Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.
“Hello?” I said answering the “unknown number” on my cell phone.
“Hi, it’s Kelly from the Writer’s Guild Credits Department,” said the perky voice. “I’m calling to see if you’d be able to handle an arbitration.”
Now, for those within my blogosphere who aren’t exactly certain what a Writer’s Guild arbitration is, here’s a quick primer. When there are multiple writers who’ve worked on a movie or a television show, it’s up to the studio or production company to propose a writing credit. If any writer or writers who toiled on the project don’t agree with the proposed credit—which, unfortunately, is more often the case than not—the Writer’s Guild is assigned the task of arbitrating who deserves the precious on-screen credit. Three veteran writers are chosen to read through all the presented materials and through their diligent efforts, determine a final credit. Though there’s an official appeals process, the decisions by the Guild’s arbiters are rarely—and I mean really, really rarely—overturned.
Writer’s Guild arbiters are all volunteers. They are presumed not to know the writers for whom they are determining credit. The identities of the arbiters are also kept secret.
“How big an arbitration?” I asked.
“Pretty big,” she answered. “Looks like eleven different writers. So there’s at least one script for each. Oh yeah. And a book.”
“I’d really like to,” I answered. “But I’m too swamped to manage that kind of load.”
“Next time maybe?” she asked.
“Of course.” We said goodbye and I returned to bailing water on whatever project I was trying to keep afloat.
Cut to approximately seven months later.
“Hello?” I answered. Once again, the screen on my phone read “unknown number.” I would’ve let the call go to voicemail, but when my sister called from her office line, the screen posted the exact same message. One of our parents had been in ill health for some time. So our mutual preference was to pick up a call instead of avoiding whatever crisis might be at hand.
“Hello,” said another perky voice. “It’s Charlotte from the credits department over at the Guild.”
“Hi Charlotte,” I said. “I bet you’re calling about an arbitration.”
“We are,” she answered. “We have a note on your file that says you’re usually pretty busy. So this is a small arbitration.”
“How small?” I asked.
“Four writers. Six drafts plus a shooting script,” she answered. “Gotta be done in eight days.”
“Man,” I say, feeling a pang of guilt. Yet again, I checked my mental calendar. And there was absolutely no way I’d be able to competently complete the assignment. “Really sorry. Things are just too cramped over here for me to pull it off.”
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“I am,” I said, not feeling the least bit uncertain.
“Maybe the next one,” she replied.
“Maybe,” I said.
Now, if it sounds like reading arbitrations might suck for arbiters, let me answer that indeed it does. It’s a thankless chore that is sure to end with more than one hard-working word jockey disappointed. But without the WGA system there would be credit anarchy. Either that or producers or studios would put themselves in charge. And if you think those credits would end up remotely reflecting who’d actually written that movie or TV show, you’re sadly naïve. Studios and producers aren’t interested in fair. They’re interested in kissing the respective asses of whatever agents or managers or directors or writers they perceive worthy of their fawning. Hell, there are movie stars who, upon changing the punctuation in a line of dialogue, would demand a writing credit if ever allowed.
Fast forwarding four or five months down the word merchant road, my phone rings with that unknown number.
“Hello,” I answered.
“Mr. Richardson?” asks the voice. “It’s Megan from the Writer’s Guild credits office.”
“How are you?” I kindly ask.
“Just trying to get all these credits sorted,” she answered. “Would you be able to do a small arbitration?”
“Depends how small,” I answer.
“I know,” said Megan. “You’re probably busy.”
“Nature of the beast,” I admit.
“This arbitration is three writers,” she said. “Four scripts in all. Plus a bunch of outlines and notes.”
“Sounds messy,” I commented.
“Aren’t they all?” she wisely surmised.
“That’s an understatement,” I said. “Wish I could. I feel bad that I keep having to say no.”
“We’ll getcha one that works,” she said, sounding unreasonably optimistic.
“I’m sure you will,” I replied, once again feeling off the hook as if I’d just successfully dodged a week of jury duty.
Four screenplays, you say? Plus some scattered, pre-drafting notes? How hard could that be? I agree. Not so tough if the job merely involved reading just some anonymous scripts. But there are other materials. Arbiters need to make sure they are up on all the latest credit rules. Plus each writer seeking credit includes a letter, sometimes nearly as long as a screenplay itself, citing chapter and often lawyerly verse on how every who, why, and how the pages prove his/her case for shared or sole credit.
Then there’s the comparison I made to jury duty. Participating as an arbiter in a WGA credit dust-up is not exactly a civic obligation. But there is a solemnity to the process. Having been on the receiving—and winning—end of three credit arbitrations, I feel a responsibility to bring my level best to the table. After all, somebody’s career may be on the line—or at least they may feel as much. As well their livelihood, considering those who earn credit will usually be receiving a financial credit bonus plus a share in the after-theatrical residuals. Why, after all, do you think writers are so bloody willing to climb inside the arbitration octagon in order to kick and gouge their way to have their name preceded with story by or written by or screenplay by?
My last contact with the WGA credits gang was via email. Once again, I was politely asked to act as arbiter in a “small” arbitration. Two writers. Three screenplays including the final shooting draft. Their letters, an outline or two, and maybe a treatment.
“I’m your man,” I wrote back. Not that I wasn’t so busy. My guilt from so much avoidance had at last gotten the better of my mental mechanism for excuse-making.
In appreciation, the credits gang sent me candy. Two packets of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and a Twix.
- Read more articles by Doug Richardson
- Behind the Lines with DR: Jury Duty & the Screenwriter
- Balls of Steel: Writers in the Ring of Arbitration
Get Doug’s volume of Hollywood war stories in his new book
The Smoking Gun: True Tales from Hollywood’s Screenwriting Trenches