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The End Of The Auteur Era Of Film?

by Ted Hope
September 9, 2011 12:30 PM
8 Comments
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People like to get credit for their work, but have they been getting the right credit for it? Are we able to recognize when something is a collaboration as opposed to a work of an individual who has hired a team to execute it?

I pride myself on having produced films that could only have been the product of the unique vision of the director. That said, I have had a front row seat on how culture in general has been drifting and leaping into something more collaborative and think it just may represent the end of an era.

One of my early jobs in the film business was working as a Script Analyst for many of the NYC-based film production companies. I was always impressed by how many seemingly unique ideas were shared by many writers. There was a month way back when when I read five scripts all featuring dwarf bowling (okay, so some of the companies I read for were schlock producers, but you get the general idea). It became clear that we all harvest our information from similar sources and process it in not-so-unique manners. If all we are doing is acting as a filter, does it make sense to claim authorship still?

I was impressed with James Gunn, the director of SUPER, when he specified that "A Film By" credit would be false due to the collective efforts of all those involved. SUPER is very much "A James Gunn Movie" though, as that credit is more of a brand -- if you know James Gunn, you know what you want to expect from "A James Gunn Movie". Utilizing a brand is a much different thing than claiming authorship. Brands do help filter content for audiences. False authorship confuses things for communities everywhere.

I was similarly impressed -- moved actually -- when years ago I watched OUR SONG, Jim McKay's great film following three girls growing up in Brooklyn (and Kerry Washington's first role). In the opening credits, the "Film By" credit comes up, and then everyone who contributed to the film is credited. Nonetheless, having now recognized how unique McKay's work is (particularly here in America), it would not have been wrong to call it "A Jim McKay Film".

I frequently practice a form of blog writing that Bruce Sterling coined as a "Atemporality for the creative artist" (video here). The method goes a bit like this:

  • I have an idea or feeling about something, and spontaneously tweet it.

  • I witness what response the comment gets on Twitter and ponder it.

  • The comment is auto-posted to Facebook where those that it intrigues have more room to discuss it coherently.

  • I contribute on FB new thoughts on the subject that have been informed by the Twitterverse.

  • I consider all the conversations and write a post for my blog.

  • The blog goes up automatically onto the various social media sites and I see what response it gets.

  • I consider the comments (if any) that the post has and refine my ideas still further, possibly for a future tweet, update, or post.
  • With such a collaborative culture at work, it would be wrong to claim most ideas as my own, or even of a single author. I was heartened to see this recognition in Megan Garber's Neiman Lab response to Gabler's NYT Sunday Mag article last month "The Elusive Big Idea". It still surprises me how much our culture and media industry wants to promote egotism. I do not believe that credit grabs motivate creative thinking and such see no logical reason to hang onto false credits. In fact, it is the false credits that most reveal both the egotism and lack of creative thinking. With only one exception, can I think of any time that a credit discussion I engaged in was warranted (even if even then what was done was counter to industry-standard). But I digress...

    Garber writes:

    "Increasingly, though, the ideas that spark progress are collective, diffusive endeavors rather than the result (to the extent they ever were) of individual inspiration. Ideas increasingly resist branding. The idea of the idea is evolving. We don’t treat Google like a Big Idea — though, of course, that’s most definitely what it is; we treat it like Google. Ditto Facebook, ditto Twitter, ditto Reddit and Wikipedia. Those new infrastructures merge idea and practice, ars and tecnica, so seamlessly that it’s easy to forget how big (and how Big) the ideas that inform them actually are. Increasingly, the ultimate upshot of the Big Idea — the changed world, the bettered world — is bypassing the idea stage altogether. As we build new tools and, with them, a new environment, blueprints are byproducts rather than guideposts. We’re playing progress, increasingly, by ear. And, in the process, we’re becoming less self-conscious about change itself — and about our role in effecting it."

    I truly admire how this column and others like it have become community soap boxes to discuss the state of our industry and culture, to call attention to issues and options, and hopefully find some solutions. The plight of the independent filmmaker has progressed to the evolution of a truly free film community, and we are building it better together. The spirit of the collective endeavor is raging stronger every day and the results of this change of action and focus are shining brightly.

    As much as I was inspired to work in what I saw as the art form and medium that best defined contemporary existence, that inspiration came from those works of the great film auteurs. As difficult as it is to maintain this practice, I am inspired to keep pushing forward to help find some solutions by the commitment, labor, knowledge, and generosity displayed by the COMMUNITY on a general basis. Let's keep it up and lift it up to all that this culture and industry can truly be.

    Beautiful stories will be written by gifted individuals. Our greatest movies will be helmed by unique and committed visionaries. But neither is all that our world needs or even wants these days. In this time of superabundance and open access, it is the shared endeavor of communities that give to the culture they want, share what they love, and contribute to the efforts of many, that will carry us through to a better future. We are on our way and can not shy away from the hard work ahead of us, even if we do not receive credit for it.

    8 Comments

    • blanche | November 30, 2011 6:55 PMReply

      I think this is an interesting idea however, and with all due respect, while I don't disagree with the positives of an arts culture/s or form/s of art/s as a "shared endeavor" I disagree that moving towards a dominant form of creation "by the community on a general basis" is what is needed or even what is desirable.
      I believe this because, oftentimes, the singularity of one auteurs unique vision is what makes a piece of work interesting, compelling, and unique. By watering down projects into a collection of group ideas there is the risk of watering down or ignoring visions that are singular and compelling unto themselves for their individuality.
      We might be living in a "time of superabundance" but this "superabundance" and "community" effort/s run the risk of popularizing creations that pander to the dominate voices-- no matter how banal those voices may be.

