A rush to take some credit

Special to The Times

Hollywood isn’t known as a place where people are fond of sharing the glory. But there seems to be quite an expansive spirit of fellowship among the producers of the upcoming Warner Bros. film “Constantine.”

There are no fewer than 11 of them credited on the film, which is based on a comic-book series about a supernatural detective.

Unless the Producers Guild of America has some supernatural powers of its own, the sheer number of generously credited films such as “Constantine” suggests a tough road ahead for the guild’s recently announced “Truth in Credits” campaign.


Guild President Kathleen Kennedy, producer of such films as “Jurassic Park,” says the campaign’s goal is meant more as a “culture shift” than an attempt to punish chronic offenders. At the same time, though, the guild is threatening to pull out a new weapon: suing studios for false advertising in egregious cases of credit abuse. The guild has hired litigator George Hedges to help identify potential cases. (Hedges concedes that the false-advertising statute has never been deployed in this context but says it could work. At minimum, the guild might hope to sow some embarrassment.) The guild’s not naming any possible targets at this point.

The notion of a credits crackdown seems to have some support in the industry, though there are doubts that the guild can succeed. “It seems hard to put that genie back in the bottle, but I do understand their ire,” says Universal Chairwoman Stacey Snider. No studio has yet agreed to participate in the guild’s plan, which would allow the guild to employ retired federal and state judges to arbitrate who deserves a “produced by” credit in film and an “executive producer” in television.

In the case of “Constantine,” which stars Keanu Reeves and is scheduled for release in February, six people have the “produced by” credit that brings eligibility for the Academy Award -- including Lauren Shuler Donner, Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Akiva Goldsman, as well as Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker, 91, who own the rights to the Constantine comic character, and Reeves’ manager, Erwin Stoff.

Stoff acknowledges that some managers get undeserved credits, but he says that he actually does the work. (Stoff also was listed as executive producer on such films as “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me” when he represented Mike Myers, and “The Matrix,” and received the “produced by” credit for “Biker Boyz.”)

“I am not the least bit defensive,” Stoff says. “Everything that I’ve ever done, it was either my project from its inception or I was asked to come on by the studio and other producers.”

Stoff says Warner Bros. executive Bob Brassell asked him to read the “Constantine” script. Involvement grew after Reeves took the starring role. “Am I still doing my job as a manager or am I now overlapping with a producer’s responsibilities?” Stoff asks. “Now I’m interviewing directors and giving script notes. That’s how the drift starts.”


As for Uslan, he says he and Melniker found and acquired the property, and adds that he found a writer for the movie before approaching the studio. “Ben is such a legend, and everybody has great respect for him,” he says. “I believe this picture is a great example of everybody doing a great job, covering all the bases.”

Guild Vice President Marshall Herskovitz says that if a lawsuit is in the cards, it is likelier to involve a feature film rather than a TV project. That’s because the rules are clearer in the film world, while television credits are more of a Gordian knot. Nonetheless, many say that credit proliferation is rampant in both worlds. A former top network executive and a prominent producer say they both have been forced by some power player or another to award credit that was undeserved. “There are plenty of times I said no,” the executive says. “If it was something I felt I had to do and I lost, that resentment never went away.”

Though the guild won’t name names of repeat offenders, one of the most persistent complaints in Hollywood involves managers who get themselves “kissed onto” projects thanks to the clout of their star clients.

Chuck Binder, who used to represent Sharon Stone, is one of the few who is unembarrassed to admit that he didn’t really do the producer’s job. “If you as a manager deliver a star or director that makes a project go, why shouldn’t you get a producer credit?” he asks. These days, he says, some managers get credits just for delivering writers. He says the guild won’t be able to do anything about the problem.

Binder, who took a number of executive producer or co-producer credits, says he sees no reason why he shouldn’t have gotten a “produced by” credit, since the distinctions seem “cosmetic” to him. He adds that the practice also benefits the stars, who can avoid paying commissions to their managers by getting them a credit and fee instead.

