A thorny debate continues to plague the Writers Guild of America

One of the longest, liveliest and stickiest Hollywood battles centers on exactly who deserves writing credits on films.

The debate — which significantly impacts writers’ paychecks and prestige — has gained increased prominence as the Writers Guild of America searches for ways to improve the 6-decade-old process for its 12,000 members. Currently, under the WGA’s basic agreement with studios, administration of credits is left solely to the guild.

“For screenwriters, credits are an extremely important part of how this particular labor market functions,” notes labor expert Daniel Mitchell, UCLA professor of management and public policy. “It’s definitely out of the norm, since on the surface, you would assume this would be a management prerogative.”

The guild allows any writer on a film to demand arbitration once the studio wraps a film and submits a notice of tentative writing credits. Last year, 67 of 210 features submitted were arbitrated.

The issue can polarize scribes, as occurred last year when members voted not to lower the threshold of contribution percentages that allows producers and directors to get a screenwriting credit.

Some claim that the current requirement of a higher contribution for producers and directors is unfair, in turn giving the whole system less credibility; while others believe the rules are unfairly tilted in favor of rewriters who are also producers and away from the original scribe.

“Our credit system is a mess because it encourages our most powerful members to rewrite so they can get credit,” asserts J.F. Lawton, a WGA West board member and the original writer of “Pretty Woman.” He contends that the guild needs to radically revamp the rules to protect first writers.

“I don’t think using 10 writers per script guarantees great work,” Lawton adds. “So I don’t know why the guild wants us to operate like an assembly line.”

For now, the WGA board has put the issue on the back-burner, appointing a subcommittee to review the process and then to report back — but not until after the guild concludes negotiations to replace its basic agreement, which expires May 1.

“We want to go into the negotiations with as united a front as possible,” notes Stephen Schiff, who chairs the WGA East credits committee. “We’re probably getting accused of acting in a cabalistic way, but the subcommittee has been seeking opinions from every camp to take a fresh look.

“The bright side is that people are very passionate about this; the dark side is that people are very passionate about this.”

Seth Freeman, who heads the WGA West’s credits committee, stresses that the guild is not sweeping the issue under the carpet. “What’s involved is subtle, nuanced and complicated enough so that it should not be debated when we’re negotiating, but my sense is we’ll get back to them sooner rather than later,” he adds. “Even in a small group like the committee, the axis of disagreement will always be different. That speaks to the complexity of the debate; it’s an oversimplification to say there are two sides.”Despite the focus on negotiations, credits continued to dog the WGA recently — first in an 11-page profile in a recent New Yorker article that focused on the aggravations of the three credited writers on “The Hulk.” That was followed by an unfair labor practice charge against the WGA West because it refused to arbitrate Garner Simmons’ claim for a writing credit on Warner Bros.’ “The Last Samurai.”

“All I’m really asking for is a fair hearing,” says Simmons. He asserts that “Last Samurai” is based on Interscope’s “West of the Rising Sun” project, which was initiated in 1992 with Michael Alan Eddy as the original writer, with Simmons and Pulitzer Prize winner Robert Schenkann writing subsequent drafts. Simmons says he himself wrote eight outlines and five drafts. The WGA West held a participating writers investigation, which is an administrative proceeding rather than a formal arbitration. Two of the three expert readers found an insufficient link between the two projects to hold an arbitration, while a third asserted the claim should be arbitrated.

WGA West president Victoria Riskin admits that the process has become far more complicated because of the massive amount of rewriting that has become common on major projects.

“But while the process may not always be tidy, it really is the members making the ultimate decisionk,” he says.

Mitchell believes that the system is a compelling example of how a labor organization represents its members. In classes, he occasionally refers to the failed suit filed by Nick Marino over screen credit on “The Godfather Part III.”

Marino wrote a “Godfather III” screenplay for Paramount in 1985, but the studio chose not to produce it; he also wrote a treatment in 1987 and sent it to execs at Francis Ford Coppola’s production company.

But the arbitrators awarded Coppola and Mario Puzo writing credit for the pic.

Marino sued them and the WGA, arguing that the arbitration procedures used to resolve such disputes are fundamentally unfair; he also accused the WGAW of violating its duty of fair representation.

Despite subsequent legal setbacks, Marino appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear it in 1993, three years after the pic was released.

“The WGA’s arbitration is not a regular due process since it has to be done in an expedited fashion and it’s performed by peers,” Mitchell notes. “But in the Marino case, the courts found it was a reasonable procedure.”

If a scribe has a beef with the guild about a credit, here’s how it’s worked out:

  • The material from a writer seeking a credit is submitted anonymously.

  • Three anonymous members read drafts of the material.

  • Arbitrations are automatic if a “tentative writing credit” is sought by a producer or director.

  • Writers of an adapted screenplay must contribute at least 33% of the final script to be awarded a credit.

  • Rewriters of an original screenplay must contribute at least 50% of the final script for a credit.

  • First writer of an original screenplay must receive at least part of the “story by” credit.

  • Rulings can be appealed at a policy review board.
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