I’ve nothing against directors. The men and women who make magic with movie cameras have much to offer the civilized world. Skill, talent, vision. Some have an uncanny knack with those sometimes prickly artists we like to call actors. Others are technical wizards who find their primal purpose standing at the center of production chaos. I appreciate and applaud them.

But are they authors? Or auteurs as the French so impolitely coined? Deserving of a possessory credit? Name before the title. A Scooby-Doo Film or a Film by Scooby-Doo or if Scooby-Doo were to follow Spike Lee’s example – A Scooby-Doo Joint.

The fight over that damned credit is age-old. Tired even. Argued time and again, litigated in countless articles and argued across collective bargaining tables. So why am I writing about it? Well, I’m not going to bore you with my opinion. I can though illuminate the subject with a couple of encounters I’ve had with directors who’ve been willing to cross barbs on the thorny issue.

A director friend and I were on our way to lunch when the issue bubbled up while I was parked at a stoplight.

“I like the ‘film by’ credit,” argued my director friend. “If you think about the process of making a film it makes total sense.”

“What part of it makes sense?” I asked.

“I’m not taking anything away from writers,” said my director friend. “But a writer writes the film only once. A director writes it three times.”

“Three times?”

“Yes. A director writes the film when he storyboards it. He writes it again when he shoots it. He writes it a third time when he edits it.”

“So?”

“So that’s why a director’s job can seem more important than the writer’s. Considering all a director does.”

“And deserving of an additional film credit.”

“The ‘film by’ credit isn’t an extra credit. It’s another credit that says what the director did is has more value. It’s film. It’s about the medium.”

“Well, not withstanding the part where a writer often writes and rewrites and retools his script over and over again, he’s written it many times more than the director can claim.”

“But he’s also writing for the director.”

“Or the producer or the studio or the star,” I added.

“You’re not hearing me,” said my director friend.

“I’m hearing that you want the ‘film by’ credit because you want to assume some form of authorship.”

“It says that I’m the man who made this film,” confirmed the director.

“And what did I do?”

“You wrote the film. But writers write on paper. That’s their medium. A director paints with film.”

“I might argue that you didn’t paint the film,” I said. “But that you indeed directed the film.

“But sometimes a director does more than just stand on the set and direct.”

“Which is why in your opinion you deserve the additional credit?”

“… Yes.”

“Hear me out,” I said. “A director gives notes to the writer because that’s part of his job. A director storyboards the film because that’s part of his job. A director shoots the film because that’s part of his job. A director edits the film because that’s part of his job. It’s called directing. That’s why the director gets a directing credit.”

Thinking I’d handed my friend enough rope, I wondered if he was ready to hang himself. Then came the following humdinger:

“You still don’t understand,” said my director friend. “It’s more than all that. And very personal to me.”

“Oh, I think I understand just fine,” I teased.

“It’s not about authorship as much as the ‘film by’ credit says… I’m proud of the film.”

“Proud?”

“Exactly.”

“So when I’m watching the movie. And the titles come on. And I see ‘A (director’s name here) Film’ I should read it as the director’s proud of his work.”

“Yes. I’m presenting my film.”

“As something you’re very proud of.”

“Exactly.”

“So why not take that credit. Instead of ‘a film by’ it says ‘by the way (director’s name here) is really proud of this movie.’”

“That would look stupid,” laughed my director friend.

“Thus, my sharply pointed point,” I jabbed.

“Are we really having this argument?” said my director friend, wanting to change the subject. “And where are we going for lunch again?”

“I’m not done,” I said.

“Of course you’re not done. You’re a writer. You’re never done.”

“If the ‘film by’ credit says you’re proud of the film. What if the film didn’t turn out so well?”

“What if the movie sucks?”

“Yeah. Your movie and it blows chunks.”

“Then I don’t want the ‘film by’ credit.”

“But it’s still your film.”

“You said the film sucks.”

“Yes. Your film. And let’s say it sucks. It’s still your film. Based on your criteria, you made it three times. Storyboards. Production. Editing. Yours, yours, and yours again. But you still reserve the right to remove your precious ‘film by’ credit because the movie didn’t turn out as planned?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Are you serious? What about the writer? If the film sucks do you think I should be able to take my name off the film?”

