Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Determining credits

Credits seem to be a popular Friday Question topic.  Had one over the weekend.  And here’s another that's become an entire post.

Terry asks:

A show I saw the other day had a credit for "story by" and for "teleplay by" on one of its episodes. What prompts an unusual situation such as that?

If a writer does an outline and the actual script is assigned to another writer, the first writer gets story credit and the second receives teleplay.

When the show reruns and a residual payment is issued, the various credited writers split it, but the teleplay writer receives more.

Back when David Isaacs and I were the head writers of MASH we wrote every outline. It was easier for us to just break the story and write the outline ourselves than explain to the writer what our complicated format was. But we never took story credit. We believed that providing the outline was part of our responsibility as staff writers and the freelance guys shouldn’t get jobbed out of some money and residuals. MTM shows also adhered to that policy. Other shows, like BARNEY MILLER, did not. But I could have had my name of close to fifty more MASH episodes. Still, I don’t regret it. I think it was the right thing to do.

Now the teleplay and story credits on Chuck Lorre shows are essentially a joke. Every episode is room written by the entire staff. There is no outline and no writers’ draft. So credit is just assigned to people and rotated. The names you see on any single episode of one of these shows mean nothing. But the WGA limits the numbers of writers who can receive credit so in fairness to the staff, they take turns receiving credit.

And that’s fine until it comes time for awards. Ethically, you’re not allowed to submit a script with your name on it if you didn’t significantly write that script. I don’t think many Chuck Lorre show scripts do get submitted for that reason, even though their scripts are often way better than the shows that do get nominated.

Where things get real sticky is when different writers are assigned on pilots. The writer who ultimately gets teleplay credit may make more money, but the writer who gets story credit gets at least a shared "created by" credit, and that comes with a weekly royalty. So the arbitration fights are generally over story credit. I’ve been involved in arbitrations where there were as many as five writers. Deciding who is entitled to what can make your head explode. (By the way, the WGA provides a credit manual that clearly defines each credit category. But every script is different and murky.)

Credits provide the only recognition for writers. So it’s important that they be correct and represent each participant’s true contribution. It’s not just me who reads the writing credits on every show. There are at least six of us.

18 comments:

ally said...

Make that seven -- I always wait & watch for the "written by" and "directed by" credit. Those are the only two I understand, and play the biggest part in whether what I'm about to watch is going to be good.

Johnny Walker said...

Two things: It seems crazy to me that the WGA is actively stopping writers from getting credits for their work.

Secondly, why does the teleplay author get more than the outline writer? It seems to me that the actual writing is the easier part - breaking a story is more difficult, isn't it?

Igor said...


Ken wrote: "But we never took story credit. We believed that providing the outline was part of our responsibility as staff writers and the freelance guys shouldn’t get jobbed out of some money and residuals."

Ken, there are many things you have written here that have inspired others to offer up a "you're a real mensch." And I've read those and simply nodded in agreement.

But this time, for what I just quoted there... and for what it's worth... Let me offer an atta-mensch of my own to you.

I've worked for two sorts of bosses. Those who think that when the underling is given credit, that makes the boss look bad/hopeless/empty; and those who think that when the underling is given credit, well - the boss was smart enough to assign the job to that underling, and to forward-on the underling's work, and so everyone looks good for that. And if I might mix allusions here... Monty, I'll take Door #2.

Stoney said...

Just this morning, flipping around I stopped for a moment on the documentary "Trekkies" catching the part where Rick Berman talked about an open submission policy. I do recall some episodes of the "Trek" shows having writing credit that includes a line like "BASED ON A STORY IDEA BY..." no doubt selected from the glut of stories made up by fans over the years. But only a selected few made it to air.

Michael said...

What you describe on Chuck Lorre's shows is similar to something you can see in the credits of Warner Bros. cartoons. Until the late 1940s, the title card would show the "supervisor," the writer, one animator, and the music director; the animation credit would be rotated. Then the animators' union complained, the directors complained, and Mel Blanc got it into his contract that he would get a voice credit, and from then on the entire animation unit of 4-5 animators would be shown. But no inkers, cel washers, etc.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Johnny: I wonder if the rule was to prevent higher-ups from slapping their names on everything alongside the names of the people who really did the work.

wg

Charlie O'Brien said...

I would like to be one of those ubiquitous "Executive Producers." Big title - no real work. Just bring money.

Covarr said...

If a show has a writing credit at the beginning, I definitely pay attention. I've even been known to turn a show off depending on who wrote a given episode. For shows like THE X-FILES, this is really useful; they have a huge pool of writers, and some of them don't write good material, and don't write mythology episodes. I can safely skip these ones.

For shows that save any/all writing credits for the end, I like to make a game out of trying to guess what writer/team worked on a given episode. On the web sketch comedy series LOADINGREADYRUN, for example, I can readily tell the difference between Paul Saunders' sketches and Graham Stark's sketches solely by their structure.

Hamid said...

