‘Film By’ case lacks clues and closure

IF I KNEW A GOOD PRIVATE EYE, I’d put him on the case of the disappearing crisis.

The “crisis” I’m referring to occurred several months ago when the town’s writers announced their intention to strike unless directors renounced the “film by” credit.

This was a gut issue, the writers said — the mother of all issues. What’s the point of creating a script only to find some kid director grabbing a possessory credit? This is war.

Or is it? A blur of events took place after these pronouncements. Directors drew a line in the sand. The writers, too, were adamant. Alarmed, the studios named a three-man committee to arbitrate, but their meetings hit the wall. There was even a secret peace meeting at Mr. Chow’s where the two sides argued over spring rolls and seaweed. It was deadlock time.

Clearly the town was about to shut down. Except the argument suddenly stopped. The mother of all issues simply vaporized.

But why? I’ve asked a number of people involved in the discussions and no one can give me a definitive answer. In fact, one of the key studio reps involved in the discussions openly admits, “It’s one of the most puzzling experiences I’ve ever had.”

BUT HERE’S THE MYSTERY behind the mystery: In letting the issue disappear, did the writers miss a golden opportunity?

According to some accounts, the directors came up with a breakthrough proposal in the midst of the talks. They offered to eliminate the possibility of first-time directors taking the “film by” credit. They also held out the possibility of barring the credit until a director’s fourth film — at the least the standard would become a “preferred practice.”

The three principal studio negotiators — Sherry Lansing, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Alan Horn — considered this a significant proposal. For once, the Directors Guild, repped by Gil Cates, John Frankenheimer and Martha Coolidge, was showing some sensitivity on an issue that had burned the egos of its writing colleagues. This was real movement.

But the Writers Guild apparently didn’t think so. According to those close to the talks, the writers didn’t bargain; they didn’t say the standard should be six or seven films, they just took the issue off the table.

In short, they snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Or so it seemed.

IF THE ENDING WAS SURREAL, so was the entire process. Many wondered why the writers put the touchy issue on the table to begin with, since it basically involves a disagreement between writers and directors, not the studios. From the outset it seemed a distraction from the economic issues, which were complex enough.

Faced with this dilemma, the studios appointed their extraordinary committee of three, who quickly realized that they were in for some marathon sessions.

Indeed, the meetings went on and on much to the special annoyance of Horn, a cryptic, businesslike individual who values his family time. Some writers said that Lansing was an especially earnest peace-maker, while Katzenberg was, as always, focused and eager to pursue the negotiations in the utmost detail.

While talks about credits were slow-moving, progress was made on other issues involving writers and directors. A code of preferred practices was hammered out mandating that writers would henceforth have access to film sets, premieres and press junkets, and that writers’ names would appear on call sheets. Further, when a new director started on a project in the future, he would have to meet with the existing writer before replacing him.

All this comes as good news for writers, except for the fact that these are all promises, not contractual commitments. The writers hoped for more, but didn’t get it.

SO WHY DID THEY table the “film by” issue? I asked them about it again last week. Indeed, I’ve asked several times.

“We’ll get back to you on that,” says one writer who was on the negotiating committee.

I still haven’t heard from him. Nor have I hired my private eye.

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