Is there a better method for assigning screenplay writing credits than the WGA’s controversial and complex arbitration procedures? John Hazelton talks to writers

For US screenwriters, credits are more than just a matter of professional pride. They can also gain scribes entry into the union, the Writers Guild of America (WGA), allow them to earn production bonuses and residual payments, and of course a chance at awards nominations. No wonder more than 150 scripts a year go through the WGA’s sometimes controversial credit arbitration process.

All films made under the WGA’s agreement with production companies are required, on completion of shooting, to send a notice of proposed writing credits to the guild and all the writers involved. An arbitration is triggered if any writer protests the proposed credits or if the credits require mandatory arbitration under guild rules, because, for example, a producer or director is put up for a writing credit.

Arbitration committee

An arbitration committee consisting of three guild members is formed and each member reads all drafts of the script as well as all the literary and source material associated with the script. Writers, whose names are not revealed to the arbiters, can also submit statements supporting their claims.

Each arbiter then has to make an independent decision based on the guild’s guidelines for determining credits and their order. Credits awarded can include ‘written by’, when there is no source material and the same writers receive credit for story and screenplay; ‘story by’, when the narrative structure was written for a film but the actual screenplay had different authors; ‘screen story by’, if a writer takes existing material but creates a substantially new story; and ‘screenplay by’, if a separate ‘story by’ credit is awarded to another writer. Writers working as a team are grouped with an ampersand while those working on separate drafts are joined with the word ‘and’.

Though the process doesn’t always work, it may be difficult to improve on

There are percentage requirements for certain credits: any writer, for example, who contributes more than 33% of a non-original screenplay is entitled to screenplay credit and producers or directors claiming to have worked with writers must have contributed more than 50% of the final script to get a screenplay credit.

If the arbiters cannot agree unanimously, they are allowed to discuss the case in an anonymous conference call and if the call does not produce agreement a majority decision is accepted. Writers have 24 hours to request an appeal after the decision is revealed

Given the guidelines’ complexity, it is hardly surprising that arbitration decisions are sometimes publicly contested. Complaints about arbitration decisions often occur if a director is denied writing credit beside other screenwriters because of the 50% contribution requirement.

Over a decade ago, director Terry Gilliam famously burned his WGA membership card because he and writer Tony Grisoni were initially denied writing credits on Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. Gilliam and Grisoni were eventually given writing credits alongside original screenplay writers Tod Davies and Alex Cox.

Most recently, director Todd Phillips has criticised the WGA because of credit arbitration decisions involving his films The Hangover and Due Date. Phillips has claimed that if the guild “actually listened to individuals”, star Robert Downey Jr would have been awarded a writing credit on Due Date [pictured].

Writers and executives who deal with credit arbitration on a regular basis suggest that although the process does not always work, it may be difficult to improve on.

Miles Millar, a writer who has won and lost credits in arbitration decisions and served as an arbitrator himself, sees the process as lacking but necessary. “It’s an extremely flawed system,” Millar says, “but I can’t think of a better one. On some arbitrations I feel I’ve been treated absolutely fairly and it’s been exactly as I expected the credit would be. [On] others it’s been a head scratcher and I don’t know what scripts the arbiters were reading.”