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12 High-Profile Disputes Involving Popular Movies Over Who Should've Received Screenwriting Credit

By Dustin Rowles | Seriously Random Lists | March 6, 2014 | Comments ()


The way that screenwriters are assigned credit on screenplays often doesn’t make much sense, and when disputes arise, the WGA assigns three arbitrators to determine credit. The arbitration rules, however, often don’t make a lick of sense, either, and in many cases, writers who weren’t necessarily huge contributors to a screenplay get sole credit while those who made the most contributions can often get no credit at all.

This is essentially what happened in the dispute between Steven McQueen — the director of 12 Years a Slave — and its screenwriter, John Ridley. It’s often very difficult for a director to be assigned a co-writing credit on a screenplay because in such instances the director has to provide evidence of considerable contributions. Ridley, who adapted the screenplay on spec for free with the promise of eventual compensation, was not willing to provide that co-writing screen credit to McQueen, and when McQueen took to arbitration, the WGA sided with Ridley, giving him sole screenwriting credit. Hence the feud, and thus the petulant toddler clap at the Oscars last Sunday.

This isn’t the first time such a dispute has arisen, nor will it be the last. Disputes like these, while not always involving Oscar winners, are in fact fairly common. Here are 12 other high-profile instances.

Up in the Air — In a situation very similar to the one involving 12 Years a Slave, Sheldon Turner brought the Up in the Air project to the studio, basing it on the Walter Kirn novel, but Reitman disregarded Turner’s script and came up with his own screenplay, stating that he’d never even seen Turner’s script. Reitman’s script also incorporated some elements of Kirn’s novel, and ultimately, Turner and Reitman’s script had substantial similarities. They were co-credited as writers, although Reitman wanted sole screenwriting credit. It wasn’t given to him, and when Oscar time came, both men accepted the Oscar. Reitman, though not happy with the outcome, nevertheless allowed Turner to speak first. For many, it was the first time anyone realized that Reitman wasn’t the sole writer on Up in the Air.

X-Men: First Class — In most cases, no matter how little of the screenplay is eventually used, the very first screenwriter to produce a script will receive a screenwriting credit. This was the case in X-Men: First Class, another dispute involving Sheldon Turner, who drafted the original X-Men Origins: Magneto screenplay. Though several more screenwriters were brought aboard, and the project was essentially started again from scratch when Matthew Vaughn came aboard, Turner was still given story credit on the screenplay. However, two other screenwriters who were involved early on — but not first — were not: Josh Schwartz (The O.C.) and Jamie Moss. While Schwartz, Moss, and Turner were all rewritten, Turner still received a story credit because he was first.

Cable Guy — Though Lou Holtz, Jr. wrote the original draft of Cable Guy, Judd Apatow came in later and substantially altered the film, giving it a darker edge, and turning it from a What About Bob? kind of film into a Hand that Rocks the Cradle kind of stalker movie. Though he brought it to arbitration to argue that he’d made considerable changes to the script, the WGA — much to Judd Apatow’s chagrin — refused to give him any credit at all. Apatow was a producer on the film, and the WGA has a rule that, if you’re a producer, you have to meet a very high bar in order to receive credit. Apatow, under the WGA rules, apparently didn’t reach that bar.

The Rock — Despite working closely with Jonathan Hensleigh for nine months on the script for The Rock, the WGA decided in its arbitration hearing to deny Hensleigh screenwriting credit, in favor of David Weisberg & Douglas F. Cook, who wrote the spec script. Bay was so upset with the WGA’s ruling, he wrote an open letter calling the WGA arbitration process “a sham, a travesty.” He claimed that Weisberg and Cook had a really cool idea, but that had he directed the movie they wrote, it would’ve been terrible.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — Alex Cox and Todd Davies may have written the original adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s book, but director Terry Gilliam and Tony Grisoni rewrote the entire script. Despite that, Gilliam and Grisoni were initially denied credit (because as director, Gilliam was considered a producer) although the WGA eventually relented, giving them credit. Nevertheless, Gilliam was so frustrated with the process that he resigned from the WGA.

Ronin — Though the entire screenplay was written by David Mamet based on a story by J. D. Zeik, after arbitration, Mamet was only given credit under a pseudonym. After the incident, Mamet vowed to only work on screenplays in which he was the sole writer.

The Hangover — Despite disappearing for four months to rewrite the screenplay, director Todd Phillips and Jeremy Galecki were denied screenwriting credits, even though they incorporated into the screenplay the baby, Mike Tyson, the cop car, and the Zach Galifianakis’ entire character. Nevertheless, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore received sole credit.

Due Date — Similarly, in another Todd Phillips’ directed movie, Robert Downey, Jr. added a substantial amount to the final product but was denied a screenwriting credit because he was already credited as the lead in the film, as well as a producer, thus creating a bar too high to overcome, despite his contributions.

