Last week, I heard some chatter from multiple members of the Writers Guild of America, wherein some rather bold suggestions were made about writing credits on movies, including the idea that all writers who worked on a produced film should be recognized for their contributions, not just the writers who end up with “written by” credit. Not only is this interesting to consider, but I think it’s an important topic well worth discussing here in this sacred space.
The idea is that during a film’s end credits, there would be an “Additional Writing By” section, naming everyone who had a hand in the screenplay. The general concept behind this is that, if you were hired to write and you wrote, you should get credit for that work, whether or not said work was used. The thinking goes that it’s not the writers’ fault that a studio hires a dozen of them to work on one project. If that studio is too embarrassed to list everyone, then it should stop hiring so many of them. Essentially, the central conceit is that even if every word you wrote was thrown out, you were still on the team that made a movie, and that’s not nothing. After all, a basketball player who doesn’t even play in the game is still in the box score just for suiting up.
Meanwhile, nothing else would change. The concept would keep residual payment structures the same, and as far as awards consideration goes, only the writers who receive “Written by” would be eligible for nominations. I know that’s quite a bit to digest, and it’s hard to know where to start, but let’s dive right in and talk about this “Participation Trophy” theory that is currently plaguing Hollywood.
The easiest thing to target is the “embarrassment of the studios” mentioned in the discussion. The only thing that embarrasses studios is losing money, so the fact that there might be one writer on a project or 100 of them probably doesn’t mean a darn thing to anyone in the executive suites. As long as the movie makes money, it’s hard to fathom that anyone cares how it was done or who did it. That may be a naive way of looking at it, but the simple truth of the matter is, the WGA works really hard to protect the “Written by” credit and ensure that the studios don’t take advantage of its members, not the other way around.
And so let’s dig into that part of it. The studios are constantly trying to pay writers less, and there is a great deal of import placed on who gets credit for a film. The amount a writer is paid almost always ties in directly to how many people are credited on it, so it’s in a writer’s best interest to have as few others credited as possible. While the idea of naming every writer who worked on a film sounds fine in a vacuum, you can bet every dollar in your wallet that the studios would then try to use that as leverage to pay the credited writers less. The idea I’ve seen floated calls for the residual payment system to remain the same, but that’s not for any one person to say. To think that the studios wouldn’t look for every possible avenue or loophole to pay someone less money is downright childish, and something like this could play right into their hands.
I imagine that part of the problem for some people who might support this idea has to do with the current arbitration system in place at the WGA that ultimately decides who gets what credit on a movie with multiple writers. Like just about every similar system on Earth, it is imperfect — anything that involves the slightest bit of bureaucracy is, by definition, a less than perfect enterprise — but it tends to get the job done more often than not. There are exceptions, like one involving a major summer blockbuster within the last five years wherein one writer was hired after many others had tried their hand at the story, started from scratch, had his version greenlit by the studio, which then hired a series of high-priced “closers” to “sharpen” the script, before he was finally called in two weeks before shooting began to fix the awful work the closers had done. When the time for credit came about with the WGA, the closers all took a look at what the writer had done and bowed out, whereas one writer who had worked on several drafts before this guy even started — and whose script this guy didn’t even read — decided he wanted a story credit. The writer whose work made the movie go was told that he could challenge this, but if he did, then he’d open the door for every other writer who had done work on the film to step up and demand something of their own, so he let it go, albeit bitterly. He still got all the credit for writing a hit movie, but I know for a fact that, several years later, he continues to have a bad taste in his mouth that a guy who contributed nothing to the final product got his name on it simply because he unsuccessfully worked on it first.
So again, the WGA system and the pressure it puts on writers to play ball isn’t perfect, but that’s an extreme example, one that also points out another issue. When I first heard about the ‘Additional Writing By’ idea, I immediately thought “this is all about ego,” and that hasn’t changed. I know I used the box score metaphor earlier while playing devil’s advocate, but the fact is that Hollywood isn’t like the baseball team that wins the World Series and gives every guy who appeared in a game or two a championship ring. While transparency may be great in the business world, it doesn’t help knowing how the sausage is made when it comes to movies. Most ticket buyers either don’t know or don’t care who wrote a film, unless it’s a superstar like, say, Aaron Sorkin. Ultimately, the credit isn’t for the audience that rarely stays seated anyway, it’s for the writer(s) involved, to bolster both their IMDB page and their bank account.
And sure, that writer could’ve spent months, or even years, working on a script, and their draft could be the very best of all the ones that were turned in by all the writers that worked on on the same project they did. But in the end, if none of his or her work is used, then how is it that they should be rewarded for that? What, exactly, are they even being credited for, if the “additional writing” they did isn’t in the film to be enjoyed by audiences? The studio paid them for their work, which should be more than enough. Now they want to be recognized for the fact that they couldn’t do the job the studio wanted them to do?
That’s a harsh way of putting it, since we all know that studios change their minds like models change outfits, but that’s what it’s all about — doing the job assigned to you. If the studio doesn’t want to make your version of the film, for better or worse, then you failed, since your ultimate goal is to write something that can be shot. I understand wanting to be recognized for the work done, but that’s what financial recompense is for. It’s like saying that Director A developed a movie for years before dropping out for one reason or another, and in the process that director oversaw major changes in the script, as well as specific ideas and concepts that ultimately would make it into the movie directed by someone else. Should there be an “Additional Direction By” credit at the end, too? Or a producer who tried for years to get a project made, poured his or her blood, sweat and tears into it, and then ended up having to hand the baton to someone else who could get the film across the finish line. Should that person be guaranteed some kind of credit for running those early laps of the race? Of course not.
Take a step back to examine the big picture, and you’ll realize how large a Pandora’s Box this would open. If you’re handing out “Additional Writing By” credits to every Tom, Dick, and Harriet who “contributed” to the process, what happens when a random executive, agent, manager, formerly attached director, or even an assistant chimes in with notes they have suggested over the course of development? Why would you exclude them? Haven’t they been a part of the team that got the movie made? When you factor these kinds of curveballs in, it becomes hard to see where the vague term “additional” begins and ends.
As a writer myself, I understand the thinking behind wanting to be recognized for one’s work, especially when the amount of work done merits some kind of screen credit. I’m sorry if a writer feels neglected in that regard, but handing out credits pell mell and willy nilly to satisfy the egos of writers who want their work noted no matter its quality or relevance to a project doesn’t make any kind of sense at all to me. If you want credit, then earn it like everyone else has so far. It’s as simple as that.
I mentioned the participation trophy thing earlier, and this “radical idea” smacks terribly of that concept, something that has been widely decried for the way it ill prepares children for adulthood, because the real world doesn’t work that way. You know what? Neither does Hollywood. There’s a long line of unemployed screenwriters out there, so if getting paid for your work isn’t enough for you, then maybe you should reconsider what, exactly, you’re doing here.
Neil Turitz is a filmmaker and journalist who has spent two decades working in and writing about Hollywood. Feel free to send him a tweet at @NeilTuritz. He’ll more than likely respond. You can also listen to his weekly podcast, Unduly Noted with Neil Turitz and Ryan Beeman, which is available on iTunes.