It can be a battle for oxygen. The writer is in the room. The director is in the room. And sharing the precious air is that big fat pink elephant who somehow has squeezed through the door and found a seat at the table.
That big fat pink elephant has a name. It’s called the possessory credit. You know it: a film by; a so-and-so film; a so-and-so picture. Or sometime it’s just Herr Direktor’s name followed by a name-owning apostrophe and the title. Hell, there’s even one enigmatic auteur on Planet Movie who refers to his films as his “joint.”
Well, wiser writers ignore the aforementioned Pepto Bismol colored beast, thus seamlessly (or sometimes not so) collaborating with the assigned movie helmer on all matters creative, be it script, casting, or which corner café makes the creamiest non-fat latte.
Then there’s me and my big fat mouth, big enough to swallow that big fat pink elephant. Whole.
Now, a note of disclosure to the reader: I’ve written about this ugly issue before in a previous blog titled AUTEUR AUTEUR, and even included today’s punchline. Still, today’s post has a different point altogether. One I think is worth your reading on.
It was an afternoon meet in a back-lot bungalow with me, a major motion picture movie director whom I’ll call Alexander Artiste, a closet germaphobe, and his supremely experienced producing partner, Mike Mutton. We were amidst prepping a sneaky-smart studio pitch when the conversation veered this way into pink elephant land:
“So when the pitch comes back to you,” I steered, “They’re going to want to confirm if you’re planning to direct the movie.”
“And?” said Alexander.
“What are you going to say?” I asked. “There’s no catnip for them if they hear you’re only planning to produce.”
“But I can’t commit until the script is right,” said Alexander.
“Everybody gets that,” said Mike Mutton. “It’s just about selling the pitch.”
“Which we’ll do,” insisted the director.
“Not if you don’t commit to directing,” I pressed. “They’re taking the meeting based on your interest.”
“He’s right,” agreed Mike Mutton. “If you make it look like the story isn’t good enough for you to put your name on, it defeats the purpose of you being there.”
“What?” said Alexander. “Putting my name on it as a producer isn’t good enough?”
“Not to sell it,” said the producing partner.
The director stood and briefly paced behind his chair.
“You understand,” said the director, “that I take moviemaking very seriously. And when I choose to put ‘An Alexander Artiste film’ above the title, it means something.”
“Look man,” I said. “I’m no less serious. It’s my name on the script. So we’re in it together. Equally committed.”
“It’s different for a writer,” insister Alexander.
“Oh really?” I said.
“Of course it is,” replied the director. “Your name is on a stack of paper. Mine is on the actual film.”
“So that ‘written by’ credit means what?” I implied.
“Writing and directing are different, don’t you think?” said Alexander.
“Thus the ‘written by’ credit and the ‘directed by’ credit,” I said plainly, expecting the sentence to speak for itself.
“I’m talking about ‘the film by’ credit,” explained Alexander.
“Otherwise known as the extra credit,” I joked.
“Nothing extra about it,” said the director. “It’s something I’ve earned.”
I tried hard not to chuckle, but might’ve failed. I could feel Mike Mutton firing laser glances at me, hoping I’d be wise enough to change the subject. But hey, it’s me we’re talking about. And “me” doesn’t usually back down from specious arguing.
“How is it earned?” I asked.
“The success of my movies,” he said, rather incredulously.
“I’ve had hit movies,” I argued. “In fact, my movies have done more business than yours now that I think about it. So where’s my extra credit?”
“That’s between you and the Writer’s Guild,” said Alexander.
“Collective bargaining and possessory credits have nothing to with the other,” I said. “Your ‘film by’ doesn’t come from the DGA. It comes from the studio as part of your deal.”
“Exactly,” he said. “My deal. Not yours.”
“So your extra credit is due you because of your power of negotiation.”
“It’s due me because it’s deserved. And because I have the power in my deal to demand it.”
“Okay okay okay,” I said. “So if I had the power in my deal to get some sort of extra credit, you wouldn’t give a shit.”
“More power to you,” shrugged Alexander.
“So follow me,” I continued. “Let’s say we sell this pitch. Let’s say they buy it. And in the negotiation of my deal I am successful in receiving an extra writing credit.”