    • digsby | September 10, 2011 8:40 AMReply

      The so-called "possessory credit" has always been a sore point with the WGA - directors who didn't conceive, much less write, the story, claiming it's "a film by", to the apparent exclusion of the person who actually created the material and without whom there would be no movie at all. But the guild doesn't have the stomach to fight. It's a big vanity thing with powerful directors, they won't give it up. Same way a big director can get an unearned writing credit, if he whines loudly enough.

      But in the indie realm, where the available production value usually can't buy surrogate content and glamor, and where the director is usually the author of the script, the auteur notion seems appropriate enough. Ted's productions may have exceeded that threshold with respect to the surrogate content they can buy, but most of the other stuff is legitimately the directors', for better or worse, and will have to stand or fall on its actual content. The director will definitely be blamed for a bomb, so if he pulls off a miracle, why withhold the credit?

    • Ron Merk | September 10, 2011 6:13 AMReply

      Okay, okay. Let's call a spade a spade. And I'm not talking about Sam Spade. The arrogance of "a film by" has always offended me. Unless a person does every job, stars in the film, writes it, directs it and makes the coffee, the term "a film by" is simply a lie.
      Even Fellini, one of the great "auteurs" used the term "ideatto and diretto da" (thought of and directed by). Film-making is by nature a collaborative process, and for anyone to say they are the author of a film is just B.S. And while we're at it, should financiers get producer credit? Should agents get Executive Producer credit? Should the attorney for the director get Co-Producer credit? Have you ever looked at the number of producers on films and TV shows lately. If they were all there on the set working, they'd be tripping over each other. It's time we got back to the basics of giving credit where credit is due.
      And while we're on the subject, does anyone sit through endless credit crawls at the end of a film, except at industry screenings. Audiences frankly don't give a damn about who drove a truck, or who cleared the rights to a song. If it were up to me, I'd put all the names on one card, hold it for ten seconds, and then fade out. TV stations hardly run credit crawls any more. They have better things to do with ten minutes of air time---like sell TV spots. Like so much overkill in the film industry, it's time we re-looked at credits and get back to the simplicity they used to have back in the studio days. Thirty seconds to one minute of credits at the start, and a reprise of the cast and who played what role at the end. The rest can go on a vanity website. Oh, did I say a dirty word....vanity? So sorry. Ron Merk

    • kay | September 9, 2011 12:14 PMReply

      Oh hell, Ted, filmmaking by committee has a long history and it's not an illustrious one.

      And if anyone was ever position to try his hand as an auteur, it's you. So why this apparent resentment? When producers won't expose their work to the public, but still insist on being called storytellers and filmmakers, things are not looking good for the medium.

    • Dave | September 9, 2011 9:55 AMReply

      In the early days of my video/filmmaking I worked on no budget projects with my only reward being the credit I would receive. And unfortunately, it was rarely ever followed through. In most cases, I didn’t even receive copies of the films I helped work on. From those experiences, I made it a point (in my own productions) to give credit to others whenever possible.

      But using the “Atemporality for the creative artist” style of blog writing as an example, it seems that thinking up the idea to write a blog in that unique style, as well as creating and implementing the social media tools in a process to collect all of that outside “collaborative” input would entitle you to be credited for that blog post. You (as the writer) created it.

    • Amanda Marshall | September 9, 2011 6:27 AMReply

      I completely agree with you Ted. Especially working with you and James on SUPER - an incredibly collaborative experience while remaining a film that I feel couldn't have been made by anyone but James. I think those are the best films - ones helmed by someone with a clear creative vision who works collaboratively with a team and acknowledges and appreciates the contributions everyone brings to the project.

    • Daryl Chin | September 9, 2011 5:51 AMReply

      One of the animating ideas behind the alternative cinema in the US ("experimental", "avant-garde", "underground", et al) was the idea of authorship; the Hollywood machine was very much a collaborative medium, but filmmakers in NYC (Maya Deren), LA (Kenneth Anger, Curtis Harrington), and San Francisco (James Broughton, Sidney Peterson) were concerned with personal vision. And many people (Robert Breer, Jordan Belson, Harry Smith) were definitely the sole creators of their films, since these people were working in animated forms, often without photographic images, painting or drawing directly on the celluloid strip. I think it's time to remember that there really is such a thing as sole authorship of a film, it just depends on where you look for it.

    • William Wright | September 9, 2011 3:20 AMReply

      "Beautiful stories will be written by gifted individuals."

      No doubt true, but storytellers are dreamers who are not adept or even capable navigators of the American producing system. They won't be working either in Hollywood or lower Manhattan. This isn't theory. Just take a good look at American film today.

      "Our greatest movies will be helmed by unique and committed visionaries."

      Except that there are no visionaries at work, for the same reason that real storytellers no longer, or very rarely, work in the American movie business any longer.

      Everybody else should be congratulated for making mediocre material palatable. Without them, and a lot of money, movies wouldl be even more insufferable than they currently are.

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