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

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

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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