As the opening titles of the independent film "Our Song" played during a Sundance Film Festival screening earlier this year, the familiar phrase "A film by" popped onto the screen. But instead of writer-director Jim McKay's name following, the screen filled with the names of every cast and crew member who had worked on the movie.
The crowd, composed largely of people who had taken nonmarquee jobs on this and other films, erupted in applause.
"I remember that, and I applauded it also," Sundance founder Robert Redford said recently. "I think this has gotten out of whack."
"This" is the escalating use of so-called possessory credits, the line in movie titles and ads that reads "A film by So-and-So," "A So-and-So film" or "So-and-So's 'Film Title.' "
Such billing used to be reserved for the industry's top directors, such as Frank Capra, David Lean and Alfred Hitchcock. But now the credit is taken by any director whose agent can successfully negotiate for it.
Bruce Paltrow got an above-the-title "A film by" credit for the critical and commercial dud "Duets," the only feature he has directed aside from 1982's "A Little Sex." Sally Field took a similar credit for her directorial debut, "Beautiful," an even bigger bomb. Neither of those directors received screenplay credits.
Such claims of film authorship, particularly by directors who didn't write their movies, rankle the Writers Guild of America so much that abolishing the possessory credit is one of the union's key demands in its upcoming negotiations with the studios on a new contract. That condition, plus others that try to give writers more prominent billing and creative control, could prove to be thorny in a negotiation expected to be so combative that the studios currently are rushing films into production to beat the May 1 strike deadline.
It also puts the Writers Guild on a collision course with the Directors Guild, whose current agreement with the studios, which expires in 2002, affirms a director's right to take the possessory credit.
"At a time when the two guilds should be presenting a united front to the studios on issues such as residual payments and how to deal with new technologies, the WGA is seeking to expand the power of writers at the expense of directors and the product," the Directors Guild charges in its official response to the Writers Guild's proposals, as posted on the DGA Web site (at http://www.dga.org).
"It's a big war over an apostrophe," said Cheryl Rhoden, the Writers Guild's assistant executive director.
The possessory credit dates back to cinema's earliest days, with films such as D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915) or Cecil B. De Mille's "The Ten Commandments" (1923 and again in 1956), according to a summer 1998 DGA Magazine history of the credit. Until the mid-1960s, no uniform standards for possessory credits existed, so anyone theoretically could negotiate for such status.
But at the end of 1966, the Writers Guild and the Assn. of Motion Picture and Television Producers ratified an agreement that limited "A film by" credit to a filmmaker who had written the screenplay or the movie's source material. The Directors Guild was furious and talked strike.
In a cable to a DGA committee meeting, reprinted in DGA Magazine, Lean wrote, "Take my own latest case, 'David Lean's film of "Dr. Zhivago." ' I worked one year with the writer. Unlike him, I directed not only the actors but the cameraman, set designer, costume designer, sound men, editor, composer and even the laboratory in their final print. Unlike him, I chose the actors, the technicians, the subject and him to write it. I staged it. I filmed it. It was my film of his script, which I shot when he was not there."
A strike was averted when the studios and producers agreed to restore the director's right to negotiate individually for any credits when the Writers Guild contract expired in 1970.
"Thirty years ago, when the Writers Guild gave up a measure of control as to who received the credit, the commitment that was made by the companies was that it would be reserved for a handful of directors who had a significant body of work, like Hitchcock or Capra," Rhoden said. "Now it's proliferated to the point where someone right out of film school gets it."
The chief objection, she added, is that "the credit that says 'A film by' makes it sound like one person, a director, is responsible for the film, and it denigrates the writer. A director can't direct from a blank page. An actor can't perform from a blank page."
Kevin Smith, who has written and directed each of his four features without taking a "film by" credit, agreed.
"A film is probably the most collaborative art form there is," the filmmaker of "Clerks" and "Dogma" said. "No one person makes a movie. So taking that 'A film by' kind of leaves everybody out.