The Problems When Many Writers Work on 'Star Wars,' 'Transformers' and Other Film Franchises

Franchise Writer's Room Illo - H 2015
Illustration by: Tomi Um

Franchise Writer's Room Illo - H 2015

Studios need myriad ideas and multiple writers. Yet with the WGA limiting credits (and compensation) to three scribes, those needs are proving to be an issue.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Writers rooms have been a staple of TV series since the dawn of the medium. And lately, movies are borrowing the practice. As integrated "cinematic universes" become increasingly important to film studios, groups of screenwriters working on the same property have sprung up for everything from Paramount's Transformers franchise to Disney and Lucasfilm's Star Wars films and Universal's monsters universe.

However, some writers, representatives and guild members are concerned about the issues that could arise when these films are finished and writers expect to see their names credited. "The idea of a writers room on a theatrical motion picture creates a whole litany of issues with respect to compensation and credits," warns Lesley Mackey, senior director of credits at the WGA West.

Credits on any film with multiple writers already can prompt a complicated process, with big implications for careers and compensation. Disagreements are resolved through WGA arbitration (but only after the movie has completed production), which provides specific rules for how to divvy up authorship. A writers-room dispute hasn't been brought to the WGA yet, but with up to a dozen writers pitching ideas in a room and sketching out characters and sequences, that opens up the process to conflicts, insiders say. For instance, only three writers (or a maximum of three teams of no more than three writers) can be credited as writers of a screenplay, and only a maximum of two writers can be given a "story by credit" on any project. The WGA can give out a special waiver to make writing teams more than three people, but the only instance of a team ever being as large as, say, a dozen writers has been for the final episode of a TV series.

TV shows are able to dole out episodes to many writers to avoid credit clashes (and writers often get a producer credit on the series). But when there's only one film in a franchise every year or two, scoring a credit can be crucial because it determines how much a writer makes, especially in residuals. The more writers listed, the lower the percentage of residuals for each. And if a writer isn't listed at all, he or she is out of luck.

"Big-budget franchise fare is a major priority for the studios, and if a writer can become involved with, or better yet get credit on, one of these films, it's huge for their career," says Darin Friedman, partner at Management 360, whose clients have written for DC and Marvel movies. "That said, these projects often come with higher stakes and more challenging development processes."

For Transformers, screenwriter Akiva Goldsman gathered 12 writers for two weeks on the Paramount lot to conceive ideas for spinoffs, sequels and other ways to expand the universe. They wrote treatments and pitched them to Goldsman, Steven Spielberg and Paramount and Hasbro execs. Financially, it was a good gig: Sources say, depending on their quotes, writers were paid about $200,000 for two weeks of work. And at least one team was hired to create a full script for their idea: Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari, who will pen an animated film based on the Transformers' home planet of Cybertron. If Paramount moves forward with any of the other treatments, the writers will get first stab at the script. In addition, Goldsman is taking the work done by the brain trust to write Transformers 5, but some insiders wonder how those credits would play out.

From what's known about the top-secret Star Wars group, it functions similarly, with a few key people (writer-producer Simon Kinberg and writers Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan) meeting at Skywalker Ranch for a week last year to hash out ideas for future stories and spinoffs. While Arndt originally was hired to write Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Kasdan and director J.J. Abrams eventually took over (All three received official credit on the project, with Abrams and Kasdan listed a writing team). Kinberg, Abrams and Kasdan continue to serve as consultants, along with a few key Lucasfilm execs, who weigh in on stories for upcoming films.

Universal's monsters universe seems to be forming in reverse fashion. Instead of scribes being hired to spitball ideas for movies with the Mummy, Dracula and Wolfman, each of the writers — including Noah Hawley (FX's Fargo), Aaron Guzikowski (Prisoners) and Ed Solomon (Now You See Me) — was assigned a specific script to write, and all of them will be overseen by franchise keepers Alex Kurtzman and Chris Morgan. The writers have offices on the lot and meet periodically as a group, say sources. The hope is that by giving each of them his (or her) own script, clear boundaries will be established for credits.

Most reps and guild insiders say that writers rooms are the lesser of two evils when compared to another recent trend: dual track development. Several studios, under pressure to figure out a script when a film already has a release date, are hiring multiple writers to work on separate scripts for the same movie, including Warner Bros.' Wonder Woman (up to five writers hired at the same time, say sources) and Aquaman and Sony's 21 Jump Street female spinoff. "Even after a studio picks a script, I can't imagine that they won't try to borrow parts of the other script as well," says one rep.

Because the likelihood of their clients getting official credit on a project dims when a "dual track" or writers room is involved, many reps say they're trying to get their clients as much upfront money as they can. Says one lit agent: "When it comes to these big franchises, studios are under pressure to make them work, but we've got to make sure our clients aren't being cheated because of it."