The Debate Has Begun On WGA Referendum On New Feature Film Screen Credit: Opponents Call It “A Bad Idea”; Supporters Say It Will Help “Marginalized” Writers
EXCLUSIVE: The debate has begun over a WGA referendum that would give screen credits to hundreds of feature film writers who currently aren’t eligible to receive them. The referendum would authorize the use of an “Additional Literary Material” credit for all “participating writers” who work – sometimes for many months – on motion pictures but don’t receive any screen credit at all.
The WGA, which determined credits for 213 films in 2020, says that “On 69 of these films – roughly 1 in 3 – at least one participating writer received no credit. In total, 185 participating writers wrote on features for which they ultimately received no credit. These are the writers who would be eligible for a new credit.” The guild noted that “this new credit would denote employment or sale of material, not authorship.”
WGA Holding Membership Referendum On New Feature Film Screen Credit
Michele Mulroney, the WGA West’s vice president and co-chair of the Screen Credits Review Committee – which proposed the rules change – is a staunch supporter of the proposed change, but has acknowledged that “we are expecting a very vocal ‘NO’ contingency and hopefully a productive debate amongst the membership.”
Online voting on the referendum begins Nov. 2 and concludes Nov. 15. The WGA West will hold informational meetings on Oct. 12 and 21, and the WGA East will hold its informational meeting on Oct. 19.
Robert King, co-showrunner and creator of The Good Wife, The Good Fight and Evil, and whose screenplay credits include Vertical Limit, Cutthroat Island, and The Nest, tells Deadline that he’s voting “No” on the referendum. “I think there is an argument to be made for end credits, but not like this,” he said. “With these rules, all you need is a contract to receive credit. Just a f***in’ contract! You don’t have to contribute one word to the final movie. And given the way development hell goes off in a lot of failed directions, there is a boneyard of scripts on every movie that offer not a word. This gets us no closer to the ideal of ‘Truth in credits.’ It only gets us closer to reviewers scoffing at every movie as the result of ‘a tag-team of writers’ – even when the result came from one writer’s mind.
“When you take on a project, you better know how many writers were hired previously, because all of them now have credit on the movie, even before you start typing! Even if you start fresh, even if you break the back of the story, they now share credit with you. This is a bad idea,” King added. “It offers consolation trophies to a lot of writers, but at the expense of the writer, or writers, who did the lion’s share of the creative work. If we want to have end credits, base it on arbitration. Lower the percentage down to 5% if you want, but don’t base it on contracts. Oh my god, this is a bad idea.”
Glen Mazzara, co-chair of the guild’s Inclusion and Equity Group, which advocates for more diverse voices in film and television, says the credit change will help underrepresented writers. “The new WGA credit is an important step toward ending a systemic racism & sexism built into the current credit system,” he wrote on Twitter. “Vote YES.”
Mazzara, whose credits include The Walking Dead and The Shield, maintains that “the proposed new end credit is a big step toward ending systematized discrimination on the part of the Guild itself. And for writers complaining about other writers getting credit – if people contribute work that meets the guidelines, they deserve credit. Hollywood doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Another thought: every time there’s a WGA election, candidates come out of the woodwork touting how the Guild needs to do more ‘for diversity.’ Well, here it is. I’m curious if any of those writers are now speaking up on behalf of this proposal.”
Former WGA West president Howard Rodman is also backing the proposed change. “Why can’t the credits for a film accurately reflect the names of the writers who worked on the film?” he tweeted. “WGA members: please vote YES on the referendum.”
Mark Gibson, whose screenplay credits include Snow Dogs and The Wild, is an outspoken critic of the proposed change, and is urging WGA members to vote “No” on the referendum because he believes it will diminish the value of all movie writing credits. “This is a flawed plan and will be exploited by the producers and the studios, and will weaken the status and position of the writer in the process,” he told Deadline.
Gibson believes that the guild means well, but is misguided. “They’re acting out of good intentions,” he said. “They want more people to be recognized because they feel a lot of people have worked really hard and deserve a credit. But we have a system that has worked, although imperfectly, to determine credits, and this would destroy that.” And Gibson is not alone in that view. “There is a growing ‘No’ movement,” he observed.
Andrea Berloff, a former WGA West board member whose screenplay credits include World Trade Center and Straight Outta Compton, is also opposed to the change. She doesn’t think it will help underrepresented writers; her own experience tells her that it won’t. “Despite how this proposal is being framed, I do not think it will help marginalized writers. In fact, I think it will do the opposite,” she posted on Instagram. “My first credit was on World Trade Center. It was released in 2006. How many women had sole screenplay credit that year? Couldn’t have been more than 15% of movies.
