Writers direct their wrath at possessory credit

AS THE LEVEL OF ANGST continues to build over the so-called “possessory credit,” David Zucker deserves a pat on the back. On his new film, “BASEketball, ” the credits read: “A Universal Pictures release of a David Zucker Game.”

If Zucker had followed the lead of most of his colleagues, he would have called it “a film by David Zucker” or “a David Zucker Film.” In summers past, directors of the big, frivolous movies didn’t bother to flaunt the possessory credit, but now the tensions have heightened, as the credits on the new releases indicate. Despite the armies of skilled artisans laboring on these movies, “Armageddon” is “A Michael Bay Film” and “Lethal Weapon IV” is “A Richard Donner Film.”

And screenwriters, among others, are increasingly indignant about it. An ad hoc committee representing the most celebrated and highest paid writers has been meeting regularly to come up with a strategy to combat the directors’ credit grab. Their aim is a return to the old “directed by” credit, which implicitly leaves the writers a little room for self-respect. And they’re making their position known to the top studio executives in no uncertain terms. Among the writers believed to be active in the cause are Frank Pierson, Paul Attanasio, Aaron Sorkin and Shane Black, among others.

ANYONE READING THE latest issue of DGA Magazine, published by the Directors Guild of America, has to empathize with the writers’ viewpoint. In a series of interviews with directors of the big summer movies, one after another advances arguments favoring the possessory credit — arguments that by implication discount the contribution of writers.

There’s the “I was there every day” argument, epitomized by Michael Bay. “We had like seven or eight writers on ‘Armageddon,’ and they’re gonna say that they’re more responsible for the movie than me?” he asked. “I haven’t had a day off in a year and a half. I’d love to see a writer that didn’t have a day off in a year and a half.”

In his interview, Bay didn’t mention a writer named Michael Hensleigh who pondered, wrote and rewrote the story of “Armageddon” over a span of six years before he approached Bay about jointly presenting the project to Joe Roth at Disney.

Then there’s the “vision thing” propounded by Forest Whitaker. Explaining why he wanted his credit on “Hope Floats” to read “A Forest Whitaker Film,” he says, “That credit to me means that it’s from that point of view or vision. It’s like saying, ‘the storyteller is.’ ‘A film by Forest Whitaker’ is more about the complete spirit of the film instead of ‘directed by,’ which feels more technical to me.”

A screenwriter might argue that, technically, Whitaker’s actors read lines and, technically, those lines were written by a writer.

FINALLY, THERE’S THE “I am the boss” argument advanced by Randa Haines, who directed “Dance With Me.” The possessory credit is appropriate, says Haines, because she “is involved so intimately in every single decision that is made. All these things are set by the director in collaboration with the people you have chosen.”

If these “collaborators” are so important, one might argue, why assign a credit that diminishes their role? Indeed, this is the argument advanced by the lone holdout on the possessory credit issue, Martin Campbell, who directed “The Mark of Zorro.” Campbell declined to take a “film by” credit “Because I believe everybody contributes to the film, right down to the guy who opens the stage in the morning. If my name goes on, I think the other 150 crew should go on as well. I feel everybody’s contribution is valuable.”

Campbell’s magnanimity may be explained by the fact that he’s a New Zealander who got his start in London and lives in Provence. Hence, he’s immune to the Hollywood quest for immortality.

THE POSITION OF HIS DGA colleagues, however, seems to be hardening, and so is that of the top writers. Indeed, they’re talking to attorneys about their future strategy. Among their possible moves:

  • Top writers could give a preferential deal to a studio that pledges to banish the possessory credit. A “writers’ company” could even be formed to reward that studio with a flow of important projects.

  • The most prestigious writers could simply decline to write for directors who demand the possessory credit, favoring instead the Martin Campbells of the world.

Many writers agree that the least productive path would be to try to force a settlement via the Writers Guild. The WGA’s impotence was further demonstrated last week when the membership voted down a referendum endorsing a list of strategic goals, one of which embodied what the Guild ambiguously terms “creative rights.”

The vote principally seemed to be a shot at Brian Walton, the WGA’s embattled executive director — the referendum would have extended the early termination clause in his contract by one year.

Though the guild itself may be somewhat immobilized, top screenwriters working in the industry refuse to be inhibited in their quest. David Zucker may call his new movie “a game by David Zucker,” but to writers, the possessory credit issue is not an exercise in game playing. It strikes at the heart of their craft and their self-worth.

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