Adapted screenplay credits to tilt toward directors, producers

The Writers of Guild of America is asking members to ease up on the rules that govern how some of its more powerful members receive screenplay credit. And it’s already bracing for a backlash.

The WGA wants members to approve a revamp that will equalize the screen credit rules for writers who double as directors or producers — but only on non-original scripts. The guild said the proposed change would also smooth the way for entrepreneurial-minded writers to take control of their own material. Guild leaders are aware that the issue, which will be voted on June 17, will be opposed by some members, but they stress in the 60-page booklet sent to members this week that the credit process needs to be updated to reflect changing times in the biz.

“Our dark imagination may conjure images of fat cats firing fellow writers and stealing credit,” said a cover letter from the committee that crafted the proposal.

“But the reality looks more like this: a writer has managed to crack a graphic novel everyone thought was impossible to adapt … she’s afraid to accept a co-producer credit acknowledging her enhanced role on the project because she doesn’t want to risk losing her writing credit.”

With the WGA as the final arbiter on who receives screenplay andstory credit on pics and TV shows, credit determinations can have profound impact on compensation and awards. The June 17 vote will also include two proposed revisions to TV credit rules.

About 12,000 WGA members are eligible to vote. The turnout in such elections is usually under 20%.

WGA leaders, who have blessed the revamp unanimously at the WGA West board and the WGA East Council, said in the proposal that current rules — requiring a heightened contribution from “production executives” to obtain credit — don’t reflect current showbiz realities.

“Because the industry in which we work is constantly evolving, the rules by which we determine writing credits must evolve with it,” said WGA West president John Wells and WGA East president Michael Winship in a cover letter.

But that contention may not be enough to pass muster with WGA members, who voted down a broader proposal eight years ago that would have equalized the “production executive” rules for all screenplays. In that 2002 vote, which lost by a 57%-43% margin, opponents were able to mobilize scribe sentiment by contending the revamp would have eroded the position of the first writer in favor of more powerful writers working as directors or producers who rewrite.

The new proposal, crafted by the Screen Credits Review Committee, eliminates the current regulation requiring that “production executives” such as writer-producers and writer-directors contribute at least 50% of the screenplay if they’re not the first writer. That rule remains in effect for original screenplays, however, with such scribes continuing to receive screenplay credit if they can show a contribution of more than 33% of the script as a first writer or 50% if they act as a subsequent writer on an original screenplay.

“But in the case of non-original screenplays (typically adaptations, sequels and remakes), the committee is proposing that everyone be treated equally — those writers who happen to be directors or producers alongside those who are not,” the committee’s cover letter said.

If approved, the language would be changed so that the “more than 33%” standard applies for all writers on non-original material.

The committee’s missive contended that the use of the word “production executives” in the WGA rules has become outmoded.

“The fact is that in today’s film industry, ‘production executives’ who are studio executives simply do not submit literary material for credit arbitrations,” the letter said. “Writer-directors do. Writer-producers do. Because they are writers first. They are, in short, us.”

The panel noted that 1,400 members of the WGA are also members of the Directors Guild of America and with development slates and budgets continuing to be squeezed, the guild should be encouraging writers to be entrepreneurial and take charge of projects they write, whether as directors or producers.

“Yet, as currently written, our guidelines state that if a writer-producer or writer-director isn’t the first writer, he or she shall be held to a more than 50% standard for screenplay credit,” the committee said. “So if a subsequent writer is offered a production credit, our rules force that writer to think twice about accepting the offer. He or she may be risking a hard-earned writing credit.”

The panel pointed out that there’s no proposed change to the original screenplay rules.

“Original screenplays are a special breed and they deserve special consideration,” the letter said. “And in all cases, the inclusion of writer-producers and writer-directors among participating writers will continue to trigger automatic arbitrations.”

One of the TV credit revamps mirrors a 2-year-old change in the feature rules, allowing for a guild-hosted teleconference among the arbiters and arbitration consultant if the arbitration committee can’t reach a unanimous decision. Current rules prohibit arbiters from communicating with one another; WGA members approved a similar change to the screen credits rules in 2008.

The other revision would consolidate the TV credits and separation of rights manuals into a single document with the goal of making the document easier to understand.

WGA members strongly endorsed a trio of proposals in 2008 in a referendum aimed at simplifying procedures for determining feature screenwriting credits. Those revamps did not generate any major opposition among guild members with 90% support for requiring credit arbiters to consult with one another via teleconference in all cases in which a decision is not unanimous.

Voters gave 86% approval in 2008 to a proposal eliminating language allowing the arbitration committee to award screenplay credit to subsequent writers for “any substantial contribution.”

And WGA members backed with an 83% approval rate a proposal to ease what was known as the “60% rule,” which set that threshold for directors, exec producers or others who are part of the production executive team on a project to also receive writer credit. The old rule had stipulated that those subsequent contributors had to have contributed “substantially more than 60%” of the revised script to qualify for credit; the 2008 vote dropped that threshold to “more than 50%” — which is the current rule.

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