Script DevelopmentTwo types of screenwriters exist in the film and television industry—those whose screenplays get made into films and those whose screenplays do not. Every year, the film industry produces thousands of screenplays. Very few, however, make it to the screen.

The story’s road from being transcribed into a script to being brought to life on the movie screen is long and winding, and sometimes utterly unrewarding. In order to become a successful writer, one does not only need a wide imagination and a flair for the written word. A screenwriter must also know how to play nice with others because a writer for the movies is a part of a team.

The moment a screenwriter sells a script to the producer, s/he knows that it is no longer truly his. The producer brings in all the talent and resources needed to make it marketable. Sometimes, while the story is interesting, the writing is sadly substandard. When only certain aspects of the script require improvement–for example, an unrealistic character or unnatural dialogue–a script doctor is recruited for rewrites and consultation.

When, however, the script may only be improved through an overhaul, new screenwriters are brought in. The writing process, therefore, does not end when the screenwriter sells the script to the producer. The next task is to coordinate with the producers, writers, directors, and studio executives in polishing and reworking the script so that it may see production. In truth, most screenplays that are made into films are driven not by the screenwriter but by the producers.

On the one hand, the screenwriter must write a screenplay that is compelling and entertaining. A writer should be highly creative and able to create an exciting narrative with interesting characters and believable dialogue. On the other hand, the screenplay should also be able to accommodate the creative visions and capabilities of everyone in the production team, including the producers, director, set and costume designers, and actors. The screenwriter needs to understand that everyone on the team shares the project. The screenwriter must also be a team player, able to comply with strict deadlines and accept criticism objectively.

The writing team

While a film is usually credited to only one or two screenwriters, it usually takes a team to finish a screenplay. The script development department can vary in size, as small as a group of four people to over sixty, as was the case of the film adaptation of 1994’s The Flintstones. Television shows normally have several people working on single episode. On Friends, for instance, a writer was assigned for each of the six lead characters in order to ensure continuity in their personalities. Television writing teams commonly follow a hierarchy to ensure that each individual is doing his task efficiently.

The producers. At the top of the hierarchy is the executive producer. Dubbed the show runner, s/he is in charge of several things: assembling the writing team and giving script assignments, supervising storyline decisions, casting, filming, and editing. Assisting him or her is the co-executive producer, who facilitates everything in the executive producer’s absence. The supervising producer, producer, and co-producer work closely with them and are assigned various leadership tasks such as monitoring the writers’ room, casting, and editing.

The writers. Working under the direction of the producers are the writers, including the executive story editor, story editor, and staff writer. The executive story editor is usually training for a career in producing, and facilitates small writers’ groups. The story editor, on the other hand, is responsible for helping the writers formulate and organize their stories into scripts. Working under them are the staff writers, who usually have the least scriptwriting experience in the team and who work under leadership and guidance.

 And the credit goes to…

While it takes a team to finish a screenplay, the writing credit usually goes to a select few. Settling the matter of who gets the credit can then become a very tricky business. The writing credit, after all, dictates the screenwriter’s reputation and income.

A writer who worked on a film but whose name does not appear in the credits will have certain limitations on his remuneration. For one, only writers who are credited receive royalties from the film’s release on DVD, television networks, and pay-per-view. In the United States, the final arbiter of writing credits is the Screen Writers Guild. Over the years, they have developed a system of policies, which the film industry turns to in cases of dispute.

Several things should be considered when settling the matter of who get the credits. For one, in order for the screenplay’s original writer to receive credit, s/he must contribute at least one-third of the final screenplay. If the story was used but new screenwriters were brought in for an overhaul, that screenwriter will only receive a credit of “story by.” A director or producer, on the other hand, must contribute at least half of the final screenplay if s/he wants to be credited for writing the film. Similarly, script doctors are not credited unless they contribute more than half of the screenplay.

A spin-off of another film –for instance, the now-defunct sitcom Joey that was spawned from Friends –a “based on the characters of” credit is given to the original writers. In case of film adaptations of literary works, the “based upon the novel by” and “adapted by” credits are attributed, as in Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence,

An important rule that a screenwriter must remember is that, no matter the size of the writing team, the credit only goes to at most three people. While such a system can seem ruthless and unforgiving, since a writer could work on a film for years and the world would never know, it serves as the up-and-coming screenwriter’s challenge to be better. In this desire to earn writing credits, a screenwriter learns to push the creative limits and be the best.