“For better or worse, whether you like the movie or not, I wrote every word of it,” Berloff added. “Some idiot posted on the internet, however, that a specific A-list male writer came on to polish the script – no reason to share his name. I promise you – He did not.
“I was probably asked about 12 times during the press – what was it like to work with ‘A-list writer?’ What they were hinting at – insinuating – was that I – a young-ish gal – couldn’t possibly have written that whole movie by myself! Especially one with cops and men being men,” she continued. “Surely there was an answer as to how the screenplay came to be and that answer was not me! Everyone WANTED to assume the experienced guy did the work. He was the accomplished dude and I was a woman. OF COURSE he saved the movie.
“The rumor grew. It went up on IMDB. I started getting asked about it by executives. My team had to send a letter to insist that IMDB take it down,” Berloff recounted. “What happens today when a marginalized writer gets her first credit… and that credit is followed by the names of 4 heavy-hitter writers? It will completely diminish her success. I know… because I lived it. I do not believe that this new credit will be helpful. It will be weaponized against early career, under-represented writers.
“Look, I’m sure this measure will pass,” she wrote. “That’s where the train is headed. But I’ve been to this rodeo and got bucked off the bronco and 16 years later I’m still licking my bruises.”
John August, a former WGA West board member who serves on the six-member Screen Credit Review Committee, had reservations about the proposed rules change, but has landed squarely in favor of it. “For at least 20 years, I’ve been able to argue both sides of the end credits question,” he wrote on his blog. “Pro: Listing all the writers better reflects the reality of who worked on a movie. Con: Listing all the writers undercuts the purpose of the WGA determining credits in the first place.
“Like a high school debater, I knew the arguments and was ready to engage on either side of the debate,” he added. “I didn’t want to pick a side – but of course, I was picking a side. When the status quo is no end credits, doing nothing means perpetuating the current system.”
August, whose screenplay credits include Big Fish and Corpse Bride, wrote that after a year of “sometimes-heated debate,” the committee came up with a proposal “that narrowly addresses the ‘resume problem’ of missing employment credits without changing anything about the traditional writing credits. The result closely mirrors the system used in television for decades, where writers are credited for both their employment and their authorship.”
He also noted that the guild’s Inclusion & Equity Group is concerned “that the status quo disproportionately affects women and writers of color, for whom these resume gaps can be a substantial barrier to future employment.”
And credits equal higher pay for writers. “A single feature credit more than doubled a screenwriter’s pay,” he said, citing a guild survey earlier this year of more than 1,000 feature film contracts. “The median guaranteed payment for a screenwriter with no credits was $140,000. The median guaranteed payment for a screenwriter with one credit was $400,000.”
“Going back decades,” August blogged, “the WGA has had a process for determining who gets credit for writing on a movie. These are the familiar ‘by’ credits: written by, screenplay by, story by, etc. These credits denote authorship. Whether a film uses opening titles or end titles, the writing credit always comes right next to the director. They answer the question, ‘Who wrote that?’ But they don’t tell the whole story. In many cases, other writers worked on the project. If they didn’t meet the threshold for receiving this ‘by’ credit, all record of their employment is erased. That’s unique to the film industry. In television, members of a writing staff receive an employment credit (e.g. staff writer, story editor) in addition to a writing credit on episodes they write.
“The idea of listing every writer who worked on a movie is not new. It’s always seemed absurd that a catering truck driver who worked one day on a film has their name in the credits, while a screenwriter who spent a year on the project and wrote major scenes goes uncredited,” August continued. “And yet! Screenwriters are not drivers. Our work is fundamentally different. Authorship means something, both for the individual project and for the status of screenwriters as a profession. That’s why in the case of projects with multiple writers, the Guild has an arbitration process to determine the official writer(s) of the script.”
August wrote that “most of the status quo arguments I’ve heard for the past twenty years foretell grave consequences if additional writers were listed in the end credits. Some common predictions:
• It will devalue the worth of the “by” credits
• Studios or producers will hire friends just to get their names in the end credits
• It will hurt newer writers if a big-name writer showed up in the end credits
• All I can say is, maybe! We’re screenwriters; it’s our job to imagine scenarios.
The term “Additional Literary Material,” he wrote, “is incredibly dull, but it’s also accurate. It reflects the reality that the people listed wrote material for the film without passing any judgement. It clearly delineates actual writing – words on paper – from participating in a roundtable. Rather than diluting the authorship credit of the ‘by’ writers, I’d argue the ‘Additional Literary Material’ credit reinforces it.”
