One of the contributing factors to the brown-out here, other than meeting with producers to talk about casting, and selling the house and realizing oh sweet holy mother of God I don't ACTUALLY KNOW HOW TO DIRECT -- is that I'm working on the arbitration letter for TRANSFORMERS.
For you Spec-Monkeys and the generally curious, the process of figuring out who exactly gets the blame/credit for a movie is actually pretty convoluted, particularly when a.) there are multiple writers and b.) there are massive amounts of money to be made. The main reason people want credit on a movie is not for bragging rights or employment; everybody in Hollywood knows what kind of writer you are based on your scripts circulating through the studio system. Which is the answer, by the way, to the question I get on an almost weekly basis in my e-mail: "How the hell are you still working?" Nobody in Hollywood blames me for CATWOMAN, because they all like the other scripts I've written. Particularly the unmade ones. Hell, I've gotten hired on stuff because of my early, unmade version* of the CATWOMAN script. So there you go. Welcome to Oddsville.
Credits determine residuals. And residuals, my friends, are the only candy we get in the studio system. We are way, way far down the line from box-office bonuses and gross points. The simple truth is that the massive studio films generate so much lucre in their wake
that even our shitty flotsam and jetsam residual deal, on a halfway successful film, is life-changing. To be blunt, after reading the shooting script of CATWOMAN, I was pretty dubious about having my name on it. (Full Disclosure: My name was one of the ones the studio submitted in the tentative writing credits. There was arbitration on the movie, but I didn't initiate it) But then -- and I am being brutally honest here, folks, you may lose a chunk of respect for me, if you had any, er, ever-- I thought about the two odd years of shitty, shitty development, weekly meetings with ungodly notes until finally they asked me to leave because I'd gotten too truculent with my insistence that if we made the movie the way they wanted, it would suck ... and I considered any possible residuals the bonus pay for that experience.
After all, how bad could it be? The shooting script was odd and kind of boring, but was it really that bad?
Talk about an object lesson.
On the other hand, said residuals are one of the things that allow me to match your donations to military charities. So, there you go.
What's the process? This is really more Craig's territory, but here's how I understand it. Shortly after the picture locks, the studio determines what they consider to be the final shooting script. Sometimes this document's provenance is pretty oblique, as pages are being rewritten on the fly, there are improvs -- basically, it's the text version of what you finally see on screen, using the pages that were the basis for what was actually shot. (In TV we called this the "As Broadcast", or "As Broad" for short). Then the studio looks at all the writers on the movie, balances creative inputs from various drafts with whatever internal office politics they have -- people will protest, but hey, we're not children here -- and they notify the Writer's Guild of the Tentative Writing Credits for the movie.
The Guild then forwards this notice to all writers of record, to see if anyone disagrees with the credits. If you do, you can ask for arbitration. The arbitration process is also automatically triggered under certain circumstances, as when one of the Producers is given a writer's credit. This is not always a Bad or Undeserved Thing, but it is a Suspect Thing, and so it's better to be safe than sorry.
At this point, the studio determines what it considers to be the documents of record for the shooting script's evolution. Submitted drafts, treatments, etc. and when there's original material, that's included. These materials are given to three Guild screenwriters, chosen randomly from an approved list that's, well, umpteen pages long. These screenwriters -- always anonymous -- read all the materials (poor bastards), compare them to the shooting script, and rule on what the credits should be.
If that form of judgment seems terrifyingly subjective, humans who run the Guild would agree with you. As a result, there are actually decades-old guidelines for not only how this process runs, but they also define various credits in extremely specific forms. That is, "Written by", "Story by", "Screen story by", and "Screenplay by", when you see those whip past on the big black screen, are all finely attenuated objective terms with completely different meanings. There's even a limit --recently added -- as to how many different people can share each of these credits.
Now the insane ugly truth here is that trying to turn the difference between "Story by" and "Screenplay by" and "Written by" into solid, actionable guidelines for the arbitrating readers is, well ... insane. Despite the best efforts of the Guild folk -- and I do honestly believe that they've done a pretty good job of trying to bang these rules out given the weird nature of their assignment -- the guidelines somehow manage to be both authoritative and vague. In some conditions a "significant contribution" is considered enough. In other places actual percentages of screenplay are mentioned, but the reader is then chastised about using too literal an analytical framework to come up with said percentage.
Ugh. And now it gets ugh-ier. Because this is where the arbitration letter comes in.
Each screenwriter then gets to write a letter, substituting in the anonymizing terms "Writer A", "Writer B" for our identities, in which we argue out how we interpret these objectively/subjective guidelines applying to the scripts in question, supporting the credits we think are fair. These letters can range from "I agree to the credits as submitted" to inch-thick legalistic opuses. The real thriller is that you have no idea what other writers are claiming. Some guys come on hard on arbitration because they got fucked on their last project, and now it's time for the hate to run downhill. So while you're docilely tooling along with "I think these credits are fine,", Writer F is crafting a footnoted fifty page on how you contributed Jack subShit to the script, and need to be kicked off the credits toute suite.
These letters tend to have a lot of attention focused on them, not particularly because they're so effective (at least in my belief) but because, irrationally, it's the one part of the process where you feel any sort of control. Some people treat it as a way to finally vent the various frustrations they've felt at the film development process. I've read arbitration letters that come off like debate team scripts, and I've read some that you wouldn't be surprised to discover were pages torn from a heartbroken stalker's hidden wishbook. This creates a horrible spiral, where even if you don't want to parse through nine goddam drafts of the project, you have to in order at least bang out enough paragraphs to lodge yourself in the readers' minds, to pre-empt some nuke assault another writer might be launching. And while the results from the arbitration process are generally pretty reasonable , every now and then some infamously bizarre decision will come down the pipe that's so disturbingly arbitrary, it reinforces the sense of panic and helplessness most writers feel ... well, every day-ish.
There are always desultory attempts at fixing the credits system. To be blunt, it's a complicated situation in an age of corporate film-making, with years-long multi-draft development. If I remember correctly, there were something like ten -odd writers vying for the credit slots on CATWOMAN. I don't know the answer, and I doubt I'll still be in the business when they come up with one.
Frankly, it's just fucking grubby. I mean, every screenwriter's felt like a whore at some point in his career. Arbitration is where we scrawl on the lipstick, tug on the stained minidress and entertain Uncle Billy's gentlemen friends from Russia.
* the version where the final fight scene of the summer tentpole movie is NOT Halle Berry beating up a fifty year old cosmetics executive in an empty penthouse. For. Fucking. Example.