Who gets artistic control and credit for a movie (e.g. a film, a television show)? Here are the candidates I’ve identified:

Producer (money): As far as I can tell, there’s one kind of producer who’s only job is to get money for the thing. You’ll often see them at the beginning of a film with something like “Francis Ford Coppola presents…” Needless to say, I don’t think these guys should get artistic control.

Producer: Another kind of producer is the one who is sort of CEO of the film, making sure everybody is doing their job and things are working smoothly. Sometimes these people get artistic control, but shouldn’t it go to someone more directly involved in the creative aspects of the film? This producer could just handle the day-to-day details so the artist can get on with the artistic stuff.

Writer: The writer writes the script for the movie. This is my personal favorite — a movie is nothing without writing. However writers often seem to be quiet and live in solitude, a disposition that is perhaps not best for the hustle and bustle of making a movie. Still, they can get other people (the producer, the director) to act as their mouthpieces. On television, writers generally are the artists. But on movies, perhaps because people don’t care about making good movies, writers are treated as interchangeable, repeatedly rewriting each other’s drafts.

Director: The director coverts the text of the script into physical activities. Scripts often say unfilmable things like “Hero felt glum”. The director decides what physical actions will go on so that the audience can tell Hero is feeling glum. On movies, the directors are almost always the artist. This appears to be because they’re the only ones telling the actors what to do, which ultimately defines what can be in the film, so you might as well put them in charge anyway. (Unlike on TV, there’s no next episode coming, so there’s no need to be faithful to the writer.) On television, though, directors are largely interchangable, directing things in a world that’s largely already built and structured.

Editor: The editor cuts the footage together to make the final movie. This means the editor is the final, and in some sense most powerful, guy. But I guess cutting together footage is really boring and not that difficult so editors appear to never get any real credit and only very little artistic control.

Then there are the components:

Director of Photography (aka Cinematographer): The D.P. makes the movie look good. Somewhat analogous to a book designer, the job is mostly orthoganal and in some way doesn’t really effect the content of the movie (or book). But yet, in another way, it’s really important and good cinematography can make a good movie really great (and a great movie even better).

Music: Again, this is somewhat orthoganal, but good music is an even more important part of making a movie good. But the best music is usually done by the artist himself, even though the score is nominally farmed out to someone else. It also seems good music people are really hard to find and perhaps somewhat sporadic in quality.

Actor: I almost didn’t include this one because it’s so mostly irrelevant to the quality of the movie. But I guess because the actor is the face people see, they give them extra importance. Anyway, successful actors seem to almost never make good artists.

There are some artists who will take up a number of these jobs. And I guess there are probably some artists who take up none of them, although I haven’t heard of any (probably because their work sucks). It seems the more jobs you take up, the better the work is. TV writers will often direct the first episode. Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin often do their own music. And in two critically-acclaimed short-season pain-based comedies, The Office and Curb Your Enthusaism, one person (Larry David and Ricky Gervais, respectively) writes, directs, stars, and edits the show. (Gervais even wrote his own song once.) But I guess that’s going a little far.

UPDATE: It ocurred to me today that the question of a director's authorship is a little more complicated than I presented it. One can imagine a spectrum stretching from a James Cameron-type scenario where a director has a vision and hires a writer to come up with a story and a script for it, to the television-type scenario where a director is given a script and bound to film it. In the first scenario, one can imagine the director having some significant degree of authorship: they can fire the writer, hire better ones, insist certain sections be rewritten, decline to shoot portions, etc. While the writer is still writing the script, they're writing someone else's vision. The second is a case where the script is actually binding on the director, and while they have total control over the making of the movie, what the writer wrote significantly constricts what they can do. (2009-12-26)

posted June 18, 2004 03:16 PM (TV) (6 comments) #


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The actor is “mostly irrelevant to the quality of the movie”!!??

You could possibly read a book on the craft, or perhaps participate in it, before being so, well, engineer-like.

posted by at June 18, 2004 03:38 PM #

You may know this already but there’s a long-standing debate about who makes the movie in the arts criticism community. It’s usually called the “auteur debate”, and it was very fashionable in the late 50s. You can get into some fun postmodern theory questions if you go down this line, although that line of reasoning seems hopelessly stilted now that directors like Tarantino are regularly working at multiple levels and synthesizing multiple influences.

My own take is that the movies I like best are the ones where the director is the clear auteur. The other components of film-making, particularly cinematography and writing, are important. But the director usually has control over these aspects of the film, and at the very least he or she chooses whom to work with.

I agree with you about acting in contemporary film making. They’re basically meat puppets. Liam Neeson had some choice words about this after working under Lucas. But if you want to see acting, go watch all the early Elizabeth Taylor movies, or Katherine Hepburn, or Jimmy Stewart. Film actors used to be artists.

posted by Nelson at June 18, 2004 07:00 PM #

Though they are hardly the prime creative movers in film, I think you underestimate the potential of a really good actor to elevate ordinary material. One example that springs immediately to mind was last year’s “Pirates of the Carribean”, which no one expected to be anything more than bog-standard licensed property fare, and which was elevated by an outstanding performance by Johnny Depp.

posted by Dave Walker at June 19, 2004 11:33 AM #

That’s a really good summary, Aaron. And especially the differences between TV and movies. In fact, as I was reading, I was thinking, “What would Seinfeld be like without Larry David?” And, “Look what happened to the West Wing when Sorkin bailed out.”

Writers for TV series are a critical piece of the art (and I assume are compensated appropriately).

Movies, on the other hand… much different animal. I was struck by your comment about actors seeming to almost never make good artists. In most cases, I’d say you’re spot on. But, there are a few actors that seem to so completely capture the essence of what the writers had in mind, that they do bring a high level of value to the art of a movie.

Examples (completely subjective, I realize) are Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe. For me, they seem to lose themselves into their characters to the point that I nearly forget who is playing the characters. When that happens, I consider the actor a true artist.

Another big item for me is the music. It has the power to engage the audience. Forgive the examples, but consider “The Rock” and “Crimson Tide.” Both movies had music by Hans Zimmer and the movies would have lost a significant part of their respective allure had Zimmer not contributed his music. I consider that art.

The director role has always puzzled me. We make such a huge deal about the director. And while I agree that some directors lend true vision to their movies (I’m thinking Spielberg, Eastwood and Shyamalan), most are bouyed by their “supporting cast” (directors of photography, etc.).

One thing I’ve noticed, though… a bad script comes shining through a movie where everything else hits the mark.

posted by Tim at June 19, 2004 11:30 PM #

I think you’re not taking into account a key fact, which is that unless you’re picking up a camcorder and shooting footage of yourself, moviemaking is collaboration. The credit for what the group accomplishes in collaboration would most fairly go to the group as a whole. Credit for various aspects of the accomplishment would most fairly go to the people who actually accomplished them.

Don’t confuse official credits (WGA, ASCAP, whatever) with actual contribution to artistic success. That has to do with who’s smart, who’s naive, who’s rich, who’s powerful, who has the best agent, and a bunch of legacy assumptions, traditions, and laws.

There’s the art, and then there’s the commerce. Which are you talking about?

As for the “auteur theory,” it’s mostly useful to academics, because it gives them something to argue about. People who make movies generally don’t have time to worry about it.

posted by Keith at June 20, 2004 09:30 AM #

Just to come over all Gareth-like and point out a minor error - Ricky Gervais has a writing partner, Stephen Merchant, with whom he created The Office. As talented as he is, Ricky didn’t do it alone.

posted by C Lake at June 23, 2004 04:21 PM #

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