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Of Oscars and invisible writers

January 31, 2006|David Kipen | DAVID KIPEN is the author of the just-released book "The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History."

BY THE TIME you read this -- unless you have the earliest L.A. Times delivery in town -- Sid Ganis, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and some good-sport actress will already have announced this year's big-ticket Oscar nominees for the benefit of the East Coast morning TV news shows. Print writers will get to break this story a mere 25 hours after the fact, which should give some idea of their place in the journalistic pecking order these days.

Yet this second-class citizenship is nothing compared to the treatment screenwriters receive from two powerful arbiters of how we decide which movies to watch: the online movie rental outfit Netflix (netflix.com), and the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com), the online go-to source for film credits.

For example, let's assume you enjoyed "The Constant Gardener," which, if the Academy agrees with the Writers Guild about its award-worthiness, may well have been nominated for an Oscar. Let's further assume that, unlike most moviegoers, you have the cockeyed notion that the screenwriter may have been partly responsible for your enjoyment.

So -- provided you noticed who wrote it, or read the screenwriter's name in that Giacometti font at the bottom of the movie poster -- let's say you'd be curious to see another movie written by Jeffrey Caine. If, like me, you're a Netflix subscriber, you might type his name into the search window.

Alas, Netflix has never heard of Jeffrey Caine. "Michael Caine?," it offers cheerfully. "Jeffrey Wright?," the fine actor who may by now have been nominated for "Syriana." Even, with just a hint of desperation, "Citizen Kane?"

You get the idea. Netflix, despite its pretensions to comprehensiveness, indexes its films by actor, genre and -- but of course -- director, but not by screenwriter. Even if you're not the author of a new book (as I am) arguing that screenwriters have a more legitimate claim to the authorship of their films than directors do, this omission seems wrongheaded in the extreme -- and bad business besides. Netflix could probably recoup a small investment in data entry off subscriptions from the regulars at my local Diedrich Coffee alone.

But the ultimate insult is yet to come. Among Netflix's many failed attempts to come up with Jeffrey Caine's name is one other: "Jeffrey Dahmer?" (And not, laughably, as the subject of the docudrama "Dahmer," which Netflix stocks, but as an "actor" in the unsavory documentary "Serial Killers: The Real Life Hannibal Lecters.") Here, finally, is Netflix's perfect snub to the thousands of nameless scribes who, after all, only write what amounts to the company's bread and butter. Poor Raymond Chandler! If only -- instead of co-writing the scripts for "Double Indemnity" and "Strangers on a Train," to say nothing of writing the source novels for "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell, My Lovely" -- he'd had the good sense to kill and eat somebody.

BIG DEAL, YOU SAY. Anyone daft enough to rent movies according to who wrote them can always look writers up on the Internet Movie Database.

Oh, really? Type "Jeffrey Caine" into imdb.com and links to his film and television credits do appear, but just try following one. Click on the above-average James Bond film "Goldeneye," for example, and the writing credits show "Ian Fleming (characters), Michael France (story) and an enigmatic link reading "(more)." Only after clicking "(more)" do we discover the news that yes, Jeffrey Caine did co-write "Goldeneye" with Bruce Feirstein. Apparently it's IMDB's policy to bury all writing credits longer than two names -- even if neither of those names belongs to the screenwriter himself -- on this supplemental, slow-to-load "(more)" page.

After all this effort to answer the simple questions "Who wrote that, and what else did he write?," it seems fair to ask: Is it such a pain to follow a screenwriter's career because, as Netflix and IMDB might insist, nobody cares anyway? Or does nobody care because it's such a pain?

So today, as you're wading through all the pointless reported tallies of how many nominations each film got in search of, oh, who got them -- or next month, as you're watching the two screenplay awards announced a good hour before the far more hyped "best director" rolls around -- spare a thought for the poor, beleaguered screenwriters. Year in and year out, they write the best Oscar acceptance speeches (sometimes even for themselves), and what thanks do they get?

From IMDB: An annoying, sotto voce "(more)." From Netflix: Sorry, only actors, directors and cannibals need apply.

It's too early to start talking boycott. Or is it?

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