The Business of Screenwriting: Withdrawing screen credit and pseudonyms

December 6th, 2012 by

Let’s begin this post with a quote from arguably the dean of contemporary American screenwriters William Goldman:

“Nobody sets out to fuck up your movie. It’s not like the director or the star wake up in the morning and say, ‘Let me screw up this scene. How can I really cause Bill Goldman pain?’ It’s jut that they’re terrified. I wrote a line once that caught on out there in Hollywood: ‘Nobody knows anything.’ And they don’t. If we knew what we were doing, every movie would be wonderful. If actors knew what they were doing, every performance would be just swell. It’s a crapshoot. It just is. There’s no answer. I wish there were.”

Or as a producer once told me, “Making a movie is like a space shuttle launch. There’s a million things that can go wrong.”

So the odds are at some point in your screenwriting career, you will find your name attached to a real stinker movie. Depending upon the circumstances, you have about three choices:

Withdraw your name from screen credit.

Here is what the WGA Screen Credits Manual has to say on the subject:

Prior to the time a credit question has been submitted to arbitration, a writer may withdraw from screen writing credit for personal cause, such as violation of his/her principles or mutilation of material he/she has written. If the other writer-contributors do not agree, the question shall be referred to arbitration. The Arbitration Committee in such cases shall base its determination on whether there is such personal cause.

After screen credits have been determined by arbitration, a writer may not withdraw his/her name from screenplay credit. He/she may, however, by notification to the Guild, withdraw from any other form of credit.

Withdrawal from writing credit will result in loss of any and all rights accruing from receipt of writing credit. Use of a pseudonym rather than withdrawing from credit will not result in such a forfeiture.

Yes, there may very well be times when you look at what’s on the screen, compared to what you wrote, and you feel like your principles have been violated and your material mutilated.

Or perhaps much of the resulting debacle derives from your own writing. You couldn’t see it when you wrote it, but now that it plays out on screen, you realized you screwed the pooch.

Per the details noted above, you may have the right to remove your name from consideration for any screen credit.

Pseudonym.

Again from the Screen Credits Manual:

The Minimum Basic Agreement provides that any writer who is entitled to credit on the screen and who has been paid, or is guaranteed payment of, less than two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000) for writing services or literary materials relating to the particular motion picture shall have the right to be accorded credit on the screen, in advertising or otherwise, in a reasonable pseudonymous name. A writer must exercise this right within five (5) business days after final determination of writing credits. None of the writer’s rights, including but not limited to compensation of any kind, shall be affected by use of such pseudonym.

Before using a pseudonym a writer must register it with the Guild by sending a written notice to the Membership Department with the writer’s Social Security number, if any. A pseudonym may not duplicate the name or pseudonym of another writer or the name of a public figure.

A few things to note. First what’s the deal with the $200K figure? As I understand it, the studios insisted on this detail because there could be some value to having the actual writer’s name listed in the credits. For instance, there is the notable case of the movie Altered States. This from IMDB:

Author Paddy Chayefsky disowned this movie. Even though the dialogue in the screenplay was almost verbatim from his novel he reportedly objected to the general tone of the film and the shouting of his precious words by the actors, this conflicting with director Ken Russell typical style of wanting heightened performances. Paddy Chayefsky had not seen the film before he took his name off the credits, the script being credited to “Sidney Aaron”, a pseudonym for Chayefsky, the two names being Chayefsky’s real first and middle names. Director Ken Russell and Chayefsky fought constantly during production, Russell maintaining that almost nothing was changed from Chayefsky’s script and stating that he was “impossible to please.”

Chayefsky, who had won 3 Academy Awards for Marty, Network and The Hospital, was perhaps the most well-known screenwriter of his era. Warner Bros., who released Altered States, doubtless would have liked to trumpet Chayefsky’s name when marketing the movie. Instead they were stuck with Sidney Aaron.

Now that this $200K cutoff exists [as it has for at least two decades], it basically means most working screenwriters will be unable to use a pseudonym. Of course, if your guaranteed payment is less than $200K, you do have the right to use another moniker.

Another thing: Note the language “reasonable pseudonymous name.” It’s not like you can’t get away with Joe Mama or Richard Lickem. So it’s probably a good idea for you to think of a pseudonym that would be acceptable and appropriate.

Officially I have three screenwriting credits: K-9, Alaska and Trojan War. In actuality, there is a 4th movie in which I received shared credit that was so bad, I did use a pseudonym. And no, I’m not going to tell you that name or the name of the movie.

Keep the credit.

This is a third option: Even if the movie is bad, the fact is a writing credit is a writing credit. And like the old adage goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” that can pertain to writing credits.

Consider this: What if this is your first writing credit? Would prefer to have a writing credit for a bad movie… or no credit at all? Unless the movie is a complete and utter dog, my guess is your reps would recommend you take the credit. In Hollywood, there’s a difference between being a credited writer and one who has not had a movie produced.

Besides you have an out: Everyone in the business knows bad movies happen [see Goldman's quote]. And frankly if anyone in the process can shirk responsibility for a bomb, it’s the writer. Chances are your script was rewritten. The actors took liberties with line after line of dialogue. The director didn’t share your vision. There are plenty of excuses you can use in any meeting about said sad-sack film to minimize your culpability for its suckitude.

And you’ll still have your writing credit.

If anyone in the business has some thoughts they’d like to share on this subject, please do in comments.

For more of the WGA, West Screen Credits Manual, go here.

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