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Apr 24, 2013 12:25PM


Our mission is to provide tools that can help you become a successful artist. This article is a hybrid of a few I've found on line (with some of my editorial comments), and comes in response to so many misconceptions we have found about screenwriting credit.

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In the United States, screenwriting credit for motion pictures and television programs under its jurisdiction is determined by either the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) or the Writers Guild of America, West (WGAW). Since 1941, the Guilds have been the final arbiter of who receives credit for writing a screenplay or original story, or credit for creating the original characters. A production company that signs the Guild Basic Agreement must comply with the Guild rules on screenwriting credits.



The system affects reputation, union membership, and income.

The credit system affects eligibility for membership in the union, which is determined on points awarded based on what a writer has been credited for.

It affects reputation since some sources list only WGAE or WGAW certified credits. John Howard Lawson, the first president of the Screen Writers Guild (the WGAW's former name) said, "A writer's name is his most cherished possession. It is his creative personality, the symbol of the whole body of his ideas and experience."

It can also affect income. While all writers are paid when they work, some contracts limit payments to writers if they are not officially credited. Additionally, only credited writers typically receive residual income from future exploitation of a film on video, pay-per-view, broadcast television, etc.


On completion of a film, the producer presents proposed screenwriting credits to the guild and circulates the final script to all writers employed on the script. If any writer objects to the proposed credits, credit for the film enters arbitration. If the director or producer of the film is being proposed for a final writing credit, this triggers an automatic arbitration (WGA Screen Credits Manual, section III.C.1)

In arbitration, Guild members review all drafts of the screenplay by each writer and follow a formula that determines the credits.

The WGAE and WGAW both resolutely reject the auteur theory—that only the director is the "author" of a film—so a "production executive" (a producer or director) who claims a writing credit must meet a higher standard than others to receive credit. 

An original writer must contribute at least one-third of the final screenplay to receive credit. Subsequent writers who work as script doctors must contribute more than half of the final screenplay to receive formal credit on a film. A production executive who works on a script must contribute at least half the final product to receive credit (WGA Screen Credits Manual, section III.C.3).

Credit can be apportioned separately for the story, which is defined as a short treatment of the plot and characters, and for the screenplay itself when all writers were not equally involved in the creation of both. A credit might read "Story by John Doe. Screenplay by John Doe & Richard Roe." If an original screenplay is written, but then not used and a new screenplay is written, typically the original author receives at a minimum a shared "story by" credit.

Where a team of writers works together on a screenplay, their names are joined by an ampersand (&), and when two teams of writers work successively on a script, the teams are joined by and. So, a credit reading "John Doe & Richard Roe and Jane Doe & Jane Roe" means that there were two writing teams, John and Richard on one and the two Janes on the other, and they were working on the script at different times, one after the other. An individual writer who works on a script independently of a team or another independent writer will also have his/her name joined to the list of credits by an "and."

Where a film has been based on a previous film, but does not remake it, a "based on characters created by" credit is given, such as on the show Frasier. Every episode gives credits to James Burrows, Glen Charles and Les Charles, the creators of Cheers, the show where the character of Dr. Frasier Crane originated.

Only three writers may be credited for the screenplay if they collaborated and a maximum of three teams of no more than three writers may be credited no matter how many actually worked on it. For example, Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) had about a dozen writers, as did Hulk (2003). The film adaptation of The Flintstones (1994) supposedly had over sixty writers. This limit doesn't include those awarded credit elsewhere for creating characters or the original story.

The Guilds also permit use of a pseudonym if a writer requests one in a timely fashion, but the Guilds may also refuse to accept a pseudonym if it is designed only to make a statement. For example, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski wanted to take his name off the Babylon 5 spin-off series Crusade and substitute "Eiben Scrood" ("I been screwed") to protest script changes the production company made. According to Straczynski, the WGAW refused because "it 'diminished the value' of the show and basically made light of the studio."

"CREATED BY" Credit Determination.

The WGA-determined "Created by" credit also determines the writer's eligibility for separated rights in a series. The "Created by" credit on a series is not determined until there is a series order. There are two ways a writer becomes eligible to seek "Created by" credit on an original series:

a. a writer writes a format for the series; or

b. a writer receives "Story by" or "Written by" credit on the pilot episode of the series.

To determine the "Created by" credit on an original episodic series, there must first be a final determination of credits on the pilot episode of the series.

