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Rights of Film Artists Topic of Symposium

Movies: Who should have control over editing and alterations in a project? The threat of legislation puts heat on the industry to resolve the issue.

February 15, 1996|JOSEPH HANANIA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jack Valenti, chairman of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, recently pointed out that "Gone With the Wind" went through seven directors and eight writers. Who, he asked, really brought this classic to the screen--the artists or the studio executives who ran herd over them?

Likewise, who should have final say in editing an already-released movie for subsequent showing on television, on airplanes and in ancillary markets--the creative artists who put it together or the studios who financed it?

These issues will be Topic A at the Artists Rights Foundation symposium to be held today and Friday at the Directors Guild of America. (It precedes the foundation's annual John Huston Award dinner, where director Martin Scorsese will be honored Friday night.)

But as artists and studio executives once more debate what Brian Walton, executive director for the Writers Guild of America-West, calls the single most important issue for working screenwriters and the creative community, there will be one major difference.

*

Last year, two bills were introduced in Congress seeking to wrest at least partial copyright control from the studios. Should the film industry prove incapable of resolving the issue within its ranks, a test of political strength pitting often high-profile artists against well-financed studio heads may not be far behind.

Keith LaQua, executive director for the 5-year-old foundation, whose members include 3,000 directors, screenwriters, cinematographers and related screen artists, sees the artists and studios as having only "a 10-year window of opportunity" to resolve the issue. After that, he said, the increasingly powerful studios, armed with advances in digital technology, will be "unstoppable. . . . Anything that you see [on screen] can be altered, so you'll no longer be able to believe what you see [is the artists' original vision]."

The problem, LaQua said, is that not only are film libraries "being sold all over the world, some three or four times," but that under U.S. law, the copyright--and thus the artistic control of a film--likewise changes hands. Thus, he added, experimental music created specifically to enhance a film could be stripped out and replaced with more acceptable local music. Similarly, the ethnicity of a minority character could be digitally altered to enhance the film's box office in some regions.

"This can technologically be done now," LaQua said, adding that although such wholesale digital alterations have not yet taken place, "without a doubt it's going to happen."

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A top studio executive who requested anonymity called the insistence on artists' rights hypocritical.

"Those advocating these hard-line positions do it in the simplest terms. They intimate those into making money are bad, and those at the creative end are good," he said. "But the hardest battles I've fought are the ones [between] writers and directors. There are people who still will not sit down together today. They are often mortal enemies who can't agree on what they want."

The issue "is about the [studio's] ability to exploit a film to all the possible media," the executive said, pointing out that networks often have to delete mature material and shorten a film for time. Giving artists a veto over such alterations would decrease sales in ancillary markets, he said.

In France, where "they have legislated creative rights, money has been more reluctant to invest in films. And then, they complain that there's not enough investors. We need to attract money, not detract it," the studio executive said.

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So pitched has the battle become that Rep. John Bryant (D-Texas) last year introduced a bill defining a motion picture's copyright holder as its director, screenwriter and cinematographer. The bill "puts into play the moral rights of the artists, allowing the creators to stop the mutilation of their work," he said. A related bill would require the studios to more clearly label a film as altered, including the artists' objections.

Bryant sees only "a very slim possibility" that either bill will pass, but hopes the threat of legislation "stimulates some kind of arrangement between the studios and the artists."

That arrangement may be harder to come by, however, given the historic turf battles among the artists themselves. Over the past few years, screenwriters and directors have battled over who should get credit for a film, and their relative roles in shaping the final product. Although Walton sought to downplay the differences, he acknowledged they had merely been put on the back burner as the two sides join forces against a common foe.

"If you are a working writer, being able to be involved with your work throughout the production and after the production is the foremost value. . . . There needs to be a clarification of values [between writers and directors]," he said.

Milos Forman sees the issue in broader terms.

"This fight is not at all about money. We [artists] don't get a cent out of it," the director said. "This fight is about the standard of a civilized society. The U.S. is the only civilized country which doesn't respect the author's moral right to his own work."

* Third Annual Artists Rights Foundation Digital Technology Symposium, beginning at 11 a.m. today and 9 a.m. Friday at Directors Guild, 7920 Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. Information: (310) 289-2036.

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