“Not talking about the writing credit or the directing credit. We’re talking about the ‘film by’ credit.”

“You’re proud of the film?” I confirmed. “You should get the ‘film by’ credit. Not so proud? You should be able to turn it down.”

“I think that sounds fair,” he said.

“Never mind that you’re only getting the credit because it’s something a lawyer negotiated for you.”

The discussion ended because we’d arrived at our destination. Waiting inside was another writer pal with whom the director had asked for an introduction. I’m sure his instincts were to sever the argument before he had two word jockeys ganging up on him. That and I felt it wasn’t worth endeavoring further into his thinly-veiled ego masquerading as weak rationalization.

Now mind you. I don’t want to come off as a whining writer who finds it easy sport to bitch about narcissistic filmmakers. If I don’t care for the game I don’t have to play. And what keeps me from directing a film in order to hoist my own good name before the picture’s title? Aside from good sense, not a thing.

As for authorship of a film I subscribe to a simple axiom. The writer who first pens the tale is the author. Everything after, including work by subsequent writers, is interpretive. Equally valuable. Artful even. Hell, I’m as much of a fan of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans as anybody else.

Aside from ego, the only true value of the ‘film by’ credit is in marketing. If that name before the title drives box office, then by all means print it large and loud.

My aforementioned director pal isn’t the only filmmaker I’ve parried with. There was once a particular A-Lister with whom I’d been developing a film. He was a nice enough guy. Decent with story. And a closet germaphobe. How in Hades we got about discussing the idiotic ‘film by’ credit I haven’t a glimmer. The A-Lister’s Mr. Nice Guy act faded quickly, revealing his megalomaniacal bite.

“What a director does when making his film far outweighs the work of the writer,” said the A-Lister. “The directing credit isn’t enough, thus making the ‘film by’ credit not only necessary, but righteous.”

I did my usual marketing, seeing how much rope I could sell the A-List snob before he had enough to fashion a noose to fit his snap-worthy neck. Once our argument ended, I asked if I could use his private bathroom. And though I made sure to wash my hands after I’d done my business, I waited to flush until the moment I was ready to step back into the meeting. With the unmistakable sound of toilet water swirling behind me, I made sure to give a friendly pat to the A-Lister as I returned to my seat. His eyebrows furrowed. Then before I could count to five, he stood and excused himself in order to secretly scrub off whatever bacteria he feared I’d deposited on him.

I did this again and again, three meetings in a row, inciting the same phobic reaction from the arrogant S.O.B. I wonder if it was the smirk on my face that tipped my act to the director’s producing partner.

“That’s really really mean,” chuckled the producing partner.

“My way of protesting the ‘film by’ credit,” I said.

The producer howled with laughter, eliciting a response from the A-Lister, still closeted in his private bathroom.

“What’s so damn funny?” he shouted from behind the door.

Had I been frank enough to tell him, it might’ve ended the painful studio pitch meetings that followed. But that’s for another blog.

I’ve had great working experiences with directors who were respectful to what the writer brought to the party. Then there’s the obvious other side of that coin. The big time filmmakers who look at the writer as some kind of disposable wipe, easily replaced with a flick of a thin wrist. Like I said before, much has been written about that kind of relationship. It’s tired.

But here’s a little thought nugget. I’ve shared barstools with screenwriters who’ve compared the importance of directors with that of those famed monkeys utilized in the Mercury space program. I don’t entirely agree. But I wouldn’t be surprised if someday in the future the monkeys organize and demand that NASA erect a monument in the name of monkey pride.

Read my new thriller, THE SAFETY EXPERT. Available in trade paperback and ebook at Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • Guinea Pig

    I’ve wracked my brains for a reason why screenwriters are often looked on as the doormat everyone else (including the tea lady) wipes their feet on as they enter the room and I have yet to find one.

    Screenwriters, directors, actors, gaffers, producers, sparks, DOPs, carpenters and yes, even the tea ladies, and a million other people, all contribute to making a film. Without one of those elements, the film would not exist.

