Thursday, November 05, 2009

How do we determine screen credits?

Welcome to Friday question day. If you have one the comments section beckons.

gottacook asks:

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.

From Stephen:

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!!!


Sacul said...

I always like to read the credits on my fave shows. Are any of the Levines (or Lorre) related to you or each other?

DonBoy said...

More than 20 years ago I would sometimes watch the HBO anthology series "The Hitchhiker", and was always amused by the fact that the "Created By" credit had three names on it. Because, you see, "The Hitchhiker" can be completely described with this phrase: "It's like The Twilight Zone, but with tits." That's it. It's an anthology, so there's no running characters. (Except the framing stuff, which was minimal.) And this was credited to three people.

Anonymous said...

Question: An industry name is trying to recruit a person through Facebook for an unpaid internship (working directly for him) on his new movie. There is a screen credit involved as some form of payment.

(I'm probably not doing the guy justice by asking this question here, but as I'm interested in your opinion in regards to this, I don't think I'm doing any harm)

In an offer like this, what would be the main caveats?

Rory L. Aronsky said...

Hey Ken, this might interest you: Warren Littlefield's writing a book:

D. McEwan said...

Okay, but what if the ratings are in the toilet, but the network president is banging the starlet?

Anonymous said...

D. I believe in that case the starlet gets a starring role on the new show.

cb said...


except, of course, when the Network tells your Showrunner that cancellation is "a shame" as the "numbers are so good"...

Ref said...

Why would anyone WANT a screen credit for The Flintstones?

Anonymous said...

Ken, if it's always ratings, how do you explain "30 Rock?"{

By Ken Levine said...

Since NOTHING is getting good numbers on NBC they keep it on. But if 30 ROCK'S lead in was BIG BANG THEORY and it got the same numbers it's getting now, it would be in grave danger.

Also, 30 ROCK is one of those shows that gets Tivoed a lot so it's lower numbers are a bit deceiving. And it does okay in its target demographics. By NBC standards it's okay. But by CBS standards it would be gone.

Anonymous said...

I would love to see Almost Perfect on DVD. Who do we write to start asking for it was one of my all time favorite shows when it was on.

rob! said...


As some TV shows become big hits and run for several seasons, frequently its cast members get opportunities to do other projects.

Some actors do movies, plays, or equally prestigious things. But some end up doing game shows, commercials, etc.

What I've always wondered is, do producers ever get worried that some of their cast members are damaging their show's image by doing crappy other jobs? Do/can the producers do anything about it?

James said...

While I'm sure the WGA arbitration process is fair 85% of the time, in the case of "Lost", it's pretty ridiculous. Jeffery Lieber is credited with creating the show, along with JJ and Damon L. but he gets a 60% share (which I'm sure is a lovely six figures fee every year). If you've read Lieber's original pilot script, you'll know the only similarities are a plane crash and an island - and about zilch else...To his credit, I have read that Lieber is a tad embarrassed at the ruling, and never imagined he'd get that much credit - he merely wanted something for a project that he originated - even if the end product is only .5% his.

leor said...

Question: (I'm not sure if this has been asked and/or answered before, so I'll apologize in advance just in case)

This year, Rob Thomas remade his show Cupid, and although that didn't work, do you think a show like Almost Perfect could be more successful if remade now, with perhaps a more sophisticated audience (if you believe that to be the case in the first place)? And would you ever want to revisit a previous effort that you were proud of and felt didn't get a good enough chance?

Alan Coil said...

In regards to the number of writers on a movie (as opposed to a television series), I'm generally of the opinion that a movie with a large number of writers is likely to be a bad movie.

Does this seem to be true, or am I making a generalization based on anecdotal information?

YEKIMI said...

If someone dreams up a better method we’re all ears.

Fistfights in the back lot. If one of the writers is 25 years or older then the youngest writer, the youngster must fight with one hand or foot tied behind his back/ass. Writers not involved in this may bet on the outcome and if they win may move one rank higher in the credits list at the end of a show or buy 6 months worth of Starbucks or meals for all writers, cast & crew members left. In the event one of the writers is accidentally killed, he will have the right to be listed first on the "In Memoriam" section of the Emmy or Oscar telecast as well as getting the "written by" credit. If more then one dies, they will be listed in alphabetical order. If all writers agree that the decision of the Arbitration Commitee sucked, they may beat members of the committee to within an inch of their lives.

David said...

One big factor in the question of why some series get released on DVD while other, perhaps worthier, series don't is the rights holder. Rights to THE DORIS DAY SHOW are with MPI Home Video, a small label that was glad to get it and was willing to give the series a great deal of love and attention. ALMOST PERFECT is owned by Paramount, a huge conglomerate that doesn't give a damn about putting out what they probably consider a failed, forgotten season-and-a-half sitcom that's more than ten years old. (Forgive me, Ken. I, for one, would buy ALMOST PERFECT in a hearbeat.) Paramount has much, much higher sales expectations than a small company like MPI, which makes it harder for marginal product like ALMOST PERFECT to get released. MPI, on the other hand, was more than pleased with the admittedly modest, but solid, sales numbers for THE DORIS DAY SHOW. (And I freely admit to having been employed by MPI until a few months back.)

Perversely, big companies are loath to license out what they own to smaller companies. Doesn't matter that they have no interest in releasing it themselves. They don't want anybody else to have it, either.

As to the question of who would want to buy something like THE DORIS DAY SHOW, I have long had a theory that there are lots of people out there who profess to impeccable taste while secretly stocking their video shelves with junky old sitcoms they remember fondly from their childhoods.

Anonymous said...

A question not related to this post at all, but something I've always wondered:

When a sitcom has a recurring joke, or an opening that is an isolated joke not always related to the main story, are these written separately at all? For example, on CHEERS, did you guys ever just sit around for an afternoon and write Norm jokes for when he walked in the bar? And then keep a notebook with 50 Norm jokes in it, and just pick one when you needed it?

Cindylover1969 said...

Good choice of picture; I remember early posters of The Flintstones gave story credit to Stephen Sustaric and screenplay credit to EIGHT writers! (And it turned out none of the nine scribes involved got final credit anyway.)

I love watching credits on shows - to this day I can't believe that Silver Spoons needed six people to think it up (Howard Leeds, Ben Starr and Martin Cohan got "created by" credit, while David W. Duclon, Ron Leavitt and Michael G. Moye "developed" it), but the all-time champ has to be Nickelodeon's The Wild Thornberrys - "Created by Arlene Klasky (and) Gabor Csupo," then "Created by Steve Pepoon, David Silverman (and) Stephen Sustaric" and then in the end credits "Developed by Mark Palmer and Jeff Astrof & Mike Sikowitz." WTF?