In a letter to guild members, the Screen Credits Review Committee said that “Currently, many screenwriters who have worked for weeks or months on a project do not receive any on-screen credit, nor are they listed in online databases. By comparison, every crew member – even someone who works for only one day – will see their names in the end credits and on IMDb. In television, writers’ names appear on all episodes on which they are employed. The more exclusionary standard for feature writers often results in ‘résumé gaps’ and empty IMDb pages that may not accurately reflect a screenwriter’s career.”
Gibson, in an email exchange with Mulroney, laid out his concerns that the proposed change would lead to rampant abuse, and as an unintended consequence, credits would be handed out like “party favors.” She assured him that that would not be the case, and that it would not create “some crazy free-for-all” credit grabs. Even so, she noted that “Of course we cannot guarantee that nobody in this town would try to abuse this credit,” but added that the guild is there to prevent that.
Here’s their back and forth, in which Gibson presents several scenarios in which producers and others may attempt to abuse the new credit:
Gibson: The new rule uses the term ‘only participating writers’ as if it is the dam that will hold back the flood poised to dilute our credit. It will not. As it is understood now, it sounds reasonable. But that is for one reason and one reason only – everyone knows only the WGA can affix writing credits. We alone have that power. Now you want to give it away.
Mulroney: As I hope we made clear in the referendum materials, nothing will change in the way the traditional (main) credits are determined or arbitrated. This will still be the sole jurisdiction of the WGA.
Gibson: Let’s start with a simple question: who determines who is and isn’t a “Participating Writer” ? It’s not the WGA – it’s the producer and the studio. And they can give it to anyone they want. Think about that.
Mulroney: The WGA is in fact the final arbiter of who qualifies as a participating writer – hence the number of “Participating Writer investigations” we undertake each year. So the studio cannot just assign this credit to anyone they want. The person must be hired under a WGA contract AND THEN WRITE SEPARABLE MATERIALS. Meaning a draft or a treatment or outline that can be verified as having been written by them.
Gibson: You are handing them yet more power, another token for them to distribute as they see fit.
Mulroney: “As they see fit” implies the WGA has no role in determining who is eligible. They do.
Gibson: And according to this new rule, as soon as your producer has decided to give his Development Executive a shot at polishing your script – bing! – they get their name in the credit roll. Right next to that hard-working writer whose IMDb page we are trying to stuff.
Mulroney: Respectfully, we are not trying to stuff IMDb pages, we are trying to have our credits be more accurate and less exclusionary. We are responding to decades-long frustration from writers who are sick and tired of making contributions to produced features – writing 20, 30, 40% of the movie in some cases and working for weeks, months, even years – without having their name appear on screen. This very cynical projection that there will automatically be rampant abuse – which is no more than speculation – was not enough for us to deny hundreds of writers per year from being credited for their work on movies.
Gibson: Let’s look ahead, shall we: ‘My client, Steven Seagal, would love to do your movie but he feels people don’t take him seriously. That’s why from now on he wants a rider in his contract that includes him as a ‘Participating Writer’.
Mulroney: A rider in his contract would not qualify him for this new credit. He would have to WRITE under a WGA contract.
Gibson: ‘Oh, and so does my director, Michael Bay he feels he’s been miscast as the explosion king when he’s really more a man of letters. That’s why he too wants it in his contract to be a ‘Participating Writer’.
Mulroney: Please see above. (And thanks for the LOL in describing Bay as a man of letters!)
Gibson: ‘As a producer this puts me in an awkward place but it’s hard to say no to the star and the director and hey, what about me? I read the script a lot and gave notes, it doesn’t take much to make a WGA minimum deal for myself and let the whole town know I’m more of a ‘creative.’
Mulroney: Any producer willfully trying to abuse this credit would have their reputation severely harmed. Reading the script and giving notes isn’t the same as writing a draft and would not qualify a producer for the ALM (Additional Literary Material).
Gibson: Is there anybody at the Guild who can assure me none of the above scenarios cannot and will not take place? Anybody?
Mulroney: Of course we cannot guarantee that nobody in this town would try to abuse this credit. We respectfully disagree that this is gonna be some crazy free-for-all. And again, we feel the benefit to writers far outweighs any of these as-yet-unfounded fears. If hundreds of deserving writers each year can now receive credit for their work and a small handful of opportunistic people somehow manage to also qualify, on balance, that’s a big net win for writers.
Gibson: I feel fairly certain they will – in fact, with the producers in charge, they will be distributing this credit like a party favor in the same way executive producer credits on movies were going to everyone but the caterer until the PGA realized their credit had become so diluted they had to stick an acronym on it as if to say these are real and those are ‘fake’ producers.