    Of course the director is very important and should have his name last on the credits. But without the writer, it would be simply impossible for the director to start his part of the job.

    Maybe that’s the issue. Maybe some directors are just pissed that they didn’t come up with the story. And they know that without the writer, there is nothing.

  • paul

    I have always been fascinated by the not so pretty human trait of wanting to glorify one’s own work through the denigration of other work. It totally exists in every realm until some huge event comes along to crush the vanity of everyone pointing at someone’s else’s job and saying it’s not really work, or their work is far greater, or whatever…, but soon enough things seem to shift back to status quo. It’s like the central human challenge is having to overcome ego. It’s quite laughable at times methinks.

    • Whaddayou think, Paul. Should I ad a “blog by” credit in addition to my name on the site?

      • paul

        Not only a “blog by” credit, Doug. I’m thinking a ‘thoughtform’ domain patent enforced by wizards who throw lightning and stuff.

  • It’s a great article, Doug.

    As a fledgling director, I view things a bit differently. Yes, I loved that moment when my name rolled (repeatedly) in credits.

    Never again.

    Film is (to me) a collaborative art form… and when I read that “your” director granted himself three levels, I cringed.

    Why?

    Because I work with a cinematographer. We talk shots together, we create our lists, and then I decide. I’ve become very comfortable (finally) with dictating style, etc, but I will always listen to my DP.

    Because I work with an editor. Case in point – I’m in post on a project I co-wrote with my partner and directed. We worked with our editor for weeks… and then, one night, he played in the sandbox. Alone. Result? “OMG. Fuck yeah.”

    I work with actors. At table reads. I listen to them as they speak dialog; I leave the door open for discussions. I listen to them, and then make choices based on their input (invaluable) and my gut.

    Of course, I’ve only written for the web. Or, rather, been greenlit for it.

    I guess that takes the pressure off. Then why is my BP so fucking high?

    At the end of the day, I gravitate towards collaboration, although H’wood seems to be becoming increasingly uncollaborative.

    :/

    • Okay folks. You heard it right here. We will never see “A film by Princess Scribe?”

      • Never say never but I hope that my heart will prevail and I will always be about the team. Unless it’s mine, goddamit, mine. 😉

  • I’m a Writer/Director/Producer – and they’re all separate jobs with different roles and responsibilities (and credits). And much as I love the 2nd two, none of them could exist without the 1st.

    It all starts with the writer, the writing, the written page. That is, truly, who CREATED the universe, the world, the characters, the DRAMA, the STORY to be told.

    And, not to add fuel to the flame, because I agree with you Doug, absolutely, if anything, it should be “A Film By All of Us” (because it is), but isn’t that already what that long list of individual credits represents?

    Your friend’s points make themselves (though he doesn’t seem to be aware of them): while a Director is indeed, the helmer, the Quarterback, and undeniably, hopefully, the creative vision that prudently hires and effectively manages all the talented craftspeople, who inspires, empowers and liberates everyone to bring their best to execute a SHARED vision to fruition, usually, it’s a Storyboard Artist who is hired to storyboard the film’s shots; a Cinematographer is hired to shoot the film and an Editor is hired to edit – those are their jobs – each contributing to making the film again in their way – that the Director oversees.

    And let’s not forget the critical Casting Director who helps paint with faces and personalities, the Production Designer who envisions and manifests the whole world, the Actors who breathe life into the characters on the page along with the Glam Squad Keys who add color and fabric to bring them even more to life, the Location Scout and Manager who sets all this against cool and interesting backdrops and settings, the Special Effects and Stunt teams who make it all so exciting, the DIT who protects all the digital footage and the Crafties who keep everyone happy and fed. The ADs and PAs who keep the machine running…the list goes on and on.

    And what about who created the momentum and the possibility in the first place? The too oft-maligned Producers who discovered the material and were smart enough to recognize its merit and resourceful enough to cobble together the ballsy investors to pay everyone and pull it off?!

    The hubris of slapping that credit on a film to, admittedly, the center cog, is an insult to all those TEAM MEMBERS who make the film roll.

