Understanding Screenwriting Credit and WGA Arbitration in 'Belle' and '12 Years A Slave'
Photo Credit: S & A

Understanding Screenwriting Credit and WGA Arbitration in 'Belle' and '12 Years A Slave'


While it’s

very common in independent, lower-budget film for a director to be the writer

of a film, the industry-wide process of receiving screenwriting credit on a

script involves an extensive set of rules governed by the Writers Guild of

America, in which directors must make a significantly larger contribution than

any other writer to receive credit. Currently, that contribution must be at

least half of the finished script, and also calls for an arbitration process by

the WGA, in which they evaluate who receives credit.

Two recent,

and fairly controversial examples of assigning screenwriting credit played out

in films we cover regularly on this site, 12

Years A Slave and Belle. While

directors Steve McQueen and Amma Asante claimed heavy involvement in the

writing of the films, sole credit went to writers John Ridley and Misan Sagay,


In one of

the most surprising moments of Oscar night, both Steve McQueen and John Ridley

bypassed one another as they received their awards, and didn’t thank each other

in their speeches, causing speculation of a feud between them. It was a strange

moment for a film that arose out of such a rich historical text, and appeared

to unite McQueen and Ridley early in their writing process. In many interviews,

McQueen compared Northup’s memoir to The

Diary of Anne Frank, and credited his own wife for helping him to discover

the story.

In an

interview with Anne Thompson, Ridley expressed that it was the source

material that complicated the screenwriting credit for McQueen since the WGA

doesn’t grant “Story By” credits to screenwriters for memoirs, which then made it

very difficult for him to receive a “Screenplay By” credit since Ridley wrote

the first draft of the screenplay on spec, and was only willing to share “Story

By” credit. Instead of entering the controversial arbitration process prior to

Oscar season, McQueen opted out and the rift reportedly began brewing.

In that interview,

John Ridley said: “Steve never tried to get an arbitration.

A lot of people assume we wrote the script together every day for four years.

The reality is that Steve lives in Amsterdam and I live in Los Angeles. We met

a dozen times at most. I can’t say in all honesty that Steve and I had an

opportunity to become super tight. It starts to bother me when the story

becomes that we didn’t give each other foot massages. Steve was never not

deferential to me and I hope I always expressed admiration for him, the cast

and crew. Steve did a lot for me. I don’t know if Steve is upset. We got to

have our moment. It was a beautiful moment for us.”

During an

arbitration process, the WGA reviews drafts of the script by each writer and

determines the credits. Disputed by many

writers, the process is kept confidential and the identity of the arbiters is

not revealed. Appeals are taken, but the exact details and explanations of the decision

are not given to writers. Amma Asante, director of Belle, underwent this process for her contribution to the film’s

script, but the initial writer of the film, Misan Sagay, was awarded sole

screenwriting credit, to much protestation from the film’s actors Tom Wilkinson

and Penelope Wilton, who claimed to have only worked from Asante’s script.

According to Entertainment Weekly, Asante wrote at least 18 drafts of the

script before she began production on the film, following the early work by

Sagay who reportedly left the project due to ill health. It is also reported

that the film’s producers wanted Sagay and Asante to share the credit, but, according to Sagay’s reps, the WGA declined, triggering producer Damian Jones to propose Sagay for a “Story

by” credit, which the WGA also rejected. Asante’s subsequent appeal wasn’t


Though both

films- 12 Years A Slave and Belle– have brought immense recognition

to Asante and McQueen as directors, the “Screenplay By” credit seems to be hard

won and desired, especially when later revisions and drafts figure prominently

into the finished film. Should initial screenplay drafts govern all other

drafts, even when characters and story change drastically? Does a writer ever lose

their right to be credited on a script? How can revisions written by other

writers impact the original writer’s vision? Just how much involvement warrants screenwriting credit?

When does a

story become a shared commodity to be ruled on?


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