October 27, 1994

October 27, 1994

 Writer’s Guild arbitrations are similar to lawsuits, in a way. Sometimes you’re forced into them against your will. All competing writers have an opportunity to present their case in a statement and there’s money at stake –  credited writers split future residuals (uncredited writers get nothing) and usually a bonus is tied to whether or not a writer receives credit. In addition, a produced credit ups your asking price on your next job. (Usually. At least it used to.) In other words, there are stakes in this game worth fighting for.

Once a Princess always a Princess

Just like lawsuits that go to trial, the outcome is never certain. Three anonymous WGA members read all the material submitted by participating writers and independently reach a decision about who deserves credit and why. Majority rules. If there’s no agreement between the three, the Guild gets them all on a conference call until consensus is reached.

Majority Rules

I’ve participated in several arbitrations, all of them stressful. The suspense ends relatively quickly – most arbitrations start and finish in two weeks or less. I’m a nervous wreck until the phone call from the Guild, informing me of the determination. So far I’ve prevailed in all of them probably because I walk away if I feel my claim for credit is less than rock solid.

Princess KathleenI worried obsessively about the lawsuit referenced above, probably because – not being directly involved – I had no control over the outcome. As it turned out, J was right – my apprehension was unwarranted, nothing catastrophic happened. Our insurance companies settled things long before it went to trial. If we were served with a similar lawsuit tomorrow, though, I’d freak out again with fear we’d lose everything.

Don't roll the dice

I would have made a terrible lawyer because I deal so poorly with uncertainty and ambiguity, the state in which all the trial lawyers I know live.  “Doesn’t it feel good to roll the dice?” J asked me during one of my arbitrations.

No! I don't want to role the dice!No, it’s excruciating. It’s why I don’t gamble, either.  I have to settle for J telling me it will be okay.

November 15, 1980


This was an amazing day, full of promise, and it retains its magic quality in my memory even though almost nothing unfolded like expected. I got the assignment to adapt  S. E. Hinton’s classic novel, the Outsiders, for the screen. I did pose as a high school student and return to the high school I graduated from (more than a decade earlier) without getting busted.

Gio Coppola took this Polaroid of me with Fred Roos on this day.
Gio Coppola took this Polaroid of me with Fred Roos on this day.

Augie didn’t direct the movie, Francis did, which was the good news and the bad news. I’m awed by his talent; he directed some of the greatest movies of our time IMHO. How could this development possibly be bad? He’s an equally talented writer and took over the rewrite himself. When I saw the final shooting script, my name was nowhere to be seen.

Under the Writers Guild of America rules, this triggered an automatic arbitration because a production executive (director, producer etc.) sought screenplay credit. Three anonymous writers read all of our scripts and rendered a decision about screenplay credit. After a second and third arbitration and a Policy Review Board, I prevailed. It was a tense time.

After winning the arbitration - before the storm.
After winning the arbitration – before the storm.

This experience piqued my interest in the arbitration process and I volunteered to serve as an arbiter. Eventually I got to serve on the Policy Review Board, which I continue to do to this day.

Reading multiple drafts of the same script to decide who deserves screen credit provides a spectacular education in screen writing or, more accurately, rewriting. It was a front row seat to see exactly how scripts assume their final shape. I also learned a lot about human nature.

W/my sisters, wearing my Writer's Guild Strikes! tee-shirt. The WGA struck for the right to determine their own credits - and it was worth it.
W/my sisters, wearing my Writer’s Guild Strikes! tee-shirt. The WGA struck for the right to determine their own credits – and it was worth it.

There are significant financial rewards for getting your name on a script, even if the movie’s a bomb. That might have motivated a few writers to battle but I think most of them fought because they believed they deserved to win. It reminds me of the joke about the actor playing the gravedigger in Hamlet, who’s convinced the play is about the gravedigger. Time after time, writers clearly saw – and frequently exaggerated – their own contribution and missed or minimized the contribution of writers before or after them. I doubt I’m immune to this self-serving blind spot; no doubt I do the same thing, despite being aware of this trap.

I suspect this tendency isn’t restricted to actors and writers – that many, if not most, human beings focus on their own contributions to the exclusion of others regardless of their line of work.