A group of top-ranking producers including Dawn Steel, Arnold Kopelson, Richard Zanuck, Lawrence Gordon and Howard Koch are livid over a new contractual credits clause that they feel significantly lessens their prestige.

The clause, negotiated by the studios with the Writers Guild of America, switches the positions of writers and producers on film credits.

Zanuck said the group is formulating plans to meet next week and to hire a D.C.-based labor attorney to fight the issue in court, if necessary.

He also said an arbitration committee is being set up to rule on producer credits – specifically to exclude managers and attorneys from getting producer credit on pix with which they are only marginally involved.

“We were shocked and dismayed that our credit could be moved with out any kind of consultation,” said Zanuck, producer of “Driving Miss Daisy.” “It’s something that we’ve had for a great number of years. It was an unfair and arbitrary act to have done this. We, as producers, are not going to sit still for this. We’re not just going to accept this.”

The WGA negotiated with the Alliance of Motion Picture & TV Producers, which reps the studios, to place the writer credit just before the director’s at the beginning of the film. The producers, who have no formal negotiating body other than the Producers Guild, are crying foul over the slight.

“As a former practicing attorney, I would seek to examine all of the facts and circumstances surrounding this situation before I could forecast whether we would be bringing a class action on behalf of all producers of motion pictures,” said Arnold Kopelson, who is producing “Outbreak” at Warner Bros, and “Seven” at New Line Cinema.

“Suffice it to say, we are deeply distressed that the producers’ rights have been impaired without discussion or representation. It is the producers who create the project and make it happen. It seems like there has been a disregard for our rights. It’s something that we are not going to take lightly,” Kopelson added.

Gordon, producer of “Die Hard,” said, “It’s not proper for someone to remove something that we’ve had and become accustomed to without even saying hello.”

AMPTP chief negotiator J. Nicholas Counter could not be reached. The Writers Guild had no comment.

But Roger Simon, a member of the negotiating team for the WGA, said the AMPTP officials gave up the credit placement without a fight.

“It was one of the first things they gave us,” Simon said. “It was not subject to much dispute. I think they recognized that we were right. The writer and director are the creative authors of the movie.”

Steel, a former studio exec turned producer (of “Cool Runnings” and the upcoming “Angus”) said the AMPTP couldn’t be blamed for the concession.

“This was a painless give for them,” she said. “Having sat before on that side of the table, I probably would have done the same thing. I’m not blaming them. They did what they had to do to get a contract.”

But she added that this issue may galvanize the producers, who have never functioned as a group. “This issue is a lightning rod that will hopefully bring us together,” she said.

Other sources however, blamed the AMPTP for ignoring the producers. “This is shocking that they would do this without talking to the leadership of the Producers Guild. They failed. They get an F for diplomacy and good manners,” said one outraged producer.

For years the producer took the last credit before the film started. But more than three de cades ago the Directors Guild of America negotiated to snag the final opening credit for its members. Steel described the past 30 years as a dwindling of producer status in Hollywood.

“The image of the producer has come a long way down from the days of David O. Selznick,” she said. “Now we’re in the Rodney Dangerfield school of studio management. We get no respect.”

One source however, pointed out that the producer is still the one who picks up the Oscar when a film wins as best picture.

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