    • Wow. Feel like I opened up a can of worms here. Think there’s more words in the commentaries than the blog itself. Thanks for your contribution, Heather.

  • Doug, I’m impressed. How did you manage to continue driving without running his side of the car into a “Stop” sign? 😛

    Here’s what I tell directors who’ve had the savvy sense to take a good script to the screen: “Well done, you found the right material! Where will you look next?”

    For some directors, the alchemy of bringing something to visual life is the only magic that exists. They forget, however, that there’s an alchemy without which they couldn’t make a single move. The writer pulls the story from thin air. That’s a hell of a trick, one many directors haven’t the skill or patience to master.

    You may also ask them how they would feel if someone remade their film and said it was their film. What if they had written the source film themselves? I guarantee there’d be a grand debate about “based on” credits and names in large fonts. And what of the “adapted screenplay” credit in cases where stories are taken from other literary properties? How did these wheel cogs get between the director and “his” grand vision? And if film is character, what are we to make of all these comic book films with established characters and how they play a role in the director’s “more important” stature?

    The director is part of the big conduit that brings cinema to life. Unfortunately, the non-writing variety tend to overstate their step in the process. Those who understand it tend to praise their influences and mention the script as “the reason they took the job”. Even Tarantino comes off as more “fanboy” than “auteur”.

    I totally agree with you about the marketing aspect of the on-screen credit, and I don’t mean to demean the demands of a director’s job. But if you watched your wife give birth and then held the babe aloft shouting “look what I just did!”, well, you’d probably have a hard time getting more work, too. 🙂

  • Rob E

    Interesting.
    i was never bothered by “Film By” when it was by a writer / director like Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino. But when certain directors do it, it seems purely ego maniacal.
    (Especially knowing the tales of a few writers who had their stuff butchered by some famous Helmers, including some recently departed directors).

    After reading this, however, i think i was wrong. Just because you wrote/directed it doesn’t mean you did the cinematography, etc.

    Perhaps “El Mariachi” is one of the few which could wear the “Film By” title and not be looked at askance.

    Great Piece, Doug. Food for thought. Thanks for sharing.

  • I always thought a good compromise is

    A
    Writer’s Name
    Tale

    As Told By
    Director’s Name

    The only problem is it kinda falls apart with adaptations and things with multiple writers.

    • Again I ask. What’s wrong with “written by” and “directed by” and leave it there? Thanks Asim.

  • clive

    The way I’ve always looked at it, is that if you have the “film by” credit you have to sell your body and soul to the distribution company, because you’ve then got to do all the press tours to promote “your” picture.

    The “film by” credit is about selling the director as a brand. It’s more to do with marketing than it is with any real sense that the credit is earned. Except in the sense that director X, has built a reputation with audiences of picking good projects and not totally messing them up.

    Really, when it’s all said and done, who wants to spend months sitting in hotel rooms being, breathing in journalist’s farts, whilst being asked about what it’s like to work with “insert name of lead actor?” When the only answer you can contractually give is “He’s a great guy/girl, great to work with,” even if they were a complete shit, who made every day of the shoot a living hell.

    The director may not literally be the author of the piece, but I can’t imagine many writers who would swap rolls with them, given the choice. Personally, you couldn’t pay me to direct again. Give me the keyboard and mug of tea any day of the week.

  • Cillian Daly

    When I made shorts in college I’d precede it with “a film by” because in those days, I’d have written, cast, directed, produced (paid for) and edited the thing. However, if it sucked, and oh so many did, I’d state at the top that “What you are about to see is terrible and the responsibility of…” or something to that effect. Only one name ever featured then: mine. I’d also remind any unfortunate audiences at the end too.
    I can understand the tradition of putting “a film by” at the start, but to be honest, I usually look right past it. I can accept a Cameron, Speilberg or Scott throwing it up there, but a 20-something straight out of college or music video school? Please!

    If ou didn’t at least write AND direct it, it ain’t yours to claim.

    Ok I’m done!

  • Clive

    Who deserves the praise for physco Stefano/bloch/hitch ? They say bloch got six hundred dollars for the rights.

