Based on an original story by LEONARD KLADY*
The bitter debate between screenwriters over whether Aaron Sorkin deserved sole writing credit on “The American President” has grown so emotional and divisive that some scribes are borrowing from another Washington tale to describe it: “Presidentgate.”
The Writers Guild of America’s decision not to provide scripters William Richert and Kyle Morris with a story credit (Richert penned at least a half-dozen scripts of the project’s predecessor, “The President Elopes”) has left some screenwriters – from the A-list multimillion-dollar earners to the lowliest straight-to-video hacks – crying foul about the WGA’s arbitration process.
“This will make Watergate seem like playschool if Sorkin gets away with this thing,” says a scribe, perhaps overestimating the issue’s importance to the public. “It’s been shown he knew what was in those scripts. How the guild could come up with that decision calls the whole arbitration process into question.”
Writers worry that the development history of a film project can be erased by a rewriter who can claim sole credit for penning a brand-new script.
On the other hand, many writers complain when arbiters give shared credits to scribes simply because they were the first to draft a screenplay of a high-concept idea. Says one former WGAW board member: “An idea isn’t a story. A good strong concept isn’t a story. You take something like ‘president who is in the White House and is single,’ and there is going to be another concept like that out there.”
For all the expressions of discontent, members voted down the guild’s recent attempt to revise its credits manual. Over the past five years a credits manual committee pounded out a 169-page revision of the guide. Voters rejected it, insiders claim, because it made it easier for rewriters to mooch credit.
Having two similar projects in the development pipeline independent of each other is hardly unprecedented. Just look at “Honeymoon in Vegas” and “Indecent Proposal,” released in the same year, or “Dangerous Liaisons” and “Valmont.”
The attacks on Sorkin are “character assassination,” cries Sorkin’s attorney, Richard Heller. Richert “was not denied an opportunity in the normal guild arbitration process. He was given every opportunity to have his material read and compared.”
Central to the issue, as in most Hollywood disputes, is money. A sole screen credit on a major feature can translate to years of work. It also can lead to a lucrative business penning anonymous rewrites, paying as much as $150,000 to $200,000 a week.
But as the development pipeline grows longer and script doctors gain more prestige, not all have been willing to sit on the sidelines, especially when a screenplay undergoes a massive rewrite.
Arbitration, says WGAW board member John Riley, “has become very common in the last decade as the financial ramifications have increased.”
According to the WGA, between 25% and 30% of the scripts that are brokered through the guild ultimately end in arbitration.
“Credits are the lifeblood of everyone in this industry,” says screenwriter Steven de Souza, whose name has been on scripts for such films as “Judge Dredd” and the “Die Hard” movies. “That is why these things are so heartfelt.”
The arbitration system – which had the support of more than 80% of guild members in a recent poll – is a complex animal that can involve as many as three separate panels.
After principal photography on a feature concludes, the production company or the studio calls the WGA with a “Notice of Tentative Writing Credit.” For “The American President,” Castle Rock submitted Aaron Sorkin’s name alone.
Under guild rules, any other writer involved has 12 business days to protest and ask for an arbitration. In some cases, such as when projects have a complicated development history, the guild holds a pre-arb hearing in which writers and lawyers thrash out a decision – but not about who gets screen credit. They determine procedural is sues such as the sequence in which arbiters should read multiple drafts of a script.
In the “President” case, the pre-arbitration panel agreed with Sorkin, ruling that both projects were developed separately and merged at a later date. Richert argues that put him at a disadvantage when the scripts went through the arbitration process.
Skip a step
Three anonymous “arbiters” receive materials and render a decision on screen credit independently. The judges are supposed to read all submitted materials but, according to a Guild member who has judged dozens of cases, rarely do. Some arbiters, the Guild member says, are happy to receive notes from writers seeking credit about what they consider the relevant versions and sections that support claims of authorship.
“It’s a pain-in-the-ass job,” de Souza says. “Sometimes they come to your door with a wheelbarrow full of scripts. You presume that they do read them all. I do read it all, but sometimes I groan when they deliver them.”
The guild has a complicated formula to figure out how much of any given script is written by a particular scribe.
“It’s a percentage contribution,” says WGA counsel Doreen Braverman. “It’s not counting lines or words of dialogue. They are professional screenwriters; we have arbiters to do it week in and week out and have no trouble doing it.” They look at things like story, plot, structure, theme, characterization, atmosphere, dialogue and the tone of the script.”
More than half of an original script has to be rewritten for anyone else other than the original writer to obtain screen credit. Says de Souza: “It’s like measuring smoke.”
In Richert’s case, the arbiters were given “Elopes” and “President” scripts to read, but because of the pre-arb panel’s decision, they did not have to consider Richert the original writer. They didn’t, and he was denied any credit.
Richert appealed to yet another three-member panel of screenwriters known as a Policy Review Board. That group however, doesn’t read the scripts. It only discusses whether proper procedure was followed by the arb board.
“What the process does is provide a forum for those who disagree with the decision to demonstrate,” a WGAW spokeswoman says. “It objectively handles disputes on behalf of writers.”
And for all the complaining about the arb process, some writers liken it to the judicial system, with all of its faults.
“It’s like Churchill said about democracy: ‘ The worst possible form of government, other than all the other ones, ‘” de Souza says. “It’s the best process we can have when you consider that it is something as ephemeral as the creative process.”