Welcome to Friday question day. If you have one the comments section beckons.
Ken, since you've been on an arbitration committee, could you perhaps write a little about the process when a credit is contested? Just in a general sense, without mention of any specific movie or TV script?
First off the arbitration process offers great protection to writers. It prevents directors and producers and producers' mistresses from just slapping their names on scripts. To get screen credit you need to earn it.
This is a topic that could fill a book but here’s just the brief overview.
When more than one writer is attached to a project it is up to an arbitration committee to assign credit. WGA members are asked to volunteer their time to serve on these committees. Three arbiters are assigned to each case and at least two of the three will have already done at least two arbitrations. I've probably done ten or fifteen.
If you agree to participate in an arbitration you are sent a packet with whatever pertinent material there is. You never know the identity of the writers. They are referred to as Writer A, Writer B, and so on. If there are two writers you might receive two outlines and two or three drafts. But it could get more complicated. For the movie THE FLINTSTONES there were a ton of writers (maybe as many as twenty). The poor arbitrators were given boxes of scripts. Imagine reading twenty different Flintstones screenplays. I’m getting the vapors just thinking about it.
Along with the scripts, outlines, etc. each writer includes a statement pleading his or her (or their) case. These can be very impassioned. "I sacrificed a kidney so I could more accurately portray what this character was going through", etc.
You are also given the Television Credits Manual. This is your bible. Based on these guidelines you make your decision. It spells out exactly what is considered a teleplay, story, television story (not the same thing), and source material. There is criteria for narration, dialogue, characters, story construction and what constitutes significant changes. Sound complicated? It can be at times. There are consultants on call to help you clarify things.
Another factor -- you must make your determination based SOLELY on the Television Credits Manual. You can’t go by the quality of the work. Just because Writer B’s script is better and funnier doesn’t necessarily mean he deserves to share credit with Writer A.
And the complications continue. You may be arbitrating a pilot. Several writers might have drafts and specific takes on the material. And then there may be source material – adaptations of movies, mini-series, spin-offs. Is a writer entitled to “created by” credit or “developed by” credit? The royalties are different for both.
The arbiter makes his determination then drafts a statement explaining his decision.
The writers involved do have opportunities to appeal but that’s for another post.
Needless to say it’s a subjective process and there are problems and inequities in the system but it’s still the best determination of credits we have. If someone dreams up a better method we’re all ears.
With studios releasing what seems like every short-lived or classic television to series, and fans practically badgering these studios for more bonus features, i.e. Audio commentaries, are there any shows you have worked on that you would have liked to have done an audio commentary for? I imagine you would have had fun discussing one of the many "Bar Wars" episodes on Cheers.
I guess this blog is sort of my own personal audio track. Yes, it would be fun to share those stories. I have done commentary for our SIMPSONS episodes. It’s a bizarre process. They just screen the episode and you offer drive-by reflections and stories. The show ends, you go home.
What I’d really like to see is ALMOST PERFECT starring Nancy Travis come out on DVD. We did 34 episodes, more than enough for a DVD. It kills me that it isn’t available and yet you can buy every season of the DORIS DAY SHOW. Who the fuck is looking to buy the complete set of DORIS DAY SHOWS? You can see some of the ALMOST PERFECT episodes on YouTube.
And finally, from Daniel Solzman:
With regards to keeping a sitcom on the air, which has a larger role--ratings, critical acclaim, or awards?
RATINGS!! RATINGS!!! RATINGS!! You can win the Emmy for Best Comedy and still be cancelled if the numbers aren’t there. Just ask ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
Again, because I’m not sure I was clear enough – RATINGS!!!