    Tim Burton, an auteur made a film about an auteur ed wood- In black and white! It didn’t make any money!

    Now there’s a film about Hitch (in colour).

  • clive

    This second Clive isn’t me… I’m the first Clive! LOL

  • Agree with most of the above – film is a collaborative process and everyone deserves proper credit, so “Film By” is pretty arrogant in MOST cases. If it’s some legendary genius, then maybe fair enough.

    But based on what I’ve seen: you can have a terrible indie with a director who has no idea what he’s doing but a talented DOP who saves the day. And on a bigger movie, you’re gonna struggle without an excellent First AD….

  • When I created a few Youtube clips I put ‘A ScifiAliens Production’ on both of them. It’s my username on a lot of Internet sites and the domain name for my own website. Although I tried to get others interested in collaboration in the end it was forget it or do it myself. I made sure to recognize and thank the museum that allowed me to take pictures.

    Back then I didn’t know how to find others who were also interested in film. I’d have been happy to have someone to share credits with. And the end results may not have been so Scooby-Doo-ish.

    The auteur issue may be one of those things the film industry would have been happier without. But I’m in full agreement with you that someone who wants the ‘film by’ credit should not be able to remove it if the movie flops.

  • “…the only true value of the ‘film by’ credit is in marketing.”

    This, I think, is the senior consideration. It would be hard not to refer to a Hitchcock film as anything but ‘a film by Alfred Hitchcock’ regardless of the credits on the screen because of all the brand identifiers in the product. This in no way demeans the contribution of Ernie Lehman or Bernard Herrmann and others without whom Hitchcock wouldn’t be Hitchcock.

    Every time I’ve directed, I also wrote the script, so this discussion never arises on my personal films. However, my connection to A-listers has me selling original story ideas for others to work and rework. From that position, I am too distanced from the final result to expect anything but ‘From an original story by…’ (if that).

    I think every project has a star. For me, The Hospital and Network were Paddy Chayefsky films. The Star Wars films were George Lucas films. Anything with Steve McQueen was a Steve McQueen film (with all due respect to Sam Peckinpah, Norman Jewison et al, not to mention Walter Hill and Jim Thompson).

    In the end, it usually comes down to which of the elements involved has the greater following but this is a great topic to keep alive.

    • … Or Clint Eastwood movies. John Wayne movies. Or those Earnest movies. Wonder if there was a film by credit on those.

  • Katterfelto

    Great article, Doug! I enjoy your conversational, unpretentious blog, and am a great fan of your writing. (“Dark Horse” was bat-shit crazy and brilliant.)

    With the world’s densest concentration of creative talent, it’s not surprising to find personality issues in Hollywood. Artists are passionate, complex people, and writers are among the prickliest. I know this because I am one. Add a toxic dose of ego, greed, and insecurity to the volatile mix–usually contributed by directors, producers, studio heads, and other creatures even further up the drainpipe–and my only wonder is that more writers aren’t murderers. Lord knows, we spend enough time thinking about it.

    But it’s not just the heavy hitters. I once collaborated on an indie project with a guy we’ll call Bob, whom I had considered a good friend. We had known each other for years, but had never worked together. The minute he came aboard, he morphed into egois horribilis, the most insecure, credit jumping, megalomaniac control freak I had ever encountered, and that’s up against some pretty stiff competition. I wanted to strangle this guy at least once a day. If it hadn’t been such a short shoot, I might have. I wrote the damned thing, and to this day he continues to take credit for it. It’s remarkable how some individuals’ sense of their own importance can be grotesquely distorted by the faintest whiff of fame or good fortune.

    In a weird way, Bob’s near-sociopathic covetousness is a ringing endorsement. If the writing were no damn good, he wouldn’t want so desperately to take credit for it.

    My favorite story about directoral hubris is the apocryphal anecdote about Frank Capra’s longtime scribe, Robert Riskin, who, weary of hearing Capra attribute the brilliance of his Riskin-penned films to the “Capra touch,” reportedly sent Capra a blank manuscript with a note inviting the director to “put the Capra touch on this.”

