Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Credits should stand for something

Screenwriters have only one means of recognition – credits.

And the WGA does its best to ensure proper recognition. But things can get very complicated.

I’ll just deal with television here. The feature world has its own tangled web. There were something like sixty writers involved in THE FLINTSTONES movie (and look how great that turned out).

Even though a scribe may write a draft, in almost all cases the showrunner and his staff will polish or rewrite the script. Even if the original writer is on staff.

That can still mean that 90% of the original writer’s script makes it to air, but it’s also possible that 0% of his draft is left. Should the 90% writer receive the same credit as the 0% scribe? And if not, who among the rewriters deserve credit and how much? And is the original writer entitled to something because he wrote the first draft?

You start to see where it gets sticky.

And that doesn’t even address the issue of “story credit” vs. “teleplay credit.” All of a sudden the Mideast Crisis becomes easier to solve than an episode of DR. KEN.

If any writer other than the original writer wants to share credit the script must go to the WGA for arbitration. This protects the original writer from showrunners just attaching their names.

And this is important for two reasons. The recognition obviously, and also, residuals are determined by credits. So if a showrunner shares screen credit with you he will also share in royalties.

The WGA has a Credits Manual, or as I like to call it: “Fifty Shades of Grey.” It tries to specify how to determine each writer’s contribution. But in most cases it’s a judgment call. That’s why, when scripts are being arbitrated, there are usually more than one arbiter. Credits are determined by committee.

Each showrunner has a different policy regarding credit for rewriting. Some, like me, never take shared credit. I’m getting paid nicely as the showrunner. Improving scripts is my job. Whoever does the first draft gets sole credit. I would say that most showrunners subscribe to that policy.

So how do you know if the name on the screen really contributed most of the script? You don’t. But if you keep seeing the same name pop up you figure he routinely gets a lot of his stuff in.

Other showrunners feel that if they legitimately change enough to warrant credit then they are entitled to share the recognition. Matthew Weiner did that frequently on MAD MEN. He wound up sharing credit on a lot of scripts. My guess is that by the time the script aired, Matthew’s contribution was close to 100%. You could argue he’s hogging credits. But you could also argue he didn’t have to assign the script to another writer in the first place. The original writer got paid for a script and shares in the royalties. In that sense, Matt was being generous.

This is getting long so I’ll pick it up tomorrow. But I want to discuss a new challenge for determining fair credits – scripts that are room written. How’s that for a cliff-hanger?


Carol said...

I wonder how different it is in the UK. I've noticed that the writers, in general, get more attention on the credits, and there's almost always just one of them. For example - in the Doctor Who credits, it always goes 'actors', 'title of the episode' and then 'written by'. And I'm currently watching this show called Upstart Crow (OMG BRILLIANT SHOW) and you know it was written by Ben Elton straight away.

In the US, it's much harder to find the writing credits. (Although I tend to pay more attention when watching Frasier or Cheers or MASH just so I can go 'oh, yay Ken!' when your name comes up. And in the UK there seems to be more credit to the writer(s) for a show, where as in the US, if it isn't Joss Wheadon, I don't know how many people know who the show writers/runners are.

Michael said...

To give a comparison, if you watch old Warner Bros. cartoons from, say, the early 1940s, they will list a director, a writer, the musical director, and one animator or maybe two. The studio would rotate the credit. The animators fought to get full credit and finally did--each unit's four or five animators would be listed. Mel Blanc got put into his contract that he would get credit and it really built up his career. But they still didn't list the assistants, the inkers, etc.

Stephen Marks said...

Wish Ken had broken it down even further when its a 2 person partnership, like Levine and Issacs. Example from L & I MASH script Patent 4077:

Winchester: Let me take a look at that

B.J.: Ah, the acid test

Hawkeye: The jack acid test

I laugh every time I hear it but who made me laugh, Levine, Issacs, a rewriter? I know Ken would never take a script written by L & I and break it down with "I remember I wrote that joke and Dave wrote this joke", or "I didn't like that joke but we kept it in" but it would be interesting. Did Carl Reiner really write all those DVD Show scripts himself? Who wrote all those Bob Hope jokes, we'll never know.

gottacook said...

During its first 4 years or so, in the early and mid-1980s, Hill Street Blues would routinely list as many as four writers of an individual episode. Why don't other series do this, if there's a need for it? Does naming four writers cross a threshold that wasn't there before?

Jeff Alexander said...

Today's blog brings up another question I've had, which you may have addressed in an earlier one - that of the "ampersand" or the "&." I hope you can address it in the light of today's (and possibly tomorrow's) blog.
It's my understanding that when the credits are "Ken Levine & David Isaacs," it means that you and Mr. Isaacs did, in fact, collaborate on the script -- whether in the same room, by email or over the phone.
When the credits read "Written by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling," (as their credits appear on the 1968 "Planet of the Apes," it means that Rod Serling wrote his draft first, then it was turned over to Michael Wilson for a revised draft.
How correct am I?

