Where credit may be due

Fewer helmers using 'A Film By . . ." designation

It hasn’t gone away, but the possessory credit is becoming less fashionable.

During the 1990s, more than 70% of directors took the “A Film By . . .” credit, according to WGA surveys; unofficial tallies now place the figure well under 50% for major-studio releases.

Among the prominent helmers not taking the credit: Steven Soderbergh, Clint Eastwood, Sam Mendes, Joel Coen, Gore Verbinski, Stephen Daldry, Rob Marshall, Frank Darabont, Phil Alden Robinson, Curtis Hanson, Chris Nolan, Gary Ross and Woody Allen. “What’s happened is akin to the result of the campaign against wearing fur — people just don’t do it as much anymore,” one top showbiz attorney asserts.

“Directors have become more likely to say they don’t feel that they need to take a possessory credit because film is such a collaborative medium,” says Robinson, who has worn both hats as director (“The Sum of All Fears”) and co-chief of the WGA’s Screenwriters Council. “But there’s still no groundswell toward all directors refusing to take it.”

Still, the WGA’s campaign against the credit appears to have connected with a growing number of Hollywood directors. Of course, it’s the Writers Guild and its anti-possessory activists who are most eager to get out the new.

“Maybe directors have been influenced by the fact that it has been a very divisive issue in the past,” notes director John Carpenter, who usually includes his name in the title (“John Carpenter’s Ghosts of Mars”). “Plus, it’s probably not as big an issue for directors coming in from musicvideo and commercials.”

That’s not to say the matter is closed. The topic can still inflame feelings persisting from the WGA’s campaign in 2001 to threaten a strike over the credit, deeming its use by directors as nothing less than an assault on the writer’s role in the moviemaking.

At a recent “Writers on Writing” gathering, two-time Oscar winner William Goldman drew loud applause from the 600 writers in attendance when he said about the credit, “It’s awful because it’s a lie.”

What particularly rankles, Goldman explained, was that the term “a film by” implies the director also wrote the film. “In fact, most directors are not good writers,” he added.

The key development, according to WGA East credits committee chief Stephen Schiff (“True Crime”) is that it’s become “less cool” to take the credit even when a director (such as Curtis Hanson) has also written the film. “When someone takes the credit, it betrays every other member of the collaborative team, and I think that message has started to seep into the consciousness of the industry,” he adds.

Still, plenty of directors continue to take the “Film By” credit. In the past year’s releases, it was used by top-tier vets like Steven Spielberg (“Catch Me if You Can”), Roman Polanski (“The Pianist”) Martin Scorsese (“Gangs of New York”) and Jonathan Demme (“The Truth About Charlie”) as well as newcomers like Wych Kaosayananda (“Ecks vs. Sever”). Agents say once it’s granted, it becomes a routine deal point on subsequent projects.

The rationale is fairly simple — it reflects the idea directors are ultimately the most responsible for the film. Directors have contended the credit should be available to anyone who can negotiate it — including producers or prominent writers such as Stephen King.

Writer Terry Rossio (“Shrek,” “Pirates of the Caribbean”) believes, at the core, it’s a question of control. “You want the highest level of status possible within the Hollywood community, and the credit is a way to say the director has more weight over what’s on the screen,” he adds.

To an outsider, the dispute must seem a bit overheated. Director Frank Darabont believes the rest of the world doesn’t even notice, and recalls he was once asked his opinion on the possessory credit while doing a Q&A with a theater full of industry pros (mostly DGA and WGA members) after watching a screening of “The Green Mile.”

“When I mentioned that I don’t take the possessory credit, a gasp of surprise went up — my point here being that if several hundred intelligent and interested fellow members of both guilds hadn’t noticed one way or the other having just watched one of my films, I’ll bet a year’s residuals the public doesn’t either,” he notes. “Our moms and agents may give a damn, but I’m pretty sure they’re the only ones.”

The origin of the credit dates back to D.W. Griffith but its use took hold during the 1950s and ’60s as a marketing tool for such high-profile directors as Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean. Carpenter asserts Andrew Sarris’ 1967 book “The American Cinema” also played a key role in elevating the director’s profile.

“The auteur theory caught on back then and the director began to be seen as this dashing artist,” he notes.

Bad blood between the DGA and the WGA began in 1966 when the WGA negotiated with studios to limit the credit to writers in 1966. That prompted a lawsuit and brief strike in 1968 by the DGA to undo that agreement.

By the 1990s, most directors were taking the credit routinely, even first-time helmers. So while running for WGA West president in 1999, John Wells declared writers would strike unless they were recognized as “the central creative force.”

So the DGA responded aggressively, blasting the WGA over its demand for abolition of the credit along with the demands for the right to visit sets, view dailies and participate in press junkets.

“It was a jihad,” Carpenter recalls. “The DGA is a very strong guild and we can mobilize against any challenge.”

When faced with the prospect of actually taking its members out on strike on creative issues, the WGA leaders felt compelled to compromise. Wells later admitted issues like the possessory credit were too hot to handle — even though directors presented a compromise plan, rejected by writers, to withhold “A Film By” credit from first-time directors. Instead, writers drafted a “code of preferred practices” to give them writers more access to film sets and other input. It’s too early to tell if such gains will be enough to keep writers from again demanding elimination of the credit. And tougher economic times may lead to the scribes focusing on monetary issues when the current pact expires in May 2004.

“I can’t bring myself to get worked up about the credit,” Darabont says. “Hopefully, it won’t be something the more militant factions of the WGA and the DGA choose to go to war over in future contract negotiations.”

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