Mulroney: I understand this is intentional hyperbole, but EP credits were not going to everyone but the caterer. And these ALM credits will not ‘be handed out like party favors.’ That implies there is no Writers Guild oversight, and there is.
Gibson: Is that where we want to be going??
Mulroney: I don’t believe we are 🙂
Gibson: If you want a participation trophy join a bowling league. This isn’t a game; this is our livelihood. Work hard, make a contribution and get your credit and when you do, you will deserve it.
Mulroney: I agree. This is our livelihood! And the dishonest and inaccurate credits system we’ve had in place for decades where some writers can claim all the credit for the work of others has really held a lot of writers back. As you well know, it’s not as simple as “make a contribution.” Writers make significant contributions all the time – that’s kind of the point of this referendum! – and have no credit to show for it. Plenty of writers work very very hard, but are prevented from “getting your credit” by our current system. When I think of the thousands upon thousands of writers who have been deprived of receiving credit for their “hard work” and their “contributions” and how their careers might have been changed for the better had they received more recognition, it’s what motivates me to support this change. I very much respect your position and your decision to vote no, of course, Mark. We are expecting a very vocal “NO” contingency and hopefully a productive debate amongst the membership. Then democracy will take its course and we’ll see where we land 🙂
Gibson, however, is still a “No” vote, telling Deadline that “Everything I said in my email is consistent with what Michele is saying. While in the past people did not put themselves forward or get a WGA deal – not difficult – or present written material that was predicated upon the firewall of arbitration – they knew it would be a waste of time as the process would not result in a credit. In the scenarios I describe, simply fulfilling these simple hurdles guarantees the applicant this ALM credit and there is nothing the WGA can do to stop that under the proposed rule change. They need some lawyers and fewer feelies at the guild.”
Mulroney, in a written statement, told Deadline that “there is no opportunity” under the proposed change “for the employer to pick and choose who receives the end credit, or to play favorites, or for any writer to have more leverage than another writer.”
Stressing that she is not speaking in her capacity as WGA West vice president, or on behalf of the guild’s board of directors or the Screen Credits Review Committee, she wrote that “I fully respect every member’s right to share their opinions on this credits referendum. Healthy and fact-based debate is an important part of the process. As a longtime screenwriter member of this Guild, I look forward to seeing what the membership decides. Whether we’re voting YES or NO or we’re undecided, let’s please make sure we are making our decisions based on accurate information. There has been some misinformation flying around. I hope this helps clear up some things.
“At the conclusion of a feature project,” she noted, “the employer sends a list of Participating Writers to the Guild for verification. The Guild doesn’t automatically take the employer’s word for it. They verify that every name put forward has fulfilled the criteria to be designated a Participating Writer. They must have been hired under a WGA contract and they must have either WRITTEN or sold literary material. Most Participating Writer designations are clear-cut. If they are not, then a Participating Writer investigation is opened and the Guild digs deeper to ensure the writer is eligible. This process has been in place forever and will not change if the new end credit is adopted. There is no opportunity for a director or production exec or actor’s name to be slipped onto the list, hoping it will get by the Guild. Trust me, it will not.
“Only Participating Writers approved by the Guild are eligible to arbitrate for our traditional “main credits”. ALL Guild-verified Participating Writers who do not receive credit would then be eligible for the new Additional Literary Material credit. It’s not something an individual writer negotiates for. You cannot receive this end credit simply by requesting it in your contract.
“The employer must then request an end credit waiver from the Guild – not the other way around. The Guild will only grant the end credit waiver if ALL participating writers are included. There is no opportunity for the employer to pick and choose who receives the end credit, or to play favorites, or for any writer to have more leverage than another writer. It’s ALL writers or NO waiver. No exceptions.
“The employer is not compelled to request the waiver from the Guild. However, since all Participating Writers would automatically be listed on IMDb, the WGA’s Find A Writer and other industry databases and the credits would be out there for everyone to see, it’s only reasonable to assume employers would want the on-screen credits to match the IMDb credits.”
John Raffo, whose screenwriting credits include The Relic and Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, is also a “No” vote. “I am a longtime member of the Writers Guild,” he told Deadline. “I have a few credits and I’ve been a part of the arbitration process as a screenwriter looking for credit, and as an arbiter determining credit more than a handful of times. I, like Mark Gibson, am very concerned about the guild’s new referendum. I think Mark’s emails have hit most of the salient points, but there are other things that concern me. Primarily why is vote being rushed? Why is guild leadership insisting that membership vote on this only with only a month to debate? I love the guild, but I think this issue is profoundly important.”
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