BA said...

Last time I looked at a Simpsons to find who the writer was I found myself tracking a long list of credits that pretty much led up to the commercials. Is withholding information the network's idea of viewer attention? I've already caught myself being pretty damn foolish trying to analyze closing credits for a show like LOUIE or ANGIE TRIBECA, all from the laboratory of my chintzy VCR.

Andy Rose said...

My understanding is that an ampersand joins writers who are officially recognized as a team by the Guild. That team is treated as a single unit, meaning they split their share of the writers' royalties. So if the credit said "Written by Andy Rose and Ken Levine & David Isaacs," I would get 50% of the royalty, while Ken and David would each get 25%.

Oversimplifying a little bit, the Guild arbiters are not supposed to give a writer credit unless he or she has contributed to more than 33% of the final script. So normally there can't be more than 3 credited writers. Again, teams are an exception since they are considered a single unit. So it could be possible to have a credit "Written by Glen Charles & Les Charles and Bill Steinkellner & Cheri Steinkellner and Ken Levine & David Isaacs." That's six people, but only three teams.

Mel Blanc's contract was interesting. He got screen credit, but his deal actually prohibited any other actor from getting credit. So for the entire period that Mel was on contract at Warner Bros., the cartoons said "Vocal Characterization: Mel Blanc," no matter how many other actors were in it. (A small exception was granted for "Three Little Bops." Stan Freberg sang the narration instead of reading it, so Friz Freleng decided he could give Stan a "Vocals" credit without getting in trouble.)

michael said...

This is a subject that could take up an entire book. In early TV the series creator often received no credit. During the 60s, the story editor or producer who now would be called showrunner would rewrite all the scripts but not take any credit. Many for the same reason Ken gives. Universal in the 60s would not pay producers for a writer credits as the studio felt rewriting was part of the producer's job (that is according to David Levinson (BOLD ONES) in a great interview at Classic TV History Blog). Levinson also mentioned a TV Movie he produced A CASE OF RAPE where he thought the Writers Guide gave the full credit to the wrong writer (Guide sided with original writer Bob Thompson but Levinson thought Robert Collins deserved the credit for his rewrite).

Roy Huggins used a nom de plume to get paid for his story credit then he would turn the idea over to a writer who would get teleplay credit. The name was John Thomas James and was a full member of the WGA along with Huggins (something that amused Huggins).

Who created the title of "showrunner"? When did that title started to get used?

Unknown said...

This doesn't seem to apply to movies. Waited around 8 minutes after the latest X-men movie(to see if there was a hidden scene, there was), and there are credits for everyone/thing! Someone gets credit for tying a shoe.

Katie G. said...

Hey Ken,

Routine reader of your blog here and big fan of your work. For the first time, I've got a Friday Question for you. I don't recall your opinion on Orange is the New Black, but with the new season debuting this month, I've seen several people complaining about the theme song being too long. I know that many of the shows you've worked on have had theme songs, with some being a little longer than others (specifically Cheers). My question for you is do think that a long theme song can cause people to lose interest, or in a network show (unlike Orange is the New Black), take away precious time that could be devoted to the story? Do you think they're outmoded? Honestly , I don't know why anyone is complaining about the OITNB theme song when 1. they can fast forward and 2. the shows can be as long as the producers want them to be, and I'm a fan of the song and think it adds something.

Anonymous said...

Sony cuts the end credits from most of their films on broadcast TV

Wally said...

@jeff alexander: Ken could elaborate upon that, but you're essentially correct. The "&" denotes a team (usually)

Ken et al: On the last Scriptnotes podcast (, Billy Ray and John August broke down a $200 mil feature budget and who got paid what. Somewhat interesting, if not humbling.

Anonymous said...

According to IMDB Roy Huggins got screwed out of credit for creating the Maverick TV series when Warner Brothers used some other source for the script of the pilot episode, and just put Bret Maverick in as the main character instead of the character in the novel. Needless to say, Huggins was more careful when putting together the Rockford Files series years later.

Jahn Ghalt said...

@Michael who asked "Who created the title of "showrunner"? When did that title started to get used?"

The earliest "Showrunner" entry on Wikipedia is dated 16 January 2004‎:

"A show runner is a person who has had proven success in the television industry, and typically has close ties to executives at various major television networks. Since show runner are often trusted to know how to produce successful shows within time and budgetary constraints, someone seeking to pitch a new show to a network will typically find a show runner to promote it to the network executives for them; if the show is accepted, the show runner will then typically also oversee production, at least initially."

The current version makes reference to a blog:

Complications Ensue: The Crafty Game, TV, and Screenwriting Blog

On the post dated Wednesday, August 24, 2005:

"showrunner: the person responsible for all creative aspects of the show, and responsible only to the network (and production company, if it's not his production company). The boss. Usually a writer."

michael said...

Jahn Ghalt, thanks for the answer.