Binder says he was willing to forgo the title for a price. When Stone starred in the 1998 film “The Mighty,” Binder says Miramax agreed to give him a credit but offered to pay more if he’d forgo it. He obliged. And he thinks that’s what studios will have to do if they give the guild the clout to crack down on credits. “They’re going to have to pay more to get the stars,” he says.


But Binder is unusual in his own self-appraisal. Most other managers say they do the work and get credit only when it’s due.

The other broad category of players cited as potential credit-abusers: studio executives. Miramax and New Line have been most open-handed, but the practice is spreading. Former New Line President Michael DeLuca says the practice originated from the days when the company was small and its founders did in fact produce the films. It continued as the company grew, partly to make up for salaries that were lower than the norm. “I tried never to [take a credit] unless the producer and director said OK,” De Luca says wryly. “But now that I’m a producer, I think it’s a horrible practice and it should end immediately.”

It’s been five years since Miramax Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein bounded on stage to accept the best picture award for “Shakespeare in Love.” The sight was an unwelcome one to many producers -- and not just the ones who lost that night.

It wasn’t just that a studio chief was elbowing his way into a place usually reserved for one of their own. It was also the fact that Weinstein wasn’t alone: Five producers trooped up to accept the top award that year. (Weinstein wouldn’t comment for this story.)

That was a tipping point, of sorts, in the proliferation of producer credits. That year, the academy changed its rules so that no more than three producers could be nominated for the best picture award. The following year, the Producers Guild created formal definitions for various producing functions and initiated an arbitration process to decide who was eligible for its own awards.

Yet those changes haven’t done much to stop the studios from handing out producers’ credits like party favors -- which is where the guild’s new campaign comes in.


The guild had also hoped to arbitrate the often-abused titles of executive producer, co-producer and associate producer. But at the suggestion of the studios, it is starting slowly, using a narrow laser to attack a disease that has metastasized widely. “We have to take this a step at a time,” says guild President Kennedy. “I don’t know any other way to do it.” But the guild says it will eventually widen its reach. “If a financier wants a credit, why isn’t that person identified as a financing partner?” asks Vance Van Petten, the guild’s executive director. If a party who owns rights to a property wants credit, he continues, they could receive “rights supplied by” or “owned by” credit. “That’s what we’re pushing toward. We stopped the snowball from moving in the wrong direction.”

But the situation is fraught with complications. There are producers who get the title because they bring star talent, money or ideas. There are those who get it because the studio actually benefits from awarding it. (For example, sources said Warner Bros. handed out a nominal role to an Australian producer on the original “Matrix” because the studio then got a tax break.)

The guild itself has given its stamp of approval to credits in some high-profile instances. When Weinstein received a “produced by” credit for “Gangs of New York,” the Miramax chief who stirred such controversy with “Shakespeare in Love” prevailed. (In addition, the guild approved a producer credit for DreamWorks principal Jeffrey Katzenberg on “Shrek.”) Such credits are legitimate, Van Petten says, when the executive involved has taken the equivalent of a leave of absence to work on a film. “Harvey ... went to Italy and worked for several months [on “Gangs”] because it was so close and dear to his heart,” Van Petten says.

But Van Petten says the guild has already demonstrated in arbitrations over awards nominations that it can make tough decisions. It declined to list writer David Franzoni as a producer of “Gladiator” even though Van Petten said he “definitely had some producing functions.” Also denied a credit was Jane Sindell, who obtained the rights to “Seabiscuit,” a film that lists guild President Kennedy among its producers. Even a mega-producer, Brian Grazer, was denied a credit for the television show “Sports Night.”

Some producer-managers say they have their own concerns about fairness in the arbitration process.

Binder says he doesn’t expect the guild to go after big-name producers, who may be spread so thin on projects that they could not possibly perform all the functions in the guild’s criteria. “I don’t want to name names, but how often are these producers really there?” Binder asks.


Even within the producer ranks, there are obstacles to the guild’s plan. Consider the attitude expressed privately by one of Hollywood’s most prominent producers, who dismisses the guild’s effort as just a way for less successful players to muscle in. “I don’t want to have collusion among all the producers. I don’t want to know the [other] producers,” he says. “In order to get Tom Cruise, if I have to give his bartender a credit, I’ll give his bartender a credit.”