“There is no extra writing credit,” Alexander argued.
“There was no extra directing credit until some director negotiated it! So why not an extra writing credit?”
I suggested something akin to the simple playwright’s credit, affording the writer a “by” following the title.
“But it’s not a film by you!” moaned the director. “It’s a film by me. The director!
“Based on a script by me!” I insisted.
“Yes!” he finally agreed.
“So how about this for an extra writing credit?” I continued with my foot fully on the rhetorical gas. “’A film by you’, the title of the film, then ‘based on a script by me?’”
“Idiotic,” said the director, waving me off as if to dismiss all of me, not just my salient point. “Who goes to see a movie based on a ‘script by?’”
“Are you arguing that your name above the title delivers a measurable number of butts into seats?” I fired.
“In some territories,” he said.
“Is the U.S. one?”
“Then cool,” I ceded. “You deserve to get that extra credit in those territories where your name is valued in advertising. But not in America. Not on the movie I wrote.”
“Like I said,” he smugly grinned. “It’s in my deal.”
“I never finished the question,” I pressed. “If I was able to negotiate that extra writing credit for myself on the movie that we’re pitching this Friday, would you consider directing it?”
“No,” he said flatly. “Directing is different.”
“Thus the ‘directed by’ credit,” I concluded. “Which isn’t good enough for you because you deserve more.”
“Yes,” he answered.
“And I don’t?”
“No. You don’t.”
“You are such an asshole,” I said, before choosing to stroke his ego. “But maybe that’s why you’re such an awesome director.”
At last, Mike Mutton, forced a smile. He’d ever-so-patiently kept to the sidelines whilst writer and director crossed egocentric light sabers.
“Can we get back to the pitch?” asked Mike Mutton.
“In a minute,” I said. “I gotta use the can. Mind if I use yours?”
I didn’t wait for an answer from Alexander. I simply rose and crossed the room to the director’s private loo, where I shut the door, did my urinary biz, then quietly washed my hands. No. I didn’t miss the flushing part of the bathroom routine. I waited until my hands were clean, releasing the water down the toilet only a hair’s breadth before exiting back into Alexander’s office.
The old toilet flushing was appropriately loud, especially when I threw open the tiny bathroom’s door while the water was still circling the bowl, giving off the distinct illusion that I’d merely peed and flushed without washing up. Upon exiting I saw the closeted germaphobe’s head instinctively snap in my direction, his spidey senses alerted to my feigned lack of personal hygiene.
“Okay,” I announced. “Spat’s over. Let’s get back to work.”
And with that I patted the reseated director at the top of his spine, making sure one of my stray fingers didn’t miss the bare skin on the back of his neck. I saw Alexander’s body stiffen as he imagined some evil sort of invasive bacterial microbe swan-diving from my index finger into his nearest open pore.
Swoosh. I felt like Michael Jordan hitting a three-pointer right at the buzzer.
“We’ll get back to it in a minute,” stuttered Alexander. “My turn to… you know.”
As you might expect, Alexander Artiste shot to his feet, turned a crisp about-face, and disappeared inside the bathroom where we would hear the hot water running for a good couple of minutes.
In that previous blog, I pointed out that I gleefully performed that same satisfying prank on that damned megalomaniac on two more occasions. But never included the conclusion.
The purpose for my developing the pitch with Alexander was because, as a bankable director, he was money when it came to selling my story to the studio where he was attached. Without him committing to directing, the story was sunk. Which meant selling the studio would be a non-starter. No sale, no deal. No deal, no dough. No dough, well, you get it…
And in the end, Alexander Artiste refused to attach himself as little more than a producer on the pitch. The studio liked the pitch, hemmed and hawed for three weeks, before politely passing. All that time and effort for naught.
With time comes the obvious perspective. With years, if one is honest with oneself, perspective turns to wisdom. Am I more satisfied today that I pranked the petty prick? To some degree, I suppose. After all, I got a couple of blogs out of it. Some cocktail party tails. But would I have been more satisfied writing the movie?
Not only did my big mouth and subsequent juvenile actions potentially prevent me from another whopping paycheck–let alone another shot at redefining myself as a screenwriter and filmmaker—but my failure to compose myself also denied me the invaluable experience that comes with each new endeavor.