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

by Nijla Mumin
May 19, 2014 2:22 PM
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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!

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More: Amma Asante, Steve McQueen, John Ridley

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  • John Lindsay Green | June 5, 2014 6:53 PMReply

    This is sadly a complicated issue, however, in my opinion, when it comes to a 'work-for-hire' that's clearly the agreement, and if the original screenwriter's polished draft

  • Toexplain | May 22, 2014 11:50 PMReply

    Part of the 12 years of a Slave issue is that Ridley went financial core during the strike and is no longer a member of the guild.

    The process is a mess. Barry Levinson recently left the WGA over a failed arbitration and a friend of mine who re conceived a big budget film, had to share credit with the original writers even though the story was overhauled completely.

  • troublemaker | May 20, 2014 7:05 PMReply

    It helps if you're a writer-director. Everything starts and ends with you.

  • JessIca | May 19, 2014 10:56 PMReply

    I hear this is happening to Ava Duvernay on SELMA too. Don't know if that's true but that's the word on the street.

  • Donella | May 19, 2014 8:26 PMReply

    I believe it is a credit to the successful end products of both 12 years a Slave and Belle that people desire to lay claim to the writing. Wouldn't it be a shame if the movies sucked and the writers involved tried to disavow all knowledge?

    I'm thrilled for Belle and I thought how wonderful it is that we finally make up for lost time and lost stories and lost history with a rush of quality films to fill in the gap.

  • sergio | May 19, 2014 5:02 PMReply

    It can be all rather complicated and confusing when it comes to arbitration. My understanding has always been if the WGA determined that at least 33% or more of the original script was changed by a different writer than that writer also gets credit as well.

    But many scriptwriters forego the writing credits for rewrites even if they deserved it because they know how complicate and messed up it can be leading to disagreements and fights. Both Carrie Fisher and Elaine May, who have major reputations as "script doctors" in the business always refused to take any credit for their work no matter how substantial it may have been to avoid any conflict with the original writers. And what about movies on which they were several writers on the movie? Rainman reportedly had some 17 screenwriters involved at some time during that film and not's not the only example. In the case of several writers the WGA rule was that the writer of the original draft and the the one who write the final draft that went into productions are the ones who get the credit. But even then that's not usually the case. The simple fact of the matter is that if you're a screenwriter you're definitely going to screwed one way or another so get used to it.

  • Chloe | May 31, 2014 2:05 PM

    The WGA particularly its Western branch has a long standing policy of discriminating against hyphenates.

    What non WGA writers and cinema goers may not be aware is that each arbiter at each separate and different arbitration decides the weight of any contributing script component such as original scenes, characters, characterizations and dialogue.

    In the Belle's case all three arbiters (who will be WGAW members) decided that although Asante had written her screenplay to contain all new and orignal scenes, characters, characterizations and she had provided the tale with its dramatic construction this was not enough and her contribution amounted to less than 50%.

    The arbiters also confirmed that although Asante (who is not a guild member) had written every single word of the dialogue in the film's shooting script, that this too was not of enough significance.

    I've recently seen Sagay quoted as saying the director fully participated in the arbitration. Had Asante not participated, the arbitration would have gone ahead regardless. As it the producer who decides what authentic material is submitted to the WGA for judgement.

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