Generally, if no format has been written for the series, the "Created by" credit will go to the writer(s) who received the "Story by" or "Written by" credit on the pilot. If a format has been written, a Separation of Rights arbitration may be required following the final credit determination on the pilot.

A Separation of Rights arbitration is triggered by a timely protest by an eligible writer of the proposed "Created by" credit on the Notice of Tentative Writing Credits.18

Generally, a Separation of Rights arbitration is conducted in the same manner as all credit arbitrations. Three independent arbiters19 are asked to review and compare the relevant literary material, analyzing the following elements to determine if the second writer(s) have made significant changes from the original material in one or more of the following:

- The framework in which the central running characters will operate and which will be repeated in each episode;

- the setting;

- the theme or point of view;

- the premise or general story line;

- the central running characters;

- the interplay among the characters; and

- the flavor, style or attitude.

A significant change is defined as "a change or additional element that contributes 'significantly' to the series' distinctiveness or viability." The arbiters may award "Created by" credit to the format writer, the pilot writer, or both. The arbiters also determine the percentages in which the writers will share in the Separated Rights. The complete rules for the determination of the "Created by" credit are set forth in the Separation of Rights Manual.


In the case of a "spin-off" series (a new and different series using one or more of the characters of an established series), a writer is eligible to seek "Created by" credit and Separated Rights in the spin-off series if the writer:

a. Receives the "Story by" or "Written by" credit on the pilot of the spin-off series (this is true even if that pilot is produced and exhibited as part of the original series) or,

b. Receives the "Story by" or "Written by" credit on the first episode written for the spin-off series in the event there is no pilot, or

c. Writes a format leading up to that pilot or first episode.

The MBA does not distinguish between a "planted spin-off" and a "generic spin-off." These terms are generally defined as follows:

a. A "generic spin-off" is commonly understood to be a new series using continuing characters from the first series. For example, "Frasier" is a generic spin-off of "Cheers," as the character of Frasier was a regular character on the earlier series.

b. A "planted spin-off" is commonly understood to be a new series in which the main character(s) of the new series is not a regular character in the first series, but is introduced in the original series for the specific purpose of creating a new series with that character. For example, "Melrose Place" is a planted spin-off of "Beverly Hills, 90210," as the characters in the new series were introduced in the original series specifically to spin-off into a new series.

The final "Created by" credit for the spin-off determines the writer's rights under the MBA.

"DEVELOPED BY" Credit Determination.

Under the MBA, no specific rights attach to the "Developed by" credit. The writer who receives "Developed by" credit does not share in the Separated Rights. Consequently, it is incumbent upon the writer not only to negotiate to be proposed for the "Developed by" credit, but also to negotiate for any royalty or other available right which the parties agree will flow from the credit.

In the case of an original episodic series, a writer who has performed writing services on the program may be eligible for "Developed by" credit under the following circumstances:

a. The writer is eligible for, but does not receive "Created by" credit on the series; or

b. The writer receives "Teleplay by" credit on the pilot (but not "Story by" or "Written by" credit); or

c. The writer has otherwise contributed to the "distinctiveness and viability" of the series.

The Company must agree to propose the writer for "Developed by" credit; neither a writer nor the WGA may independently request the credit if the Company does not propose it. Consequently, it is up to the writer to negotiate with the Company to be proposed for "Developed by" credit in the event the writer does not receive "Created by" credit.

Once the Company has agreed to propose a writer for "Developed by" credit on an original episodic series, it is subject to the automatic arbitration provisions of the MBA. Only the writer(s) entitled to "Created by" credit and the writer(s) proposed for "Developed by" credit participate in the "Developed by" arbitration.

The rules for determination of the "Developed by" credit are set forth in the Separation of Rights Manual. Three independent arbiters are asked to review and compare the relevant literary material to determine whether the writer proposed for "Developed by" credit has "contributed significantly to the series' distinctiveness and viability, [though] not enough to warrant a 'Created by' credit." The "Developed by" credit should only be granted "when the use of a 'Created by' credit alone would substantially misrepresent the writer(s) responsible for the series' distinctiveness or viability."


There is a common misconception that a "story by" credit may be given to a person who simply has the story idea for a film or television program. This is never the case, as all writing credits are for actual writing; a written story document or treatment, or in some cases, a complete script. In such cases, a screenwriter produces an original screenplay that subsequently undergoes a "page one rewrite" by a different writer or writers that produces a new and significantly different draft, as determined by the WGA. In many such cases, the original author receives the "story by" rather than "screenplay by" credit. This is known as the Irreducible Story Minimum.


