The myth of screenwriting credits


The Wizard Of Oz, since its initial release in 1939, has richly deserved its long-cemented status as an all-time classic. A regular resident in the IMDB top 250 films of all time, and a part of many people’s DVD collection, it’s a film that I’d wager more and more people fall in love with each year. Long may that continue.

Lots of brilliant people were involved in bringing The Wizard Of Oz to the big screen. Some terrific writers, too, who came up with a quotable and cherished script. The film’s screenplay is credited to Noel Langley, Florence Ryerson and Edgar Allan Woolf, and it’s an adaptation of the original book by L Frank Baum.

Also an IMDB Top 250 movie, albeit a more recent one, is Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece Schindler’s List. What a film it is, too. The 1993 movie feature’s script is credited to Steven Zaillian, who took home a richly-deserved Academy Award for his screenplay to the production. No quibbles there.

And yet, in both of these cases, the screenplay credit that we eventually saw on screen isn’t entirely reflective of the work that went into putting the script for the respective movies together. That, in turn, points to the fact that a film script is sometimes the work of few, sometimes the work of many. From an added ad lib on set, to umpteen polishes and earlier drafts, lots of people every year end up being paid to write film scripts, but don’t get to see their name on screen should the final movie get made.

In the case of Schindler’s List, the screenplay is undoubtedly very much Steven Zaillian’s work, working from the book Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally. But in recent years, it’s been revealed that Steven Spielberg invited Aaron Sorkin – yes, that one – to do a final polish on the script prior to shooting. Spielberg at one stage also called Tom Stoppard for help with one particular moment. You won’t find Sorkin’s name on the credits anywhere (nor Stoppard’s), and nor has he lobbied for such a credit. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have some input, doing a little tidying up and adding a second pair of writer’s eyes, just to give the script an extra 1% somewhere.

In the case of The Wizard Of Oz, though, the story is far more convoluted. It’s been estimated that at least 17 different writers (and the film had several different directors, which is likely to have contributed) had their hand in the final script for the movie, although to what extent each made an impact on the shooting screenplay is unclear. Some will have added lines, some added structured, some may simply have called bullshit. But the payroll was awash with writing talent.

I can but bear in mind Kevin Smith’s anecdote about doing script rewriting work on Coyote Ugly. In exchange for a fat cheque, Smith’s reworking resulting in one single line making it to the final cut of the film. Eight writers in all worked on Coyote Ugly, although only Gina Wendkos was credited on the final movie. And Smith posted on his message board back in 2000 that “when I’m hired to do rewrites, I always imagine it’s for dialogue. Oddly enough, on this flick, they kept scenes, scenarios, and set-pieces I wrote, but used someone else’s dialogue”. The full discussion is here.

Another example? Neil Jordan, infamously, did a heavy rewrite on the screenplay for Interview With The Vampire when he boarded the project to direct. Anne Rice, who penned the novel, had taken an original run at the script, yet Jordan made it conditional that he did his own script when he signed up. “But I didn’t get a credit,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. “It’s very difficult to do so within the Hollywood system”. It’s been said that over half of the finished Interview With The Vampire script was Jordan’s work, not that you’d guess that from the credits.

This, then this all points towards the dark art of the screenplay credit. That the names you see when the credits begin on a movie are the ones whose contribution has been deemed the most substantive according, a lot of the time, to the arbitration process.

This is a process that, when a decision on a credit can’t be made, is brought in to resolve the matter. The main bodies that arbitrate the work we tend to see are the Writers’ Guild Of America, and the Writers’ Guild Of Great Britain, and I’ll be coming back to them shortly.

For it’s worth establishing beforehand that this all matters far more than simply getting due credit, and an extra entry on your IMDB page. If it’s your name that lands in the screenplay credits, then it can – and often does – come with a financial bonus. Given the paucity of many writers’ earnings, the importance here can’t be understated.

Screenwriter John August’s blog post on the matter is particularly eye-opening, where he reveals how the residuals built up on the 1999 movie he penned, Go. His earnings from the movie stood at around $20,000 at the time of its release, and over $300,000 by the start of 2011. More detail, and a posh graph, can be found here.

