A screenwriting credit is one of the highest honors a writer in the entertainment industry can achieve. Seeing your name on the big screen gives a tremendous sense of pride and validation that your creative work has come to fruition.
But beyond the prestige, receiving proper writing credit for film and TV projects carries tangible benefits for a writer’s career. Screen credits play a crucial role in Hollywood, influencing a writer’s reputation, award eligibility, compensation, and ability to get their next job.
This definitive guide examines what credit means for screenwriters, why it matters so much in the competitive entertainment industry, and how writers earn the coveted honor of getting their name up in lights.
What it Means to Get Screen Credit
Being credited for writing a produced film or television project brings industry recognition of the contribution you made to the creative work. It represents the fulfillment of seeing your words brought to life on screen.
For aspiring screenwriters, that first credit marks a major career milestone. It provides a vital entry on your resume to help get future writing jobs.
The credit also makes you eligible for lucrative awards like the Oscars, Emmys, and Golden Globes that can propel a career to new heights.
The Writer’s Holy Grail: “Written By” Credit
The most prestigious writing credit is “Written By”, awarded to the primary credited writer(s) of a screenplay. Being listed under this credit indicates that you were the key creative force behind the story and script.
If the project was an original screenplay, the “Written By” credit goes to the screenwriter(s) who wrote the script speculatively or on assignment.
For an adapted work, the writers who adapted the source material into a screenplay receive the coveted “Written By” acknowledgment.
In the hierarchy of credits, “Written By” comes before all other writing credits such as “Screenplay By” or “Story By”. The name(s) under this credit are the first ones viewers see, cementing them in the audience’s mind as responsible for the film.
Joint Writing Credits
It’s also possible for multiple writers to share the “Written By” credit if they collaborated on the script or did substantial work on different drafts.
For example, the Oscar-winning film A Beautiful Mind (2001) has a “Written By” credit for both Akiva Goldsman and Sylvia Nasar, the author of the book it’s based on.
In the case of shared credit, Writers Guild arbitration determines the precise order of names listed. Naturally, writers jockey for the coveted “first position” slot given the prestige associated with it.
Perks of Being “Written By”
In addition to the immense prestige, the “Written By” credit qualifies the recipient for substantial financial rewards, including:
- Residuals – Ongoing royalties based on a film’s box office gross and distribution channels. For a hit movie, these can provide a six or seven-figure income.
- Sequels and spin-offs – First-position credit may entitle writers to compensation for sequels, remakes, etc.
- Spec sales – Producers may purchase a writer’s future work if impressed by a “Written By” credit. A hot spec script can sell for seven figures.
- Assignments – A writing credit is a ticket to get hired for high-paying rewrite assignments or “open” writing assignments.
- Pay bumps – Agents can negotiate higher quotes for writers with credits on major projects.
Additionally, “Written By” credit makes the scribe eligible for every writing award including Oscars, Emmys, Golden Globes, and major critics awards. Every step on the awards circuit increases a writer’s market value.
In essence, the credit moves a writer higher up the Hollywood food chain, bringing paychecks, opportunities and clout ordinary writers can only dream of.
Types of Screenwriting Credits
While “Written By” is the big enchilada, various other writing credits appear in film and TV. Each type designates a different level of contribution to the final script.
The “Screenplay By” credit goes to writers who reworked or adapted source material but were not the original creators. For example, Tony Kushner received a “Screenplay By” credit for Munich (2005) as he adapted the novel Vengeance by George Jonas.
This credit typically indicates a writer was brought on by a studio for a rewrite of an existing script. They may have done significant work tailoring the screenplay to fit the vision of a director or producer.
The “Story By” credit acknowledges the writer(s) who crafted the original narrative on which the screenplay is based. They plotted out the story framework including key characters, settings, premise, and structure.
However, “Story By” means the writing contribution stopped at conceptualizing the basic storyline. The actual scripting was executed by other screenwriters who receive a “Screenplay By” credit.
For instance, George Lucas has a “Story By” credit on Star Wars (1977) for conceiving the characters and sci-fi world of the saga. However, the drafting of the screenplay itself was done by Lucas and other writers.
Screen Story By
Slightly different from “Story By”, the “Screen Story By” designation is given to the writer(s) who came up with the original idea or premise for a film.
For example, Philip K. Dick has a “Screen Story By” credit on Blade Runner (1982) as the movie adapts his short story Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
This credit is about recognizing the creation of the core concept, even if the writer wasn’t involved past the initial idea. Like “Story By”, the heavy lifting of the actual screenplay was executed by other writers.
Based On Characters Created By
For films or shows based on established intellectual property, the original creator may get a “Based on Characters Created By” credit.
Stan Lee had this credit on Marvel films like Spider-Man (2002) and Avengers (2012) since the movies derive from superheroes he co-created in Marvel comics decades ago.
However, simply creating pre-existing characters alone does not guarantee a writing credit. Significant contribution to the film’s story or script is still required.
Other Non-Writing Credits
Apart from writing credits, screenwriters can also earn credits as producers, story consultants, production consultants, or even executive producers.
Producer credits indicate a writer had more involvement on the production side, such as raising finances or supervising filming. It does not necessarily mean they did writing work.
Consulting credits are given when a writer provides input on the screenplay or story, but not enough to merit an actual writing credit.
Television writers sometimes receive “executive producer” credits based on their role in developing the series, despite not writing specific episodes.
