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How much of a script does a hired rewriter have to change to receive a screenplay credit?

By Robert L. Seigel

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Question: My spec script was purchased by a producer and I did a couple of paid rewrites for him before he took the project to another writer. How much of the script does the new writer have to change in order to receive a screenplay credit? And how much would the new writer have to change to be listed before my name? Is it possible that my name could be removed altogether and if so, would I be entitled to a story by credit?

Without my reading your agreement with the producer, it is difficult to assess your particular situation. That is why any writing services and/or option and purchase agreement should be reviewed by an entertainment attorney with experience in the motion picture industry. The answers to most of your questions should be in the credits provision of your agreement with the producer.

According to the agreement, do you have a guaranteed writer’s credit of some sort such as a "screenplay by" or "story by" credit if another writer substantially rewrites your script. Have you and the producer agreed to utilize the credit rules of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) even though the producer may not be a WGA signatory and you may not be a WGA member. If the producer were a WGA signatory and you were a WGA member, there would be automatic arbitration if there would be more than the original writer who has contributed to a script. (Even a non-WGA member writer could receive some benefit of WGA credit rules and if the producer subsequently hires a WGA member and the producer is or is compelled to become a WGA signatory since the WGA arbitrators review the contributions of all of the contributors to a script regardless of whether the contributors are WGA members.)

I once represented a producer who had two writers who did not want to share any writing credit. Since the producer was not a WGA signatory and neither writer was a WGA member, the WGA did not want to get involved unless the parties became affiliated with the WGA which they declined to do. Therefore, the parties agreed that there would be a private, non-WGA arbitration procedure which would use the WGA credit rules as decided by a neutral third party. (The neutral party had been a WGA member who had gone through the WGA arbitration process himself.) The neutral party would read a certain agreed upon number of drafts submitted by each writer, and the arbitrator would make a determination based on the drafts and any relevant information provided by the writers and/or the producer. However, the arbitrator wanted to be paid in advance a considerable amount for his services. The producer explained that both writers would have to share the costs of paying the arbitrator since this dispute was between the writers and not with the producer. The writers suddenly saw the wisdom and economic benefit of sharing writing credit.

The WGA credit rules are on the WGA website or can be requested from the WGA West or WGA East offices (as applicable).

Generally a new writer has to rewrite the first writer’s script substantially in order to receive writing credit since the WGA has a rebuttable presumption that somewhat favors the original writer unless the new writer changes a majority of the script.

If your agreement with the producer does not address the writing credit issue or permits the issue to be decide within the producer’s discretion, then the producer would have the latitude to determine writing credit using the producer’s judgment.

The issue of credits is more than issue of ego or vanity; a writer’s credits establishes a writer’s experience and what a writer has been paid in the past (i.e., "quote") which could serve as the basis for future negotiations with producers or studios.

About Robert L. Seigel

Robert L. Seigel ([email protected]) is a NYC entertainment attorney and a partner in the Cowan DeBaets Abrahams & Sheppard LLP law firm which specializes in the representation of clients in the entertainment and media areas.

DISCLAIMER: The information provided here is intended to provide general information and does not constitute legal advice. You should not act or rely on such information without seeking the advice of an attorney and receiving counsel based on your particular facts and circumstances. Many of the legal principles mentioned might be subject to exceptions and qualifications, which are not necessarily noted in the answers. Furthermore, laws are subject to change and vary by jurisdiction.
Screenwriting Article by Robert L. Seigel

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