    Producer Robert Evans, himself no slouch in the self-esteem department, voiced one of the simplest and truest axioms about the importance of screenwriting:

    “You can have stars up the ass, but if it’s not on the page, it’s not on the screen.”

  • James Hornsby

    So many Napolean’s, so little time.

  • Margit

    Thanks for the post! It’s something that’s been on my mind for a long time and something that is very frustrating, seeing credits in the cinema as well as developing projects with directors. Some say (often scholars, annoyingly, and more recently, editor of Sight & Sound magazine) that the script is on the paper and then it disappears. What? Where does it disappear? It’s on the screen! The writer is also a filmmaker. It gets me very angry when writers are treated like secretaries, ‘writing the film for the director’. No, a writer is an author, a creative, who is legally covered by author’s rights (copyright), which a carpenter or a gaffer on the set is not. A screenwriter does the same job a playwright does. The stage play is on paper, no one says it disappears. Some of the directors I’ve worked with, they commission me to write something for them. I write it. Then they start telling me what to change. I’m fine with constructive notes. I’m not fine with stupid dialogue ideas. And I’m thinking ‘what am I doing here? Why aren’t you writing the bloody script?’ And the situation is this: an educated screenwriter with considerable experience is taking notes from a director who hasn’t written a thing in his/her life. It makes no sense. ‘A film by’ credit really annoys me. This is often the argument I use when telling off critics who only name the director or act like the writer doesn’t even exist: if the director claimed sole authorship it would be unethical and illegal, how is it write for film critics to do it? Claiming sole authorship over a creative piece of work that had a separate writer is unethical and illegal. One of the rights of the author is the right to authorship, a screenwriter is an author and you can’t take authorship away from him/her. It’s copyright infringement. If I take the novel you wrote and put my name on the cover – it’s theft. You can sue me. Isn’t that what the director does with ‘a film by’ credit? A director is like a conductor of an orchestra, there is a composer, conductor is not the sole author of the symphony.

    A lot of writers have become directors because they can’t stand being bulldozed over by directors. Billy Wilder was one of them. He said this:
    “Film’s thought of as a director’s medium because the director creates the end product that appears on the screen. It’s that stupid auteur theory again, that the director is the author of the film. But what does the director shoot—the telephone book? Writers became much more important when sound came in, but they’ve had to put up a valiant fight to get the credit they deserve.”
    — Billy Wilder

    Good luck, everyone. Stand your ground.

  • John

    Hitchcock was a genius but even Alfred the Great couldn’t breathe life into Jamaica Inn or Torn Curtain or Topaz or many other of his lesser films. Why? Well, we know why.

  • AP Oz

    The “Film by” credit irks the hell out of me too: the mindset that allows it is actually part of the reason I’m more interested in writing for TV than movies. I’m curious– are WGA writers allowed to insert a penalty fee into their contracts in case directors insist on a possessory credit (e.g., 100 K more if “Film by” credit appears)?

    Also, I don’t really believe there even needs to be a marketing exception, because “Steven Spielberg presents” or “from director Steven Spielberg” conveys the same basic marketing information as “a film by Steven Spielberg” without any of the artistic misinformation.

    By the way, love your blog! I devoured most of it today after Shawn Ryan linked to you while live tweeting Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys” commentary track.

    • That’s for the nice words, AP. Hope you sign up for email updates so you can get a weekly link. As for your question, the answer is yes. A writer can ask for a penalty and I’m certain some have asked or even have received the payout. But for writers it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. Writers need directors to get their movies made. And often those directors have egos that require the stupid stroking that comes with a film by credit. Imagine when the director is negotiating his film by credit and the business affairs lawyers says, “Sure we’ll give you the credit, but it’s going to cost us X dollars because it’s part of the deal we made with the writer. So reduce your deal by the same amount and we’ll be glad to issue the credit.” So once the deal is made, the first order of business for the director is to get the writer fired. It sounds petty, but it’s real.

      • AP Oz

        Ah, I keep mistakenly thinking of a screenplay as a finished product so I hadn’t thought of that. Oh well.

        I’ve subscribed to the RSS feed so I’m all set for the next blog installment.