How Writers Earn Screen Credit
The process of determining writing credits on Hollywood projects is governed by strict rules and standards. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) plays a key role in arbitrating credits to ensure writers get proper acknowledgment.
Earning credit is based primarily on the writer’s proportion of contribution to the final shooting script. Guild arbitrators assess which writers made the most significant changes or additions to the story and character elements.
Some guidelines of WGA’s credit determination process include:
- Substantial written contribution – The writer must prove they made vital contributions to the final script. Minimal changes don’t qualify.
- Script comparison – Earlier drafts are compared to the final screenplay to evaluate the scale of each writer’s contribution.
- Source material – Was the work based on underlying source material like a novel? The original creator may get a Story By credit.
- Production executives – They may provide notes but typically don’t qualify for writing credit.
- Script polishing – Minor dialogue tweaks and tightening typically don’t reach the threshold for writing credit.
- Disagreements – If writers dispute credits, the WGA will arbitrate based on each contribution. Usually, the first writer is favored.
- pseudonyms – Writers can petition for a pseudonym credit for privacy or to conceal their involvement.
Generally, produced scripts go through extensive rewriting. Early drafts may be completely overhauled and bear little resemblance to the short film. A wide range of writers may provide input on different drafts.
The WGA aims to ensure the writer(s) who truly shaped the heart of the story and film are honored, while insignificant contributors or non-writing personnel are filtered out.
Why Screen Credit Matters in Hollywood
The stakes involved in negotiating proper screen credit explain why it remains such a contentious issue. Credit acts as a yardstick for a writer’s worth in the eyes of industry gatekeepers. It can literally make or break careers.
In the fiercely competitive entertainment business, credits boost a writer’s status and value. Producers and executives use credits as a gauge of experience when hiring for projects.
Agents leverage a client’s credits during negotiations to secure higher quotes and paydays. Each credit serves as one more bargaining chip.
The cachet of credit even filters down to a writer’s asking price for original scripts. A “Written By” credit from a major studio film allows you to command bigger upfront payments for selling your next spec script.
With so much tied to credits, it’s not surprising bitter disputes have erupted among writers staking claim for credit on projects – especially hugely successful properties.
Famous Cases of Credit Controversies
Given the career and financial implications, writing credits often spark controversies as writers jockey for proper acknowledgment. Here are some famous examples:
- Inside Out – Writer credit was disputed between Pete Docter and Meg Lefauve. Docter felt he contributed more to the core story, despite Lefauve co-writing the screenplay. The dispute led to a shared “Original Story By” credit.
- Braveheart – Writer Randall Wallace filed for arbitration to get his “Written By” credit after Mel Gibson tried to deny him. He eventually won a shared writing credit.
- The Flintstones – More than 30 writers worked on scripts over several years. But only 6 shared the final credits, illustrating how early drafts get thrown out.
- An Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore received controversial co-writing credit with the script supervisor even though he did not actually write. The WGA denied arbitration.
- Toy Story – The original screenplay by Jeff Pidgeon and Andrew Stanton went uncredited. Only the writers who worked on later drafts received credit.
Earning screenwriting credit stands as a significant achievement that cements a writer’s stake in bringing a film to life. The coveted “Written By” credit in particular represents the pinnacle for writers.
It brings immense prestige, creative satisfaction, financial rewards, and career opportunities unavailable to the uncredited.
Given the fierce competition in show business, credits become high-value bargaining chips. They confer more clout, bigger paydays, and talent representation for future projects. Because of this, disputes over proper writing credits frequently erupt and arbitration is required.
Yet at its core, a writing credit remains a fulfillment of the writer’s vision – the culmination of seeing one’s creative work immortalized on screen.
And that in itself makes the long struggle for credit worthwhile for the passionate scribes who put their dreams to paper for the world to see.
Frequently Asked Questions
How do screenwriting credits work?
Screenwriting credits are determined by the Writers Guild of America (WGA) based on each writer’s contribution to the final shooting script. Credits are given if a writer contributed substantially through writing or rewriting scenes and characters.
What is the difference between story and screenplay credits?
“Story by” credits the writer who conceived the basic narrative and characters, while “Screenplay by” credits the writer(s) who actually scripted the full screenplay based on that story.
What writers credit means?
A writing credit indicates the writer made a significant contribution to the film or TV project through writing or rewriting the script. Credits confer prestige, awards eligibility, and financial compensation.
What are writers credits called?
Common writing credits include “Written by”, “Screenplay by”, “Story by”, “Adaptation by”, and “Based on characters created by”.
Who gets credit for writing a screenplay?
The Writers Guild determines who gets credit based on each writer’s contribution to the final script. Usually the first writer or writing team gets “Written by” credit if they wrote the majority of scenes/dialogue.
Who gets songwriting credits?
Songwriting credits go to lyricists, composers, and anyone who contributed substantially to creating or modifying song melodies, lyrics, or structure.
What is the #1 rule when writing a screenplay?
The #1 rule is to keep the story moving forward. Every scene and action should advance the plot and develop characters relevant to the central conflict.
How much do screenwriters make per screenplay?
Professional screenwriters typically earn between $100,000 to $300,000 upfront when selling an original screenplay, along with residuals if it gets produced.
How much is a screenplay worth?
Most spec screenplays sell in the range of $300,000 to $500,000, but top screenwriters can earn over $1 million for their scripts, especially for high-profile projects.