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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
, 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,

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

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?

chime in!

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There should be "Written By" credits and then "Contributing writers" credit. The original screenplay is the backbone and the original writer deserves that credit. Period.


This practice of dismissing a director’s page one rewrite a fact in this case- is not about writing talent and the ability to get films financed. It’s about unions avoiding the payment of benefits by taking advantage of contractual traps and loopholes. It has really has absolutely nothing to do with who wrote what but rather financial risk management. Ultimately it is the producers that pay for this mess, so nobody cares.

John Lindsay Green

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


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.


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


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.


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.


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.

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