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