As a premise, it is surprisingly simple: a young musician who is the only person in the world to know the Beatles’ back catalogue forges a successful career by covering their songs. But the more complex question of who should get credit for the Hollywood film it became has put the opaque machinations of the film industry in the spotlight.
The idea ultimately became Yesterday, the Richard Curtis film directed by Danny Boyle and starring Himesh Patel, which made more than £125m at the box office worldwide. But Jack Barth, a writer whose work has appeared on The Simpsons, claimed last week he had not received the full credit he deserves for writing the original screenplay that provided the basis for the film.
In a piece on the culture website Uproxx, Barth explained how he came up with the idea in 2012, and with some help from the actor and writer Mackenzie Crook, drafted a screenplay that was eventually bought by Working Title, the British production company behind Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral. Barth agreed to a co-story by credit with Curtis, who retained the sole screenplay by credit as part of the deal.
“My assumption was that [Curtis] was going to produce it, maybe direct it,” Barth told the Guardian. “I thought he would be the guy shepherding it through. I had no idea that his plan was to turn it into a Richard Curtis film.”
Curtis declined to comment, but Working Title said Barth was “well paid” for his “great idea” and that Curtis wrote a script based on Barth’s original concept. The production company said Barth’s complaints came as a surprise, both to Curtis and to everyone else involved in the film. “There is no basis for them and we have explained that to Jack,” it added.
Barth said Working Title’s response did not address his main claim: that Curtis minimised his involvement in interviews and gave credit for his ideas to other people (including the comedian Sarah Silverman).
The response to Barth’s interview has been in large part bemused anger at how Hollywood operates. But for some inside the industry, the story is not so shocking.
Stephen Woolley, the Bafta-winning producer of The Crying Game, Mona Lisa and Carol, says the issue of credit can be tricky but the Yesterday situation is business as usual. “In the case of the Richard Curtis story it seems pretty cut and dried: they liked somebody’s script, and they bought it from them, and said ‘we’re going to give you this credit’.
“It’s a transparent situation really: someone sells something and later on they feel like they shouldn’t have. Most people’s sympathy is going to be with that person because we’ve all been in that situation.”
The saying “wherever there’s a hit, there’s a writ” is often used in Hollywood because of the number of high-profile plagiarism claims that emerge after a successful film is released. In 2018, several claims alleged Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning The Shape of Water had been inspired by other work, including a play and a short film about a female cleaner who comes to the aid of an amphibious creature in a lab. After the success of Notting Hill, another film written by Curtis and produced by Working Title, the screenwriter Nick Villiers filed a £10m lawsuit claiming his ideas appeared in the film. Working Title dismissed the claims as “nonsense” and said the legal action was typical of the industry.
Woolley’s experience of strict rules on writing credits revolves around Interview With the Vampire, the 1994 film he produced, which was based on Anne Rice’s novel. According to Woolley, the director Neil Jordan wrote a script based on Rice’s book, but it emerged Rice had also written a version and because of similarities, she was awarded the screenplay credit for the film by the Writers Guild of America (WGA).
“Neil never got credit for the writing, all of the credit went to Anne Rice,” says Woolley. “Looking back on it now it should have had a shared credit because up until the point of Neil’s script no one was interested in the project.”
Woolley says the WGA system of attributing credit can feel arbitrary and means writers who amend a script and get it to a point where it is attractive to directors can miss out on credit.
In the UK, the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB) guidelines outline the four main credit categories. “Written by” is “reserved exclusively for when the same writer has written both story and screenplay”. “Screenplay by” is used when a writer has made “a substantial written contribution to a screenplay”. “Story by” (the credit Barth received for Yesterday, shared with Curtis) and “screenstory by” are the same thing, but “where a story has been written for the screen from source material” the term "screenstory applies.
The WGGB said “things are stacked up, not necessarily in favour of the writer” and that funding, which is much easier to get for a film with an established name onboard, makes it even harder for new writers to break through.
Barth says he is happy to have his side of the story out in the open, and that if he could do it again he would probably reject the offer from Working Title. “There’s a good chance I would have held on to it and said, ‘I’d rather have the film be made as I see it’. And at that point, probably my producers would have just said, ‘well, good luck to you’.”