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Can a screenwriting contract specify that a producer cannot replace me as the principle writer?

By Robert L. Seigel

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Question: What kind of wording would I need to be wary of in a contract with regard to the producer replacing me as the principle writer? Is there a way to word an agreement so I remain the only writer? If not, how can I make sure I at least get a "screenplay by" credit?

If a writer is working for a WGA signatory production company or a company engages a WGA writer during the development and/or production process and the company is required to become a WGA signatory, then there is no manner in which a writer can be guaranteed contractually any writing credit (let alone a sole writing credit) since there are WGA rules and an arbitration procedure to resolve credit disputes. Arbitration is usually automatic if a producer or a director tries to take a writing credit to prevent "credit theft" by a producer or a director unless he or she has legitimately earned the writing credit.

However, if a writer is working for a non-WGA signatory, then the issue of credit is truly a matter of negotiation. On rare occasions, a writer may be guaranteed a screenwriting credit, which may be sole or shared with another writer(s) or, at the least, a "story by" credit by contract. Still this type of provision can place a burden on a producer who may want to engage another writer(s) even if the subsequent writer(s) is a not WGA members since there are very few writers who are willing to render writing services and not have a possible chance of receiving some form of writing credit, unless a writer is being very well paid. These types of writers are more like "script doctors" who work for the compensation and consider the credit as less important. (John Sayles is well compensated for his services as a script doctor for such films as "Apollo 13". It helps him to finance his independent films directed by him.)

It is very difficult to ensure that a writer will not be replaced unless the project is a true writer/director “auteur” type of project and a producer agrees to that condition. Even in those instances, a producer may insist that, after a certain amount of time, the producer has the contractual right to engage another writer in the producer’s discretion or perhaps with the approval of the writer (often also a producer or a director) provided that the writer does not withhold his or her approval unreasonably so as to frustrate the producer’s efforts to engage a new writer supposedly for a new perspective on the script.

A non-WGA signatory and a non-WGA member can agree to have the WGA credit rules apply to their contractual relationship even on a non-WGA project. However, if there is a dispute between writers or between a producer and a writer regarding credit, the parties cannot make use of WGA arbitration unless the producer becomes a WGA signatory and the writer(s) becomes a WGA member. When two writers would not agree to share credit on a project I represented, I had to work with the writers and the producer to find someone qualified to act as a "WGA-like arbitrator" who would read a number of script drafts and then determine what would be the writing credits. However, when we informed the writers that each writer would have to pay one-half of the arbitrator’s compensation since they were the ones with the dispute, the writers suddenly discovered that sharing the writing credit was not such a bad thing at all.

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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