The Expendables — After David Callaham received a co-writing credit for The Expendables by the WGA, Sylvester Stallone and the producers of the film sued Callaham for fraud, claiming that he overstated his role in writing the film. Stallone claimed that he based a few of his characters on a 2002 script that Callaham had written. Nevertheless, Callaham received a story by credit and top billing as screenwriter.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull — Though it never actually went to arbitration, Frank Darabont threatened it after George Lucas scuttled his entire script despite the backing of director Steven Spielberg and despite working on it for a fulll year. Nevertheless, Darabont claimed that parts of his script made it into the film, but there’s no record of an actual arbitration suit. David Koepp, Jeff Nathanson, and George Lucas were credited as the screenwriters.

Spider-Man — Though several writers worked on the Spider-Man script throughout its years of development in the 80s and 90s — including James Cameron — the WGA ultimately decided to credit only one man for the screenplay, David Koepp (one of the same writers credited with the screenplay for Indy IV).

Leatherheads — George Clooney nearly quit the WGA in his dispute over screenwriting credit on Leatherheads after he was denied screenwriting credit on the film despite the fact that, according to Clooney, only two scenes from the original screenplay written by Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly made it into Clooney’s film.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • kirbyjay

    Rodgers and Hammerstein were contracted to write the book for the theatrical version of South Pacific. It was Hammerstein actually, he was the lyricist and Rodgers wrote the music. Anyway, OH was having a rough time so he and Joshua Logan ( the director) hammered out the script at Logan's country home. It was pretty much a 50/50 effort but when the time came for crediting. Rodgers was adamant that R & H never share a credit. They finally agreed that they would give Logan a credit but he would not receive any royalties. Rodgers disputed Logan's claim in his autobiography but it was after OH was dead and unable to defend Logan.

  • opiejuankenopie

    I love this gif so much! The only thing that could make it better: Andre Braugher paying homage to it on B 99.

  • Pitry

    Psst. Just a correction. There was no WGA arbitration in the case of 12 Years A Slave. John Ridley went fi-core during the writer's strike, I don't think he's a member anymore. This is also the reason 12YAS was ineligible for the WGA award.

  • e jerry powell

    The WGA are doodyheads.

  • I have yet to see a Steve McQueen movie but given his petulant applause and the jumping around on stage he strikes me as an asshole. When Cameron won best picture for Titanic and he did the "I'm the king of the world" bit everyone called him an egomaniacal twit and likened it to dancing on the victims graves. Kind of surprised no one has mentioned the same thing of McQueen given the serious subject matter of 12 Years a Slave.

  • Mrs. Julien

    I've seen Hunger and it was a brilliant excoriating movie. I've seen Shame and thought it was very artful self-indulgent twaddle.

    I'm not sure I am brave enough to see 12 Years a Slave.

  • Yocean

    See, as a writer, which is one of the most exploited and marginalized position in entertainment, I must stand on the side of us getting credits more. It's a common practice indie movies the directors will wrestle away the writer credits from actual writers ( so much so if you tell anyone in the industry it was you who wrote the script for the movie you are not credited, they will already know). In old days, a producer's mistress had more chance of getting writer credits than the writers. It's partly the fault of first screen writers (known novel authors of the time) not wishing to put their names on the movies that producers became the owners of them. But it's been way too long for us to be kept down!

  • Mrs. Julien

    Stop reminding me that if Mr. Julien even gets the chance to sell out, there is an excellent chance that he will get screwed over in another new and epic way.

  • None of what I'm about to write makes any judgement about any particular case of Writer credit arbitration. You can't have referees without occasional bad calls. But it must be said: This article fails to explain WHY the rules are the way they are, continuously painting Producers and Directors as victims to the evil WGA. Credits aren't just mantle trophies. They're money. So if there wasn't a rule that made it nigh impossible for Producers and Directors to get Writer credits, then ALL Producers and Directors could force changes to scripts with the sole intent of poaching the credit, and half or all of the Writer's residuals. Say the Director tells the Writer to redo the script so that it takes place somewhere else, with gender roles swapped, and in another era--figure it out. Now the Writer has to make these changes in order to keep his job. And then the Director takes half his residuals away? Does anyone remember Kevin Smith's story of The Wild Wild West, and the Producer's desire for a giant spider? So the Producer forces a Writer to shoe-horn in a giant spider, and then takes the Writer's residuals because he had the power to force a giant spider into the script? Yes, OF COURSE, many Directors are great Writers that fix problems on their movie's script. There are great Actors that improv amazing dialogue. All of these people are compensated handsomely by their Director and Actor credits. None of these people have any danger of these credits--and residuals--dissolving away before their eyes because the Editor came in and in essence "rewrote" them. And it should be that way, or else the collaborative art of movies can't happen.

  • manting

    totally - this is an industry where over 90 percent of their product "loses money." That's right - the LotR trilogy - that lost money. Nearly all of the Harry Potter movies lost money according to the studio that produced them. Its all about money and even more importantly its all about hoarding money and taking it from those who are deserving. Guess how much New Line paid the Tolkien family before their lawsuit? ZERO. They were owed 7.5% of the gross of the 6 billion the films raked in worldwide. Newline claimed the films lost money so there was no 7.5% to pay.

  • Yocean

    Exactly!!! Amen sir!! As a writer I cannot stress enough how marginalized and abused our contributions are!

