Zak Penn wins sole credit on new Hulk film

by Paul William Tenny

hulk-poster.jpgAfter a lot of rumors that Edward Norton was feuding with the producers of The Incredible Hulk over the script, which was originally written by Zak Penn (X-Men 2/3) and rewritten by Norton, a few days passed and both sides said there were no problems between the two and that everything was fine.

That's a pretty good indication that the fight was bloody and petty and did actually happen. Without more to go on it's hard to say much more than that, which is why I said they were rumors. And blogs do so love their rumors.

Unlike that dust up, this one seems to actually have some legs.
The WGA credit arbitration committee handed sole writing credit for the script to Zak Penn, which has a couple of bloggers who loved Norton's script up in arms. None of them say they know the inner workings of the arbitration committee (neither do I) but I do know there are some pretty compelling reasons for doing what they do and that it is generally a very common sense process.

For one, the committee isn't composed of studio executives or anyone else that has something to gain from ruling one way or another (unlike the MPAA appeals board), rotates regularly to get fresh perspectives, and puts the interests of working writers above all else. Now I'm not out to challenge Norton's talent or history as a writer, but it's pretty clear that the guy is primarily an actor, and I think that's going to weigh heavily on the minds of the writers on the committee who are supposed to be looking out for their own.

To that end, certain hyphenates like George Clooney who in addition to rewriting also direct or produce a film are held to a higher, arbitrary standard. Remember that this system is geared towards protecting writers who are notoriously underpowered in the movie business from having a much more powerful director or producer step in, rewrite a few lines here and there, and then claim sole credit. The difference between sole credit, a shared line, and the even lower "based on" or "a story by" all have financial strings attached to them. If a hyphenate steps in and gets top billing, the writer who did most of the work -- even if it was poor work -- will get a huge pay cut as a result.

That's just the way credits work, where in writing your credit often determines how much you'll make as much as any other metric.

Clooney produced a comedy and rewrote a script written by two other guys and didn't get credit of any kind, and quit the guild over it. In one warped sense that's actually what the guild is trying to achieve -- dissuading powerful producers, actors, and directors from stepping in and trying to claim all the credit (and resulting pay) without doing the bulk of the work.

Studios may have a very low opinion of writers and in some ways overvalue the job of rewriting, but they don't get a say here.

Ed Norton isn't listed as a producer on the new Hulk film but he could very well have been handicapped for being a fairly big star, with power over the script that hardly any writers ever achieve no matter how good they are. In other words, he butted up against a system designed to protect people like Zak Penn from people like Edward Norton and George Clooney -- and it kind of worked.

It worked because Penn, who wrote the first draft, has been rewarded for it. Norton will still get paid and likely has already been paid for his rewrites since those aren't tied to credit as far as I know, in sums that are probably larger than what Penn will get even with sole credit. That's just one of the scary ways things work out there.

Rewriting pays big, big money.

What I've not addressed is whether or not the decision is fair. With the hyphenate handicap, it's not fair at all, but it is what it is and unless something changes where writers aren't consistently pushed around and have their work co-opted by more powerful people who aren't full-time writers themselves, it needs to stay that way. And without being able to compare Zak Penn's draft with Norton's, there's no way for me to say what happened at all.

For all I or anyone else knows, this could be nothing more than a case where the arbitration committee looked at the scripts and decided that Norton didn't change hardly anything substantive, which is entirely possible. I've seen a couple of people who have read Norton's version that loved it that probably don't see those differences the same way a writer would, and naturally that arb committee is made up of nothing but writers. In their eyes it may not make any sense, but again, their judgment isn't the one that matters.

Though I think the decision can be appealed, I doubt it's worth the effort. To Norton, it's not much more than a point of pride with the payday he has coming for being the lead actor. For Penn, it's about keeping his career going. For lesser known writers than Penn, it's the difference between working on a movie set, or working in a movie theater -- metaphorically speaking.

I seriously doubt Penn's fee is even 1/5th what Norton's is, and probably not even 1/10th, and that's pretty much par for the course in the way writers are compensated. Is it any wonder that the WGA credits committee would lean towards protecting full-time writers under such conditions?
in Film


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