be awarded on a feature film and they have specific meanings. The main ones are:
Story By: This credit is for an original story (i.e. not based on underlying material). If you sell an original screenplay, you are guaranteed at least a share of story credit. According to the WGA credits manual, story consists of “basic narrative, idea, theme or outline indicating character development and action.” Sometimes people think this means a treatment, but in fact usually you must write a full screenplay to get story credit. This is a particularly important credit because it gives the writer some additional rights, such as credit and payment for any sequels or novelizations or Broadway musical adaptations that use the characters from the movie. Someone with only “screenplay credit” does not get those rights, at least not automatically.
Screen Story By: This credit is similar to “Story By” but is for when a screenplay is based on source material, but the writer has come up with a whole new story not in the source material.
Screenplay By: This credit is given when a screenplay is based on source material. It can also be given when a writer has contributed to a screenplay based on another writer’s original screenplay. In the case of an adaptation, the writer must have contributed 33% to the final screenplay, whereas if it is based on an original screenplay, the writer must have contributed 50%. The tricky part, of course, is determining what percentage a contribution is. It’s not like writers are only given 33% of the pages to rewrite. This is a subjective judgment the poor arbitrators must make.
Written By: This credit is used when a single writer is responsible both for the story and the screenplay.
A couple points here: First, writing teams are considered a single unit for purposes of screen credit. Writers who collaborated as a team are identified by an “&” between their names. So “Joe Smith & Mary Jones” are a team. If the credit read “Joe Smith and Mary Jones,” that means they each wrote separately. Except in unusual cases, teams are limited to two writers.
Second, you’ll see by the percentages that there is a maximum of three writers (or teams) that can qualify for screenplay credit. This is somewhat controversial as often many more than three writers contribute to a screenplay. But it is the Guild’s position that only those who did at least a third of the work that ended up on screen deserve credit. This means someone responsible for 25% of the shooting script will not see their name on screen or get residuals.
The Guild also enforces rules regarding the publicizing of credits and their size and position on screen. So for a variety of reasons you really want to work under a WGA contract. (Often independent film contracts will specify that credit will be awarded according to the WGA rules – though they seldom spell out how disagreements over credit will be resolved without the WGA’s arbitration process. Worse are contracts that say screenplay credit will be awarded at "the producer's discretion.")
Of course there are different rules for television, and international films are not under WGA jurisdiction and may have other rules. Sadly, screenwriting credit is a lot more complicated than simply asking, “Who wrote that?”
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"I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting."
-LA Screenwriter Review