  • Boston Red

    I was so disappointed to learn that Lou Holtz, Jr., was not the son of the football coach (though Skip Holtz is also a "Louis, Jr.")

  • CBN

    So based on the title alone, am I to assume Sheldon Turner wrote the good parts of X-Men First Class (The Fass' Parts) and The OC guy wrote the shitty teen drama bits I had to sit through to get back to Magneto: Nazi Hunter?

  • LL

    The most frequent victim of this is Edward Norton. He did a lot of work on Frida, the Hulk, the Score. All his battles with writing credits may have soured him.

  • Yocean

    Yeah because if we let him do that, the we got to to let all actors writing himself bigger parts credits. There are reasons why these rules exist.

  • $3647259

    Totally agree with you.

    Plus, I wouldn't use the word "victim" to describe Edward Norton (for his brawls with screenwriters/directors/producers) since he's anything but. He's known to have been a nightmare to work with in almost every single one of his movies.

    The man has a pattern, he's a petty (refused to promote The Incredible Hulk properly because the movie wasn't edited the way he wanted) control freak (which partially explains why he enjoys -- so very much -- rewriting the scripts he's given).

  • Yocean

    Thing is, writers most easily become victims because of how everyone else in Industry is obsessed with making their own impression (or putting their mark in) and thinks they can write easily themselves. Script is integral yet basic enough to make changes at any stage without much difficulty or cost. I remember when I was an NYU TISCH graduate student I told a film student, a director, that she is not a writer because she does not read. She was very offended, being taught they are to be an auteur and can do everything themselves. I am not saying there aren't good writer directors but if every director and actor are writer what are we there for? Just typing monkey for their dictations?

  • Bob Genghis Khan

    You'd think the controversy with Kingdom of the Crystal Skull's screenplay would be over who to blame that mess on, not who should get the credit.

  • ed newman

    In one of the How Did This Get Made podcasts about Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles (yes, I forgot that was an actual movie too) the screenwriter, Mathew Berry, had to fight Paul Hogan for writing credit for what he clearly conceded was a POS script. Why? To get paid, of course. It always comes down to money.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    It's kind of the best of both worlds: get paid, but also get to disavow what the movie became.

    (apparently, getting paid and having an awesome movie made is a separate, third world; i.e. your princess is in another castle.)

  • Yocean

    If your script were mangled into an awful movie by so many other hands and fresh pairs of eyes, getting compensated would be of at most imperative for all the pain wrought upon you. That's why there exist the first writer gets a credit rule, no matter the quality of your actual writing.

  • dizzylucy

    I was thinking that for a few of these films - people are actually fighting for writing credit on Due Date and The Rock?

  • TheDudeA113

    Small correction - Up in the Air actually walked home empty-handed from the Oscars, losing Best Adapted Screenplay to Previous. They won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay

  • Bert_McGurt

    Previous: Based on the Novel Before This One

  • Mrs. Julien

    Novel Before This One: Based on the Epic Poem Source Material

  • llp

    Source Material: Based on a Story I Overheard on the Train One Time

  • The one example I can think off the top of my head is Richard Donner's Superman, which gave the screenplay credit to Mario Puzo, David Newman, Leslie Newman and Robert Benton (off of Puzo's story credit) in spite of the fact that Tom Mankiewicz had rewritten the entire script for Donner. When the WGA refused to give a writing credit to Mankiewicz, Donner gave him a new credit: "Creative Consultant". But even to this day (Or till the DVD commentary was recorded), Donner gives full credit for the movie he made to Mankiewicz and that's who he had to record the commentary with.

  • In before 'X movie on list had writers? Who knew?'

    "...who adapted the screenplay on spec for free with the promise of eventual compensation" Dumbass. Never do shit for free in the hopes that you'll eventually get paid at some magical future date. Get that shit locked down in writing, or at the very least work out a half now/half on completion deal.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    You clearly don't have a career in the arts. :)

    Spec writing is often something you write because you love it/want to do it. Then you shop it around hoping to make money for your passion.

  • Yeah, no. I'm way too mercenary to work in the arts. If I worked in the arts, I have a sneaky suspicion I'd be Michael Bay: wildly successful commercially, not a shred of artistic credibility. I work in the financial sector, which outside of politics(or being an actual mercenary)is the best place for people with mercenary temperaments.

  • Strand

    Barring actual mercenaries right?

  • Bert_McGurt

    "He claimed that Weisberg and Cook had a really cool idea, but that had he directed the movie they wrote, it would’ve been terrible."

    And keep in mind, this is coming from MICHAEL BAY.

  • VonnegutSlut

    For Bay's assessment to be true, Weisberg & Cook must have written the original as a scant three sentences in monkey shit & cat vomit.

    The bar is that low.

  • kirbyjay

    Although The Rock is the one and only movie of Michael Bay's that I've ever liked

  • stella

    I like to imagine it was in nail polish and sparkler ashes

  • Classic

    Ok all of you stop making me laugh out loud! I'm at work and just cackled!

  • poopnado

    I'm glad it happened this way. I've sent that hilarious gif to a bunch of people I hate.

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