In the United States, screenwriting credit for motion pictures and television programs under its jurisdiction is determined by either the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) or the Writers Guild of America, west (WGAw). The Guilds are the final arbiter of who receives credit for writing the screenplay, the original story, or creating the original characters, a privilege it has possessed since 1941. If a production company is a signatory to the Guild Basic Agreement, it must comply with Guild rules.
The credit system also affects writers' eligibility for membership in the union, which is determined on a point system awarded on what a writer has done, and it affects future income. While all writers, credited or not, are paid for their work at the time, residual income from future exploitation of a film on video, pay-per-view, broadcast television, and the like, usually is paid only to the credited writers.
During arbitration, members of the Guild review all drafts of the screenplay by each writer and follow a formula for determining the credits.
The WGAE and WGAw both resolutely reject the auteur theory that only the director is the "author" of a film and so when a "production executive" (a producer or director) claims credit, he or she must meet a higher standard than others to receive credit. An original writer must contribute at least one-third of the final screenplay to receive credit. If subsequent writers labor on an original screenplay as script doctors, they must contribute more than half of the final screenplay to receive credit. If a production executive works on a script, he or she also must contribute at least half the final product to receive credit [WGA Screen Credits Manual Section III.C.3].
Credit can be apportioned for the story, a short treatment of the plot and characters, and the screenplay itself when all writers were not equally involved in the creation of both. A credit might read "Story by John Doe. Screenplay by John Doe & Richard Roe."
Where a team of writers works on a screenplay the names are joined by an ampersand (&) and when two teams of writers work successively on a script, the teams are joined by and. So, a credit reading "John Doe & Richard Roe and Jane Doe & Jane Roe" means that there were two writing teams, John and Richard on one and the two Janes on the other.
Where a film has been based on a previous film, but does not remake it, a "based on characters created by" credit is given, such as on the show Frasier. Every episode gives credits to James Burrows, Glen Charles and Les Charles, the creators of Cheers, the show where the character of Dr. Frasier Crane originated.
Only three writers may be credited for the screenplay if they collaborated and a maximum of three teams of three may be credited no matter how many actually worked on it. For example, Lethal Weapon 4 (1998) had about a dozen writers, as did Hulk (2003). The film adaptation of The Flintstones (1994) supposedly had over sixty writers. Those awarded credit for creating the characters elsewhere and the original story are not included in this limit.
The Guilds also permit use of pseudonyms if a writer requests one in a timely fashion but has been known to refuse to accept one which makes a statement. For example, screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski wanted to take his name off the Babylon 5 spin-off series Crusade and substitute "Eiben Scrood" ("I been screwed") to protest the changes made by the production company. The WGAw refused, however, because "it 'diminished the value' of the show and basically made light of the studio" said Straczynski.
Ronald Bass is an Academy Award winning screenplay author who has helped to write or consulted on over one hundred screenplays (not all of which have necessarily been produced), but who has received only twenty or so "written by" or "screenplay by" credits under Guild rules.
A chief objection is the secrecy of the process. The identities of the arbiters are secret and so the parties have no way to object to the qualifications or possible biases of their judges. Second, the decision itself is secret, even from the parties to the dispute, so they have no way of knowing why they lost or won credit. Secret decisions also make an appeal impossible and leave no precedent for future disputes. (There is an appeal panel, but it only concerns itself with technical details as to whether the rulebook was followed.)
One criticism of the process often raised concerns existing material, such as a book, being adapted to film. Generally, the first writer to work on such a project will naturally appropriate the most cinematic elements of the story, but other teams subsequently working on the script may take their cues not from the first draft, but, again, from the original text itself. Barry Levinson, the director of Wag the Dog (1998) and a disputant over screenwriting credit for the film (which was adapted from a novel), says :
Even if little of the initial efforts remain in the final script, the original writer is often awarded credit because he or she was first on the scene.
Frank Pierson, formerly WGAw president and the current (as of 2005) president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, says "the large majority of credits are still straightforward and uncontested" but "when they go wrong, they go horribly wrong." Phil Alden Robinson says "No one can trust the writing credit. Nobody knows who really wrote the film."
When Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) was adapted for the screen, Alex Cox and Tod Davies did the initial adaptation. Terry Gilliam was brought in to direct and he rewrote it with Tony Grisoni. The Guild initially denied Gilliam and Grisoni any credit at all even though Gilliam claimed nothing of the original adaptation remained in the final film. "As a director, I was automatically deemed a 'production executive' by the Guild and, by definition, discriminated against. But for Tony to go without any credit would be really unfair." After complaints, the Guild did award Gilliam and Grisoni credit in addition to Cox and Davies but Gilliam resigned from the union over the dispute. "It's really a Star Chamber," said Gilliam of the arbitration process, which he claimed took more work than the screenplay itself.
Graham Yost, the credited writer of the film Speed, has stated publicly that "Joss Whedon wrote 98.9 percent of the dialogue...We were very much in sync, it's just that I didn't write the dialogue as well as he did. That was a hard part of the whole Speed thing. It's my name up there, but I didn't write the whole thing. But I fought hard to get that credit, so I'll live with it."
From 1993 to 1997, there were 415 arbitrations, about one-third of all films whose credits were submitted.