The almighty credit. Why else do we do what we do, right? We want to see our name up in lights. A friend of mine once told me the easiest way to see your name up in lights is to change your name to “exit.”
It’s not uncommon in the independent film world for people to wear many hats. In fact, on most films it’s an absolute necessity for everyone to do multiple things. Most people won’t quarrel over who gets the boom operator credit but the ones that are usually the most contested are writer and producer.
Why the Writer Credit is so Hotly Contested in Films
The writer credit is often a point of contention on just about any movie set regardless of how large or small the budget is. In fact, it became such a big problem that years and years ago the writers guild came up with an arbitration process to decide who gets what credit. In the case of a film that is writers guild signatory there are financial implications and it gets even more complicated.
If a person gets sole writing credit on a film that means they are entitled to all of the writer’s royalties on that film that the writer’s guild has fought and negotiated for over the years. I believe it’s somewhere just north of 2%. If, however, the writing credit is split into story by and screenplay by then the amount of the royalty is split. There’s also the possibility of there being multiple people in each category so the story can have 2 or 3 names as can the screenplay.
In the case of a film that is writers guild signatory there are financial implications to writing credits
The issue gets even more complicated with writing teams. Writing teams are usually denoted by the & symbol in film credits which denotes an equal share of the royalties where as the written word “and” denotes a situation where the two entities are not receiving equal parts of the royalty.
The rules do change though so don’t read anything here in this blog as gospel. If you really want to know the WGA rules it’s actually very easy to call them up. They have people dedicated to answering questions just like this and are very very very helpful with all this information. Really, don’t be shy. I was a writer on a piece where the producer told me that they couldn’t make the movie a WGA signatory because they already started shooting and the paperwork needed to be turned in weeks ago – TOTAL LIE.
Don’t Be Afraid to Call the WGA
I called the WGA to see if there was anything I could do to back-date the forms and they laughed. According the rep I spoke with all WGA films become signatory AFTER production – my producer was just lying to me to weasel out of paying me the minimums and guarantee me the royalties.
Of course, all of this only matters if the film is a WGA signatory and yet fighting over writing credits happens on the smallest of independents that have no intention of ever being a guild signatory – why is that?
In one word: Ego
While it’s easy to dismiss fighting for a writing credit as ego the truth is that the ego can be on either side. For example, if the director has given the writer a few ideas they might think that they contributed 50% of the content of the script and therefore deserve to share the writing credit. I’ve worked with producers and directors on scripts that never got made where literally their only contribution was fixing some grammar and they still fought me for a co-writer credit.
On the other hand, a writer can also have a short story that he writes an original first draft of on a screenplay and then it gets twisted inside out so much that it’s barely recognizable from the original idea and yet he still wants the sole writing credit – that’s also not fair.
My Take on Writing Credit Contention
After losing friendships over the issue myself I have a blanket policy when it comes to credits. If there’s no money involved just give people what they want and move on. Think about it for a second – what does it really mean? If you’re listed as a writer then you can always say you wrote the movie. If the film blows up and you get asked to speak on panels you can always tell your side of the story in terms of what the writing partnership was like if you want to (though I don’t recommend hanging out your dirty laundry like that). Just get the film made and keep everyone happy.
If there’s no money attached to a film credit and you’re still getting billing just move on with your life
If, on the other hand, there is money connected to the writing credit the chances that it is a guild signatory production are probably 99.99999999%. The great thing about it being a WGA project is that you don’t have to deal with it nearly as much – you just let it go to arbitration and see where the chips fall. The only thing that you do have to be aware of is if people bully you to agree to their credit proposal and not go to arbitration. I believe if all the writers on the project are in agreement with the credit issuance than there’s no reason to arbitrate.
Interestingly enough there’s no hard and fast guidelines to how the guild decides who gets what credit. They don’t count lines, they don’t count dialogue, it’s more of a feeling from what I can gather. From everyone I have talked to the favor usually sits on the shoulders of the original draft though and a lot is attributed to the structure of the piece (but again that’s just hearsay).
A quick side-note/rant
Also, one thing that the WGA comes outright and does say is that directors and producers on the project are scrutinized with a very careful eye. They do not like issuing credits to directors because the truth is that directors usually make changes to scripts and if they started doing that then every director would steamroll their writer and grab another credit on the film because everyone wants to be a writer-director.
Directors are known for being super catty about this too. Ridley Scott has said in interviews that he believes he contributes just as much to the writing process as other writers and Jon Favreau famously fought for a writing credit on the movie Elf. When Favreau didn’t get the credit he took out his anger on the writer by giving himself the “film by” credit which is a total bull-shit credit that directors tack on to movies because they want two credits. It doesn’t add to the brand of the director at all and unless you are Scorsese or Spielberg it does not help sell the film because most audiences don’t give a crap who directed the movie.
The Name Above the Title Move
Now, if you’re John Carpenter and you want to put your name on top of the title – like “John Carpenter’s Halloween” that’s a whole different issue. While it kind of screws over the writer I at least get the reasoning behind that. If your name is on top of the title you are branding yourself to every single person who sees that poster and that can have a huge effect on your career because your name becomes a brand. Again, total dick move that screws the writer but I kind of get it. The only reason I knew who Lee Daniel’s was because he put his name over the title of “The Butler” and I’m an avid movie-goer.
What About Producers?
Producing credits are probably the second most hotly contested credits on a film and that’s primarily because the definition of who is a producer is kind of up for grabs. There are producers who find money, others who have connections to the studios, some own rights to the source material (which is how Robert Evans got started), others actually run production, some attach talent and still others just give themselves a producer credit because they can.
Why it’s Not as Big of a Deal as a Writer’s Credit
It’s not as big of a fight as the writer of the film usually because you can always add more producers to a film without it really hurting that much. Getting a credit as a producer helps because it’s another title on your imdb profile and makes you look like a mover and shaker but it’s almost never tied to any kind of financial compensation.
The only time getting the producer credit really matters is if you’re trying to win the best picture oscar – in which case you have to be listed as producer or produced by and there can be no more than 3 people per film (with one exception for producing teams that are well established).
Again, if people are fighting for a producer credit on your movie and you are already getting a producer credit I just don’t see why it’s worth the aggravation. If they really don’t deserve it then you should be able to cut them out of the filmmaking process altogether, if you can’t then you might be able to negotiate them down to co-producer, associate producer, executive producer or co-executive producer.
Remember that People Talk
If you’re worried about someone getting future work because they stole a credit on your film, you should rest assured that people talk. It’s a small industry. Even if you’ve never made a movie before in your life the amount of people who actually have the ability to see a movie from start to finish in this country are very very small and chances are there’s going to be people in your crew or cast who work on film sets for a living. News of people who steal credits or don’t pull their weight spreads fast.
Even if someone does get a writing or producing gig because they stole a credit on your movie, if they really have nothing to offer it’s only a matter of time before people realize they’re a hack. It’s an industry that rewards talent so keep working on your craft, always focus on making great films and let the small stuff go. You’ll be a much happier person as a result. I promise.