Slightly off topic but still writing related - I went to see Godzilla and loved it. For sheer spectacle and watching big creatures beat the crap out of each other, it's enormous fun.

But all the characters except Bryan Cranston's are completely one dimensional. Talented actors like Aaron Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Elizabeth Olsen and Sally Hawkins are wasted in blank parts that have zero characterization. But the biggest failing was getting the brilliant David Strathairn and putting him in a blank, nondescript military guy role that we've seen in a ton of other action films. Since the military are a necessary part of many action films, just once I'd like to see a character do more than yell orders and provide exposition.

It's still a thousand times better than the 1998 Godzilla, not that that would be difficult.

Steve Pepoon said...

Johnny Walker. The writer of the teleplay does more work, it is not "easy." It takes maybe a day to come up with the story idea (if indeed the "story by" writer came up with it)and one or two days to write the outline. The teleplay writer is usually given two weeks to write their first draft and I used every minute of it during my years on staff. The fact that the arena and the characters are established makes it relative easy to come up with stories, as opposed to writing a pilot, when all is new. FYI, the story by writer gets 30% of the total fee while the teleplay writer gets the rest. Also, the WGA's position in denying credit it to keep the writing credit from getting diluted, with everyone who tossed in an idea or two getting their names up front, not to mention the script fee getting divided up unfairly between the two-idea-ers and the writer who put in a solid two weeks. That said, a lot of writers--including myself--wishes that at the end of the episodes there would be a "contributing writers" credit but that would probably turn into a glutfest. On the other other hand, I got burned by the guild with my first job. I was technically a "staff writer" who did not earn as much as a story editor (the show was rather stingy) and therefore my name did not appear in the credits at the end of the show the first year (you had to be at least a story editor for credit). However, our writer assistants who wrote down my jokes that made it into the shows, THEY did get their names at the end.

Johnny Walker said...

Thanks Steve, that makes a lot of sense. I guess I can see why they don't list everyone, but at the same time, if it only listed people who were PAID to contribute, wouldn't that work?

I think a "Contributing Writers" credit, that listed everyone who was on staff, would be a great idea, too.

(Also, I just want to point out that I never said writing the script was "easy" - I said "easier". Much different.)

I'd love to try my hand at turning an outline into a script. Personally I find outlining the most difficult part. But maybe that's because I'm constantly worrying that the story isn't good enough.

Here's an idea: Maybe Ken could set us all some homework, turning an outline of a scene into a script, and we could see each other's work and comment on it? (I bet this never happens, but I for one would love it!)

Mark said...

One of the ubiquitous story credits for high-quality character-driven action shows in the Sixties and Seventies was John Thomas James. I always assumed that was a pen name but it wasn't till years later that I found out those were the first names of Roy Huggins' sons.

The Bumble Bee Pendant said...

If there is a true Writer's group as you mentioned (Chuck Lorre's teams as an example) maybe they should take a cue from the music industry.
Make up a staff umbrella name.
Remember "the Corporation" and "the Clan" from the Motown days who wrote hits for the Supremes and Jackson 5? There were also bands that wanted everyone to get credit since songs were often group efforts. Most REM and Doors songs list the writing credits as "REM" or "The Doors".

B.B. Callow said...

Johnny Walker, what a great (and fun) idea. I'm in!

Anonymous said...

Ken -

Can you likewise illuminate how "Developed By" and "Created By" credits are determined on shows adapted from other media? Is there WGA involvement, or just whatever contracts get worked out between studio and creatives? It seems arbitrary to me that (for instance) Weiss and Benioff get a "Created By" credit on GAME OF THRONES for very faithfully adapting George RR Martin's existing storylines (albeit with some new scenes and characters) whereas SMALLVILE carried a "Developed By" credit, despite it's major variations on and inventions within the Superman/Superboy mythos, and a wholly-original narrative for the pilot episode.

Thanks,

Tony Tower

Alan Hinton said...

OK,Ken, In a related question, can you explain 'Created By, Developed By, Based on a Comedy Routine By, etc? I have an idea, but I'd like to hear you take. Also, how these pay reiduals and how the writer who created Sue Ann Nivens (for example) gets special perks. Thanks. Love the blog and never miss it.

Greg Ehrbar said...

Some thoughts.

David Straihairn is one of the most underappreciated actors in film and TV. Don't know why.

Mel Blanc's credit in cartoons led to other voice actors getting credit, even though in the Warner cartoons Blanc was the only actor credited and people like Bea Benederet and Stan Freberg did not.

I worked on some network TV specials and was credited after a person who did not write most of the show and already had a screen credit elsewhere, but this person was also the person who got to write the credits.

When I moved on to other projects, this person deliberately took my name off the writing credits (again second on the list) and changed it to "Research."

Sometimes imbd covers a multitude of sins.

Cat said...

Friday Question: on the subject of credits-- Ken, you and David produced the excellent first season of Cheers. What were your duties, and how did your producing "style" differ from any other producers in later seasons?