On-screen credits for screenwriters

Is anybody here a screenwriter or knowledgeable about screenwriting? A friend of mine says that he heard a screenwriter say in an interview that anybody who has ever written a screenplay based on a novel has to be given screen credit if a movie based on that novel ia made. It’s not clear if he was saying that (1) this means that anyone who did an earlier attempt at a screenplay that the final screenwriter looks at has to be given on-screen credit or that (2) anyone who’s done a screenplay based on the novel whatsoever has to be given on-screen credit, even if the final screenwriter never looks at the screenplay. Both interpretations sound wrong to me.

I think what’s actually true is that any author of an earlier screenplay has the right to force the producers to go to arbitration before the Writer’s Guild if he doesn’t like the awarding of credits, but tiny contributions (or no contribution at all) to the final screenplay don’t get you any on-screen credit.

This definitely isn’t always the case. A perfect example is the film ‘The Third Man’ which is based on a novel. Orson Welles wrote all of his own dialogue for the famous ferris wheel scene and was not given credit.

Sounds like your friend heard things wrong. And it makes no sense. If Joe writes a screenplay on WAR AND PEACE, but the screenplay doesn’t get produced, Joe wouldn’t get credit if someone wrote a screenplay independently. Now if Joe wrote a screenplay and the studio gave it to Mary, who rewrote it, Joe might get credit.

WGA has a limit on the number of writers that can be credited in any case. Take this quote from Michael Cassut (in the current SFWA Bulletin, available for $4.95 from 1436 Altamont Ave., PMB 182, Schenectady, NY 12303-2966): “‘Story by Philip & Julius Epstein and Howard Koch, Screenplay by Howard Koch and Shane Black.’ What a credit like this tells me is that the team of Epsteins wrote the first draft of the script, that Koch did the rewrite that got a director attached and a production commitment, while Black did the rewrite on the set and into post-production, changing every words of dialog and most of Koch’s version of the Epstein brothers’ story.”

The article points out that Robert Towne touched up dialog on THE GODFATHER, while Gloria Katz & Willard Huyck did a dialog polish on STAR WARS.

Arken and RealityChuck,

I agree with your general points, but a couple of your details are wrong. The Third Man is not a film based on a novel. Graham Greene wrote the screenplay first, and only after the film came out did he turn it into a novel. You’re doubtlessly right about Star Wars, but that wasn’t a novel beforehand.

Even the example of The Godfather isn’t perfect. It did originate in a novel, but Robert Towne was only involved late in the process of writing.

The problem is that my friend might decide to get picky. He might say that there’s an exception if the screenwriter is called in late in the writing process and only writes one or two scenes. What I need is an example as follows: A producer gave the job of adapting a novel to the screen to writer A. When A finished it, the producer was unhappy with the screenplay, so he showed the novel and the screenplay to writer B. Writer B wrote a screenplay that started again from the novel, completely ignoring A’s screenplay. The movie was made from B’s screenplay, not A’s. A was paid for his work, but got no on-screen credit.

Please note that the rules change. At the time of THE THIRD MAN (made in the UK, by the way), screen credits were pretty darn short. Nowadays, there’re credits for the accountant’s barber and the caterer and the second assistant to the janitor and…

It would be interesting to have this looked into, but I wouldn’t use any movie over ten years old for an example.

Some of this stuff is decided by contract. I remember a flap just a little while ago over Kevin Williamson being listed as the screenwriter on a movie, even though all he did was some minor touch-up. The producers wanted him listed as the screenwriter because his name is well known among kids (I think he wrote “Scream” and a couple other popular movies). So, they essentially paid off the guys who wrote the original screenplay to allow Williamson’s name to replace theirs.

Or something like that.

Sorry if I was unclear, I thought it was obvious: as dhansen says, it’s usually determined by contract – either the contract with the individual, or the union contract (for example, with the Screenwriters’ Guild.) The union contracts certainly have changed over time, and are different for different countries, which is yet another reason that a film of the 50s made in the UK would not provide any insight into current situation in the US.

There are probably examples of what your friend describes, where someone received credit for the first draft script when the final script was someone else’s work (THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI comes to mind – Pierre Boulle, who spoke no English is listed in the credits as the screenwriter, but that also had a lot to do with the blacklist).

However, there’s no rule that the writer of the original screenplay has to get a credit. Credit disputes are determined by the WGA, which looks at the various drafts to determine what was used and what was not.

everyone responding has pretty much the right idea, but there’s something missing to the question b/c that’s an incredibly dumb thing for a screenwriter to say. there has to be something specific he was referring to. for example two independant people aren’t going to own the rights to adapt a book. the screenwriter was probably saying something about how you have to get permission b/c say for example, joe writes a novel based on a book and gives it to the studio, but it sucks. then bob gives writes a good one without ever seeing joes and it sells. that’s also the reason most studios don’t accept unsolicited screenplays b/c thers’s so many like stories.

maybe the screenwriter, was a fiction writer.

If you want to see an example of uncredited work, go to us.imdb.com/Credits?0109813 and see the uncredited writers for The Flintstones. Only three writers received credit, but there are 31(!) additional uncredited writers there. Some wrote only one line of dialogue, but WGA bylaws limit the number of people who can receive credit for the finished screenplay.