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Understanding Screenwriting Credit and WGA Arbitration in 'Belle' and '12 Years A Slave'

Shadow and Act By Nijla Mumin | Shadow and Act May 19, 2014 at 2:22PM

While it’s very common in independent, lower-budget film for a director to be the writer of a film, the industry-wide process of receiving screenwriting credit on a script involves an extensive set of rules governed by the Writers Guild of America.
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(L to R) "Belle" Director Amma Asante, Screenwriter Misan Sagay
(L to R) "Belle" Director Amma Asante, Screenwriter Misan Sagay

While it’s very common in independent, lower-budget film for a director to be the writer of a film, the industry-wide process of receiving screenwriting credit on a script involves an extensive set of rules governed by the Writers Guild of America, in which directors must make a significantly larger contribution than any other writer to receive credit. Currently, that contribution must be at least half of the finished script, and also calls for an arbitration process by the WGA, in which they evaluate who receives credit.

Two recent, and fairly controversial examples of assigning screenwriting credit played out in films we cover regularly on this site, 12 Years A Slave and Belle. While directors Steve McQueen and Amma Asante claimed heavy involvement in the writing of the films, sole credit went to writers John Ridley and Misan Sagay, respectively.

In one of the most surprising moments of Oscar night, both Steve McQueen and John Ridley bypassed one another as they received their awards, and didn’t thank each other in their speeches, causing speculation of a feud between them. It was a strange moment for a film that arose out of such a rich historical text, and appeared to unite McQueen and Ridley early in their writing process. In many interviews, McQueen compared Northup’s memoir to The Diary of Anne Frank, and credited his own wife for helping him to discover the story.

In an interview with Anne Thompson, Ridley expressed that it was the source material that complicated the screenwriting credit for McQueen since the WGA doesn’t grant “Story By” credits to screenwriters for memoirs, which then made it very difficult for him to receive a “Screenplay By” credit since Ridley wrote the first draft of the screenplay on spec, and was only willing to share “Story By” credit. Instead of entering the controversial arbitration process prior to Oscar season, McQueen opted out and the rift reportedly began brewing.

In that interview, John Ridley said: "Steve never tried to get an arbitration. A lot of people assume we wrote the script together every day for four years. The reality is that Steve lives in Amsterdam and I live in Los Angeles. We met a dozen times at most. I can't say in all honesty that Steve and I had an opportunity to become super tight. It starts to bother me when the story becomes that we didn't give each other foot massages. Steve was never not deferential to me and I hope I always expressed admiration for him, the cast and crew. Steve did a lot for me. I don't know if Steve is upset. We got to have our moment. It was a beautiful moment for us."

During an arbitration process, the WGA reviews drafts of the script by each writer and determines the credits. Disputed by many writers, the process is kept confidential and the identity of the arbiters is not revealed. Appeals are taken, but the exact details and explanations of the decision are not given to writers. Amma Asante, director of Belle, underwent this process for her contribution to the film’s script, but the initial writer of the film, Misan Sagay, was awarded sole screenwriting credit, to much protestation from the film’s actors Tom Wilkinson and Penelope Wilton, who claimed to have only worked from Asante’s script. According to Entertainment Weekly, Asante wrote at least 18 drafts of the script before she began production on the film, following the early work by Sagay who reportedly left the project due to ill health. It is also reported that the film’s producers wanted Sagay and Asante to share the credit, but, according to Sagay's reps, the WGA declined, triggering producer Damian Jones to propose Sagay for a “Story by” credit, which the WGA also rejected. Asante’s subsequent appeal wasn’t successful.

Though both films- 12 Years A Slave and Belle- have brought immense recognition to Asante and McQueen as directors, the “Screenplay By” credit seems to be hard won and desired, especially when later revisions and drafts figure prominently into the finished film. Should initial screenplay drafts govern all other drafts, even when characters and story change drastically? Does a writer ever lose their right to be credited on a script? How can revisions written by other writers impact the original writer’s vision? Just how much involvement warrants screenwriting credit?

When does a story become a shared commodity to be ruled on?

Screenwriters chime in!

This article is related to: Amma Asante, Steve McQueen, John Ridley


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