Among many other things, director Barry Levinson (Diner, Rain Man) has been a screenwriter for 40 years. And for the first time in those four decades, he requested writing credit for his work on the low-budget film The Humbling, which he directed with Al Pacino starring.
Then he quit the Writers Guild.
“In the end I realized that there was nothing I could do that would make any difference in terms of the WGA’s attitude towards their system of evaluating scripts,” Levinson told EW in a recent telephone interview. “You either cooperate or you can show your frustration in this method.”
But Levinson is clear that he didn’t drop out of the organization he was a member of for 40 years because he lost. (Deadline first reported the news of his exit.) He dropped out because he believes the process is flawed.
According to the rules of the WGA, anytime a director, or another above-the-line production executive (director, producer, etc.), requests a writing credit on a project that already has a non-production executive writer on it, an arbitration automatically occurs. (It’s a process that was set in place to insure that writers aren’t bullied into sharing credits by colleagues with more power.)
As such, Levinson’s request to receive equal billing with writers Buck Henry and Michal Zebede for their work on the adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel triggered an arbitration.
The arbitration process is detailed, complex, and quick. The guild only has 21 days to reach a decision, and it’s an exercise that can involve reading reams of copy. It’s a wonder decisions aren’t contested more often.
According to Lesley Mackey McCambridge, senior director of the WGA West credits department, each writer is given an opportunity to review all the literary material submitted by the production company to make sure it’s accurate prior to the start of arbitration. They are also permitted to issue a statement detailing their contribution. Each writer is then given an anonymous identification (writer A, B, C, etc.) before his or her work is reviewed chronologically by the three-person arbitration panel (made up of volunteer members of the guild).
After all the work is reviewed, each arbiter has only 24 hours to write up his or her statement. And once the screenwriter receives the WGA decision, there is only 24 hours to request an appeal.
Levinson says he found factual errors in one of the summary judgments, and when he appealed those facts he said the WGA didn’t budge.
“When you have one arbiter who has gotten the facts mixed up, that is not a judgment call, that is factually incorrect,” says Levinson, who is getting ready to fly to Morocco to begin work on the Bill Murray-starrer Rock the Kasbah. “That’s what bothered me in this case. I was literally pointing out incorrect statements, but it didn’t seem to matter to them.”
According to the WGA, the appeals process involves recruiting three more guild members to review the judgments made by the arbiters. These members can’t re-read the scripts, they can only review the arbiters’ decisions to see if they made any errors in procedure or policy. If they believe an error has been made, the appeals board can either send it back to the original committee to be reviewed again or they can form a new arbitration panel. Despite the hundreds of cases the WGA sees annually, very few are arbitrated and even fewer are appealed.
In fact, in 2013 the WGA supplied credits on 328 features. Of those 328, 76 were arbitrated and only seven were appealed.
(Also, it should be noted that for a second writer to be credited for an original screenplay, he or she must have changed at least 50 percent of the original script.)
Levinson understands that the process is inherently imperfect. It’s one sentiment he and the WGA can agree upon.
“It’s very subjective by nature,” says McCambridge. “I’ve said often that you can send an arbitration to a different three people and come up with a different decision every time because it’s so subjective.”
In Levinson’s opinion, that’s not a good enough answer. He would like the process to be handled differently by the organization.
“It would be worthwhile if they spent the time trying to understand more about what went into a given process,” he said.
In the case of The Humbling, Levinson’s work on the script increased dramatically once the budget was cut down to $1 million and the screenplay had to be altered to fit the money constraints. The production, which stars Al Pacino and Greta Gerwig, also shot in a very unconventional manner, working for seven days then shutting down for weeks in between to accommodate Pacino’s schedule and to allow for the seasons to change. During those off-weeks, Levinson spent a lot of time reworking the script with Pacino and making significant changes to the final draft.
He wishes he could have explained those changes to the WGA.
“I think if they want to do it well, they have to ask better questions,” Levinson said. “You have to have a little bit of a question-and-answer process. It’s the only way to get a good understanding in order to make a justifiable decision. They are functioning half-blind.”