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How do producers and arbitrators decide how credit is split between multiple writers?

By Robert L. Seigel

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Question: If another writer is hired to rewrite your script and then demands sole credit, how do producers and/or arbitrators decide how credit is split into shared screenplay and story or individual screenplay and story credits? Do they go by all drafts by both writers? What if all the dialogue has changed but the scene to scene structure remains the same?

Most writers eventually realize that the issue of credits is more than one of vanity or ego; credits determine a writer’s precedent for future writing assignment as well as indicate if and how a writer will be compensated and credited if there are subsequent productions based on a screenplay such as a remake, sequel, prequel or television movie or series.

If a producer is a Writers Guild of America (WGA) signatory and writer (or a writing team as applicable) is a WGA member or is deemed a “professional wrier” (more on that a little later), then the rules of the WGA Minimum Basic Agreement (MBA) would apply concerning the determination of credits. If there is a dispute concerning the credits or a producer, director or production executive intends to take a writing credit, there is a WGA arbitration mechanism for the determination of credits in which anonymous WGA member writers serve as arbitrators and read all of the drafts of the contributing writers and make a credit determination. Provisions of the WGA MBA and summaries are listed on the WGA website ( under “Writer’s Resources” under the “Credits” tab (i.e., the Credits Survival Guide and the Screen Credits Manual (or the Television Credits Manual as applicable).

A writer may be a “professional writer” but not a WGA member if a writer is selling material to a WGA signatory and the writer had been employed previously for a total of thirteen weeks as a television or theatrical motion picture or television writer or received credit as a writer on a television or theatrical motion picture (including a television series), or received credit for a professionally produced play or a published novel.

Even if a production company is not a WGA signatory and a writer is not a WGA writer or a “professional writer,” the parties can agree by contract to adhere to the rules of the WGA MBA regarding all or some issues such as credit determination.

The parties will have to address such issues as the number of writers on a motion picture, how much each writer contributed to the final screenplay, whether one or more of the writers is also a producer, director or a production executive as well, whether the screenplay is based on a pre-existing source or is original in nature.

If the non-WGA signatory production company and the non-WGA/ non-professional writer decide that the WGA MBA rules will not apply regarding their agreement, then the matter of such issues as credit are a matter of negotiation between the parties.

Regarding your question and assuming the production company and the writer are subject to the WGA MBA or, if not, they agree contractually to comply with such credit determination rules, there would be a need to determine if the initial script was an original screenplay (i.e., in which no other pre-existing source material except for research information is in existence) or not. If the initial writer wrote an original screenplay, then any subsequent writer (which includes a writing team) would be required to have contributed a minimum of fifty percent to the final screenplay. In the case of a non-original screenplay, then the subsequent writer or writing team would need to have contributed a minimum of thirty-three percent towards the final screenplay.

As noted in the Screen Credits Manual:

“The percentage contribution made by writers to a screenplay obviously cannot be determined by counting lines or even the number of pages to which a writer has contributed. Arbiters must take into consideration the following elements in determining whether a writer is entitled to screenplay credit: dramatic construction;

  • original and different scenes;
  • characterization or character relationships; and
  • dialogue

It is up to the arbiters to determine which of the above-listed elements are most important to the overall values of the final screenplay in each particular case. A writer may receive credit for a contribution to any or all of the above-listed elements. It is because of the need to understand contributions to the screenplay as a whole that professional expertise is required on the part of the arbiters. For example, there have been instances in which every line of dialogue has been changed and still the arbiters have found no significant change in the screenplay as a whole. On the other hand, there have been instances where far fewer changes in dialogue have made a significant contribution to the screenplay as a whole. In addition, a change in one portion of the script may be so significant that the entire screenplay is affected by it.”

Assuming the subsequent writer (or writing team) met the minimum contribution thresholds, then the credits could state: “Written by Writer A and Writer B” for an original screenplay or “Screenplay by Writer A and Writer B” for a non-original screenplay. (Please note that writers on a writing team have the ampersand or “&” between their names and that non-team writers have the “and” between their respective names.)

If the WGA MBA credits rules are not in effect, an initial writer could have it stated in his or her agreement with a producer that the writer will receive no less than a certain credit such as “screenplay by” or “story by” but the credit determination would be decided by the production company.

I represented a motion picture feature in which an original screenplay was written by two writers individually and both writers wanted sole writing credit. Since the production company was not a WGA signatory and neither writer was a WGA member or a “professional writer,” the parties could not use the WGA arbitration infrastructure. Therefore, the writers and the production company agreed that one person would be mutually approved as an arbitrator and both writers would submit a certain number of drafts for the arbitrator to read as the basis of the arbitration’s determination which would be final.

However, the production company stated that the dispute is between the writers and not with either of the writers and the production company; therefore, the writers would have to split the arbitrator’s fee. A few days later, both writers agreed to share the screenplay credit and not utilize the arbitrator’s services or have to share in the payment of the arbitrator’s fee.

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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