Here are some complicated examples of WGA-approved exceptions to writer-only credit.

  • The Rock (1996)
    • Story by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook
    • Screenplay by David Weisberg & Douglas S. Cook and Mark Rosner
  • Armageddon (1998)
    • Story by Robert Roy Pool and Jonathan Hensleigh
    • Adaptation by Tony Gilroy and Shane Salerno
    • Screenplay by Jonathan Hensleigh and J. J. Abrams
  • Scary Movie 4 (2006)—the original Scary Movie was based on a combination of two scripts, causing its sequels to have increasingly complicated writing credits.
    • Screenplay by Craig Mazin & Jim Abrahams & Pat Proft
    • Story by Craig Mazin
    • Based on characters created by Shawn Wayans & Marlon Wayans & Buddy Johnson & Phil Beauman and Jason Friedberg & Aaron Seltzer
  • The Heartbreak Kid (2007)—a remake of the 1972 film of the same name, which was based on a short story.
    • Based on the screenplay by Neil Simon
    • Based on the short story "A Change of Plan" by Bruce Jay Friedman
    • Screenplay by Scot Armstrong and Leslie Dixon and Bobby Farrelly & Peter Farrelly & Kevin Barnett
  • Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (2011)—the fourth film in the series based on the theme park ride; the plot of this film was taken from a novel.
    • Suggested by the novel by Tim Powers
    • Based on Walt Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean
    • Based on characters created by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Stuart Beattie and Jay Wolpert
    • Screen story and screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio


Some Guild members have criticized the arbitration process. The Guild, however, have won most lawsuits against them, and in 2002 the WGA membership overwhelmingly rejected changes to the arbitration procedures.

A chief objection is the secrecy of the process.[who?] Identities of the arbiters are secret, so concerned parties have no way to object to the qualifications or possible biases of their judges. Also, any explanation of the decision itself is secret, even from the parties to the dispute, so they have no way to know why they lost or won credit. Secret rationales make an appeal impossible, and define no precedent for future disputes. There is an appeal panel, but it only concerns itself with technical details as to whether the decision followed the rules.

Guild members have criticized the way the process handles existing material, such as a book, that is adapted to film. Generally, the first writer to work on such a project naturally appropriates the most cinematic elements of the story. Other teams that subsequently work on the script, however, may base their work on the original text rather than that first draft. Barry Levinson, the director of Wag the Dog and a disputant over screenwriting credit for the film (which was adapted from a novel), says:

If a writer creates an idea from scratch, that's one thing. Even if the script is given to other writers and rewritten, that first writer created the seeds of that idea and he or she should get some regard. But for a script from a book, it's different.

Even if little of the initial efforts remain in the final script, the original writer is often awarded credit because he or she was first on the scene.

Conflict and resolution examples

Frank Pierson, former WGAW president (and former president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences), says that, "The large majority of credits are still straightforward and uncontested," but "When they go wrong, they go horribly wrong." Writer-director Phil Alden Robinson says, "No one can trust the writing credit. Nobody knows who really wrote the film."

When Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was adapted for the screen, Alex Cox and Tod Davies wrote the initial adaptation. When Terry Gilliam was brought in to direct, he rewrote it with Tony Grisoni. The Guild initially denied Gilliam and Grisoni any credit, even though Gilliam claimed nothing of the original adaptation remained in the final film. "As a director, I was automatically deemed a 'production executive' by the Guild and, by definition, discriminated against. But for Tony to go without any credit would be really unfair."  After complaints, the Guild did award Gilliam and Grisoni credit, in addition to Cox and Davies, but Gilliam resigned from the union over the dispute. "It's really a Star Chamber," said Gilliam of the arbitration process, which he claimed took more work than the screenplay itself.

Similar problems arose for the film Ronin. According to director John Frankenheimer, "The credits should read: Story by J. D. Zeik, screenplay by David Mamet. We didn't shoot a line of Zeik's script." Instead, Mamet received credit under a pseudonym. After the controversy over credits for Wag the Dog, Mamet reportedly has decided to attach his name only to movies on which he is the sole writer.

From 1993 to 1997, there were 415 arbitrations, about one-third of all films whose credits were submitted.


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