The Director or the Writer: Whose Film Is It?
As the opening titles of the independent film “Our Song” played during a Sundance Film Festival screening earlier this year, the familiar phrase “A film by” popped onto the screen. But instead of writer-director Jim McKay’s name following, the screen filled with the names of every cast and crew member who had worked on the movie.
The crowd, composed largely of people who had taken nonmarquee jobs on this and other films, erupted in applause.
“I remember that, and I applauded it also,” Sundance founder Robert Redford said recently. “I think this has gotten out of whack.”
“This” is the escalating use of so-called possessory credits, the line in movie titles and ads that reads “A film by So-and-So,” “A So-and-So film” or “So-and-So’s ‘Film Title.’ ”
Such billing used to be reserved for the industry’s top directors, such as Frank Capra, David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock. But now the credit is taken by any director whose agent can successfully negotiate for it.
Bruce Paltrow got an above-the-title “A film by” credit for the critical and commercial dud “Duets,” the only feature he has directed aside from 1982’s “A Little Sex.” Sally Field took a similar credit for her directorial debut, “Beautiful,” an even bigger bomb. Neither of those directors received screenplay credits.
Such claims of film authorship, particularly by directors who didn’t write their movies, rankle the Writers Guild of America so much that abolishing the possessory credit is one of the union’s key demands in its upcoming negotiations with the studios on a new contract. That condition, plus others that try to give writers more prominent billing and creative control, could prove to be thorny in a negotiation expected to be so combative that the studios currently are rushing films into production to beat the May 1 strike deadline.
It also puts the Writers Guild on a collision course with the Directors Guild, whose current agreement with the studios, which expires in 2002, affirms a director’s right to take the possessory credit.
“At a time when the two guilds should be presenting a united front to the studios on issues such as residual payments and how to deal with new technologies, the WGA is seeking to expand the power of writers at the expense of directors and the product,” the Directors Guild charges in its official response to the Writers Guild’s proposals, as posted on the DGA Web site (at https://www.dga.org).
“It’s a big war over an apostrophe,” said Cheryl Rhoden, the Writers Guild’s assistant executive director.
The possessory credit dates back to cinema’s earliest days, with films such as D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915) or Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Ten Commandments” (1923 and again in 1956), according to a summer 1998 DGA Magazine history of the credit. Until the mid-1960s, no uniform standards for possessory credits existed, so anyone theoretically could negotiate for such status.
But at the end of 1966, the Writers Guild and the Assn. of Motion Picture and Television Producers ratified an agreement that limited “A film by” credit to a filmmaker who had written the screenplay or the movie’s source material. The Directors Guild was furious and talked strike.
In a cable to a DGA committee meeting, reprinted in DGA Magazine, Lean wrote, “Take my own latest case, ‘David Lean’s film of “Dr. Zhivago.” ’ I worked one year with the writer. Unlike him, I directed not only the actors but the cameraman, set designer, costume designer, sound men, editor, composer and even the laboratory in their final print. Unlike him, I chose the actors, the technicians, the subject and him to write it. I staged it. I filmed it. It was my film of his script, which I shot when he was not there.”
A strike was averted when the studios and producers agreed to restore the director’s right to negotiate individually for any credits when the Writers Guild contract expired in 1970.
“Thirty years ago, when the Writers Guild gave up a measure of control as to who received the credit, the commitment that was made by the companies was that it would be reserved for a handful of directors who had a significant body of work, like Hitchcock or Capra,” Rhoden said. “Now it’s proliferated to the point where someone right out of film school gets it.”
The chief objection, she added, is that “the credit that says ‘A film by’ makes it sound like one person, a director, is responsible for the film, and it denigrates the writer. A director can’t direct from a blank page. An actor can’t perform from a blank page.”
Kevin Smith, who has written and directed each of his four features without taking a “film by” credit, agreed.
“A film is probably the most collaborative art form there is,” the filmmaker of “Clerks” and “Dogma” said. “No one person makes a movie. So taking that ‘A film by’ kind of leaves everybody out.
“I write and I direct, and those are the credits I take. Saying ‘a film by’ means that there were no grips, there was no crew, there was no producer, there was no PA [production assistant] that got the star to the set when you needed them.”
Rod Lurie said DreamWorks initially included “A film by Rod Lurie” on its advertising for “The Contender,” which he wrote and directed, until he requested that the credit be removed.
“It’s simply a piece of arrogance to have it on your first or second or third work,” Lurie said, though he admitted a possessory credit appeared on his 1999 debut, “Deterrence.” “Even more importantly, I’m not going to be taking an authorial credit on any more of my films until the Writers Guild is satisfied with the policy of having those possessory credits on film. I feel very strongly bonded to the WGA.”
But Robert Altman, who long ago achieved “A film by” stature, called the Writers Guild “full of [it]” for its attempts to limit directors’ credits.
“The writer does the basis of the film, but it is not the film,” he said. “The writer is a major, major collaborator, but the writer is not as important as the actors. Nobody’s as important as the actors. The actors come in and put [the script] to life and make the changes in that dialogue.”
Still, Altman added, “if they said you can no longer give directors that credit, that doesn’t bother me at all.”
Darren Aronofsky, whose “A film by” credit appears above the title of his second film, “Requiem for a Dream,” defended the practice as long as the director was involved in the writing.
“I think a film is ‘A film by’ someone if it’s written and directed by one person,” he said. “I think if the writing credit is shared with the director, then it can also be ‘A film by,’ but if it’s a director who’s adapting someone else’s work, then maybe there is an argument that the ‘A film by’ credit is overused.”
The gray area is that some directors have more of a personal imprint than others. Hitchcock didn’t take writing credits, yet his works rightfully belong to the genre of “Hitchcock movies.” Filmmakers such as Aronofsky and Quentin Tarantino have fewer films under their belts, but their works boast a distinctive style, certainly more so than Donald Petrie, whose numerous credits include “Grumpy Old Men,” “My Favorite Martian” and the upcoming “Donald Petrie film,” “Miss Congeniality.”
Smith conceded that “a Quentin Tarantino film” or “a Spike Lee Joint” has marketing power, although he’s insisted that his own films be advertised with lines like “from the people that did ‘Clerks.’ ”
“What really burns [me] is when you have guys who have made one movie and they throw their name out there, ‘A film by such-and-such,’ ” Smith said. “What does that mean to anybody? It means nothing for marketability, so really it comes down to that director just wanting to stand out as the person who did the entire thing . . . and that’s so not the case.”
Despite the theory that the director is a film’s auteur, Lurie contended that the writer can be “the true author of the movie. When David Mamet writes a screenplay, that’s his movie; I don’t care who directs it. When Tarantino wrote ‘True Romance,’ that’s a Quentin Tarantino movie, in my opinion.”
But Aronofsky said he still would tilt the scale in favor of the director.
“I think a director’s involvement with a movie is a lot more significant in some cases than a writer’s connection to a film,” he explained. “I’ve only done films that I’ve written, but when I split it up in my own head, definitely directing is more time-consuming than writing. A director lives with a movie for three years every single day, and a writer in general is about six months of work, and some writers are even under that. I don’t think it’s the same sort of job.”