Reader Question: How likely is it newbie writers get screwed in rewrite process?

Everybody in Hollywood gets rewritten… and that will likely mean YOU!

Question from UpandComing:

Hey Scott,
Just wondering — do you have a sense of how likely newbie writers are to get screwed in the rewrite process? I read somewhere that sometimes established writers who are brought in for a rewrite change enough of a script so they can get a more meaningful credit. Do you think this happens often, or do you think that it would be highly difficult for them to do so? And how supportive would the studio be of the original writer? Maybe the answer varies by genre or other factors?

For background, read two Business of Screenwriting posts I’ve done related to the subject:

Writing Credits

Everybody Gets Rewritten in Hollywood

Per the former, while some years back the WGA changed the formula by which credits are determined, subsequent writers still have to change a considerable amount of a script to receive any credit, the default being that the original writer deserves credit for anything that makes it through the development process and into the final script. This is especially true for original screenplays, not adaptations, reboots or sequels, because the first writer also gets credit for the story concept which can have a significant influence on the outcome of any credit arbitration.

As the Guild points out to credit arbiters, a subsequent writer may change every single word of dialogue and not receive credit. This is also to acknowledge that in most movies, dialogue is the least important narrative element behind story concept, characters, scenes and sequences, etc.

Since credits are so important to a Hollywood writer, both in terms of planting a foothold in the business as well as potential revenue including decades of residual payments, you can imagine that some writers who come in to rewrite a project will be, shall we say, highly motivated to change as much of the script as possible.

I’m sure this happens. On the other hand, that same writer is likely not going to be stupid enough to change content that actually works and contributes to the story because (1) that could reflect poorly on the writer’s creative judgment and (2) those choices could move a script away from a green light, not toward it.

So on the whole I think it’s probably safe to say that most professional screenwriters are most focused on delivering the best script possible, no matter who contributed what to the final draft.

That said, if you are a first-time writer and sell a spec script, you should know that a studio — wanting to hit their comfort level — will approach your deal with a mindset that at any point, they have a whole slew of established writers available to bring in to rewrite you. Obviously they will give you your shot and I suppose in a dream world they would hope you could nail the script all the way through production. But that’s likely not what they think when they acquire your script because they have no idea whether you can pull off a rewrite or not, seeing as you have no track record.

In other words, if you’re a first-time writer who sells a spec, you have to be prepared for the possibility, even probability you will be replaced.

Understand, there is little shame in that prospect. Just refer to the second Business of Screenwriting post: Everybody gets rewritten in Hollywood. For proof, we need look no further than this news yesterday:

David Fincher’s “Se7en” scribe Andrew Kevin Walker has been tapped to write Sony’s sequel to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”… Oscar winner Steve Zaillian, who adapted the original “Dragon Tattoo,” was hired at no small expense to write “The Girl Who Played With Fire.”

There are A-list writers. Zaillian is on the A plus-list. So even he gets rewritten.

Finally there’s this. My spec script K-9 sold for a lot of money. A lot. During the script development process, our agents informed us Universal had hired someone else to rewrite us. At that point — being a novice writer — I had no idea this was standard practice. Naturally I was bummed by that news.

Then one of our agents took us aside.

“Hey look, guys. You got fucked. But you know what? You got fucked with a golden dick.”

And that right there pretty much sums up the Hollywood writing experience.

How about you, working screenwriters? What has been your experience on the rewriting/rewritten front?

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