Balls of Steel™: Writers in the Ring of Arbitration

Writers fighting for credit on a film can be a bloody battle. Why is the system set up this way, and how can it be better?
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Every once in a while, the hot-headed Sicilian in me rears her irrational head. This time, the topic setting my head spinning is writers arbitrating credit.

Instead of spewing out a venomous post on how I loathe those who stab other writers in the back, how writers should stand up for each other, and how anyone who tries to take a credit from me should be veeeeery careful, as not only will I beat them to a pulp, but there will be horse heads in their beds, I decided to stop and breathe... and call Doug Richardson (Die Hard 2, Bad Boys, Hostage).

After an hour and ten minutes of war stories, facts on WGA arbitrations, and hard realities of a Hollywood writer’s life, I was so stunned and... I don’t even know what the word is... I was practically in a coma. I put down my laptop, poured myself a margarita, and punted writing this post until the next day.

choking

I can’t even begin to try to go through all the WGArules on credits and what it takes to get a writing credit on a script... or lose one. It would take 30,000 words, and frankly, you’re better off looking it up on the WGA site yourself. A paralegal, I am not.

But you’d better look them up. Read them. Know what they are. Inform yourself. Because if someone petitions to get writing credit on your script, you’re going to want to know every rule better than you know your mama. A gigantic amount of money could be on the line.

If a writer’s ego isn’t motive enough, the pocketbook is doubly motivating.

The studios have now made it a practice to withhold a certain amount of pay and label it “Credit Bonus,” meaning in order to collect that bonus, you must have a writing credit. The bonus of a successful film could mean millions of dollars.

But money isn’t the only thing. The reality is, being a writer credited with a box-office success gets you more gigs and money-making potential. There’s a lot at stake.

For me, what was so jarring is the overwhelming feeling of a lack of community and a fear of survival of the fittest.

As a screenwriter on the outside of the velvet rope, I fight and claw my way every day to make it. So much so, I wanted to believe once I worked my tail off to get to OZ, I’d be a part of an amazing, complicated and exciting, dysfunctional family of successful writers. I’d be “one of them.”

Now I’m equally terrified of being “one of them.”

It’s like pod people take over. How many generous and lovely writers singing kumbaya have been poisoned by the politics of the industry?

Or maybe it’s because they worked so hard to break in, they want everything they can get their hands on, like the Blueberry Girl in Willie Wonka.

I’m sure every writer’s motivation is different, but most are probably based on survival instincts. The other reality is the studio system sets it up for writers to duke it out in the ring, the weak and naive be damned.

Is it only this industry that eats their young?

Somewhere along the way, the lessons of teamwork have been lost.

Imagine a relay team, typically consisting of four runners, each one running as hard and as fast as they can to get the final runner across the finish line in first place.

What happens as her body breaks through the ribbon?

Cameras snap, the crowd cheers... all for the final runner. The one with the glory.

Should she be the only one to earn a medal? Didn’t the others help her get across that line first? Does it mean their participation meant less because they weren’t the final one to hold the baton?

But now imagine a different relay team: Four more runners. This time, the first one fumbles on the starting blocks, the second drops the baton, and the third gets a leg cramp. So, by the time the fourth and final runner snatches the baton, he’s far behind the pack. But he busts his hump, pumps his arms, widens his stride, and gives it every ounce he has... and wins the race.

relay race

Shouldn’t he get something extra for that? Because if it hadn’t been for him, that team would never have even placed, let alone won.

There are always two sides to every story. Doug believes, as do I, those writers who don’t deserve credit, and appeal for it anyway, typically know it. They know they are working the system. Whether it be to maintain a lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to, or to serve their ego, they know it.

For the first time ever, I’m writing a Balls of Steel post not even knowing how I truly feel about something. Arbitration is such a complicated process to wrap your brain around when you haven’t had a film in the game. So, I’m simply digesting it all, sharing it with you, and preparing for the day it might happen to me... because it happens to everyone. Oh, I’m not going to deliver horse heads or kick anyone’s ass. Instead, I’m going to take the advice of Doug Richardson. I'm going to use my brain.

Doug explains, “If you’re going to compete and be in an arbitration, learn how the rules can work for you and against you. Learn them inside and out, or you can’t really expect to succeed. Most of those who have personally complained to me about the system, don’t understand it.”

Knowledge is power.

Another power is writing well. You might not be able to control who fights you for credits, but you can control writing the best scripts possible. Even then, you’ll undoubtedly be rewritten because a decision maker has a different vision. It’s inevitable.

When I asked Doug how it felt to be rewritten, he said, "It’s like watching your lobotomized child walk around a room and not recognize you’re his father."

I love that analogy.

As to not make all of us want to go shoot ourselves in the head or quit writing and apply for a job at McDonalds®, Doug assures me the system works... most of the time. He offered one last piece of advice I plan to take:

“Until you’re there, don't worry about it. But once you’re there, worry about it.”

Maybe now you know why I needed that margarita.

Take a look at the WGA Credits Survival Guide and let’s get these comments started. I’m fascinated to know what all of you think about the fight for writing credit. Comment below, and as always, email me at jeanne@jeannevb.com if you have a topic you’d like me to cover in a future Balls of Steel.

“To hope for the best and prepare for the worst, is a trite but a good maxim.” -- John Jay