WGA Tweaks Theatrical Credit Rules

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A change in timing generated opposition, but most of the alterations were cosmetic.

The Writers Guild of America has made some changes to its theatrical credit rules, with members of the West and East affiliated guilds approving the proposals with a 76 percent yes vote, the guilds announced Monday in an email.

Most of the changes are cosmetic and involve clarifications to the guilds’ screen credits manual, which is one of the key documents governing the credit process. The only material change involves the timing of credit arbitrations.

“There were no changes to substantive rules,” said Lesley Mackey, WGA West senior director of credits. She noted that similar revisions were made in 2010 to the television credits manual.

The timing change did garner opposition, which Mackey attributed to a misunderstanding of the revision. Understanding the revision requires a bit of a deep dive, since the credit process is complex.

When principal photography is completed, the studio or producer sends a “Notice of Tentative Writing Credits” to all writers who wrote on the project, referred to as “participating writers.” But frequently, not all participating writers will get credit on the finished film, due to the presence of multiple writers and rewrites, and the fact that guild rules limit the number of writers who can get credit, in order to enhance the status of writers.

As a result, a writer deprived of credit may choose to protest the NTWC. That triggers a credit arbitration conducted by the guild. Credit arbitrations can also be triggered automatically, if a director or producer is proposed to receive writing credit.

The credit arbitration consists of a panel of three writers who read all of the treatments and scripts on the project, as well as statements submitted by the participating writers that argue for or against the proposed credit. The arbitrators ultimately decide what the credit will be, sometimes agreeing with the NTWC and sometimes not. (There also is an appeal procedure from the arbitrators’ decision.) The results are sometimes contentious, but courts have upheld the process as fair and reasonable.

Under the previous rules, writers technically had only 24 hours to submit those statements, with the clock running from the time they learned there would be an arbitration. Under the new rules, they will have 72 hours, and the clock will not start running until all of the treatments and scripts have been gathered.

Lost in all this minutiae is an important principle: The guild, not the studio, has the final say on who gets credit on a screenplay. It’s somewhat remarkable, given that the studio pays for and owns the script.

But control over credits was one of the founding tenets of the guild, meant to counter credit abuses during the 1930s studio system in which credit was sometimes given to a producer's paramour or a favored scribe who hadn’t even worked on the script. Today, those abuses are mostly a thing of the past, at least on projects produced by WGA signatories.