A consequence is that squabbles over screenplay credits can sometimes get quite intense, given what’s at stake both morally and financially.

Bottom line: this is where those arbitrations come in. It’s a costly – both financially and often emotionally – process (it certainly doesn’t come for free, but lots of studios see it a necessary expense). The various Writers’ Guilds ultimately adjudicate if necessary who gets a credit, and what specific flavour of credit they’re awarded.

A quick overview of the available credits.

A ‘screenplay by’ credit can be shared by up to three writers (or in the case of Lethal Weapon 3, the same writer appeared three times. The film was credited to Jeffrey Boam and Jeffrey Boam & Robert Mark Kamen – with a further story credit for Boam) – the ampersand denoting that Boam worked with a writing partner on part of the script, as well as individually). This is awarded when the writer(s) concerned is deemed to have contributed a “substantial” amount to the final script. Although, helpfully, there’s no exact science for determining what “substantial” is.

A ‘Story By’ credit, meanwhile, is usually someone who worked on the script, but didn’t end up writing the final draft (it’s not necessarily the person who came up with the actual story, confusingly). Under arbitration rules, the first writer on a theatrical feature is entitled to at the bare minimum a ‘Story By’ credit. Conversely, if one writer, or writing team, came up with the idea and the final screenplay, they can have a ‘Written By’ credit.

There are occasional exceptions, but the above tends to cover the basics.

Let’s see how this worked in practice. Screenwriter James Moran shared credit on the final cut of Cockneys Vs Zombies, in spite of penning a completely new script when he joined the film. And he told us why. “It’s a shame that the credit doesn’t fully reflect what was written, but the rule is there to stop unscrupulous types changing a bunch of character names and storylines to try and steal credit, so you have to take the good with the bad sometimes,” he told me.

Moran, in the end, was credited first on the film, as a compromise.

That said, on the impressive horror Borderlands, he didn’t get a credit at all, and in that instance, “it was the terms of the job!”.

Not that he minded. “I agreed to take the gig for the challenge, to help out Metrodome get the film across the finish line, and because I really liked the script’s potential and wanted it to succeed. So I knew going in that it was uncredited. But then in the publicity material, they started telling people that I’d done work on it, so I was free to tell everyone,” he laughed.

Parameters do change over time. I charted the story of the 35 writers who contributed to 1994’s The Flintstones movie here (just beating the 28 who worked on Catwoman), and in the aftermath of that movie, the WGA changed its rules to insist that anyone credited on a film’s screenplay should have contributed a set – yet unspecified – amount.

Just to balance every said above: there are writers who haven’t had to go through other people rewriting their work. Deadpool and Zombieland co-scribe Rhett Reese told me that he and co-writer Paul Wernick “never have” been through arbitration, and “we’ve yet to have a movie come out where we rewrote someone else!” As such, Reese is credited, with no squabbles, on Life, Deadpool, Zombieland and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, for instance.

Against that, though, script polishing goes on regularly. Be it the late Carrie Fisher’s extensive work in the 1990s, Paul Feig working on the high school scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man, Quentin Tarantino on Crimson Tide or Joss Whedon on Speed (the film, not the drug), a whole chunk of writing work goes without credit. And very rarely is one person the author of a film’s script, even if the credits on the screen tell you so. We’ve been told quietly that an upcoming big feature, for instance, will be credited to two people, yet the number of people asked to contribute just a joke or two ran into double figures.

Next time, then, you read a review that makes light of the number of people who worked on a film – ‘hur hur, they had xx number of writers and this was the best they could come up with?’ – it’s worth bearing in mind that films that list lots of writers are generally being a little more honest. That people are actually getting credit for the work they did. Even then, there’s the person on set who came up with a little idea, the actor who improvised a gag, the performer who changed the inflection of a line, and they’re unlikely to be credited.

In lots of quarters now, writing – and writers – is being shortchanged and devalued. The Hollywood screenwriting credit system, as it stands, isn’t always helping with that….



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