Writers improve position in film credits

March 06, 1995|By Bernard Weinraub | Bernard Weinraub,New York Times News Service

If money is the driving force in Hollywood, credits on a movie screen are a close runner-up. The placement and size of a credit can be the subject of intense warfare that's really all about ego, posturing, vulnerability and a hunger for recognition. Which are what Hollywood is all about, too.

The issue of credits has now taken a new turn. Two groups especially hungry for recognition, producers and writers, are engaged in a sharp, public dispute over a recent agreement that the producers say reduces their prestige. The writers, on the other hand, are delighted with it.

Under the agreement, reached several weeks ago between the studios and the Writers Guild of America, the placement of credits on the main titles of a movie will be reversed.

Until now, movie directors had the final credit, making them, implicitly at least, the most important people on a film. The directors were preceded by the producers, and the producers were preceded by the writers.

Not any more. Writers now precede the directors, with producers slipping into third place. For the last two weeks the producers have been meeting, protesting and boiling with anger over the pact between the Writers Guild and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which actually represents the studios.

"This has become a lightning rod for us because our position has been diluted over the last few years," said Dawn Steel, a former top studio executive who is now a producer.

But Roger Simon, a screenwriter and member of the Writers Guild negotiating team, observed: "There's a strong argument to be made that the writer and director are the creative authors of a movie and their names should appear together. Traditionally, in reviews, they're the ones who bear the brunt of the praise or the blame."

In the world beyond Hollywood, the decision about credits would seem justifiably trivial. Who cares? Hollywood writers, who often portray themselves as artists victimized by callous executives, are often lavishly paid for supplying mediocre scripts and skimpy rewrites.

Producers are a mixed lot: Some work doggedly to initiate a project, find the writer and director, shape a script and cast a film; others rarely appear on the film set but take all the credit they can get. Some are given a producer's credit by a studio as a favor to a star.

Still, the clash over credits touches a raw nerve. Salaries aside, writers and producers are often treated shabbily by stars and studios, and some are even embarrassed about what they do. Any sign that they have gained respect, or lost it, as in the placement of credits, takes on enormous meaning.

Ms. Steel said that several top-ranking producers, including Arnold Kopelson ("The Fugitive"), Richard Zanuck ("Driving Miss Daisy") and Lawrence Gordon ("Die Hard") had met last week to develop a strategy against the new agreement with the studios on the credit issue.

Mr. Kopelson, a lawyer, said the producer's group was shaping plans to bring a class-action suit against studios and the Writers Guild, especially since the arrangement was made without the producers' knowledge.

"The arbitrary change in the producer's credit by the studios to placate the Writer's Guild is a violation of the rights of every producer," Mr. Kopelson said.

Ms. Steel, who produced "Cool Runnings," said producers were powerless before studios that had in recent years given credits away with abandon.

"The proliferation of producer credits has done us great harm," she said. "The image of the producer has come a long way from the days of David O. Selznick, who had the last, and the most important, credit on the movie. Our status has changed dramatically over the last 20 or 30 years. And this credit issue has lit a fire under all of us."

Well, not all. Art Linson, who produced "The Untouchables," among other films, said he was not interested in the credit issue but understood the needs of his producing brethren. "They feel battered," he said.

But Mr. Linson said he was unconcerned that producers were now, as he put it, third on the food chain instead of second.

"We're the mayonnaise on the sandwich," he said. "We're between the talent and the studios who write the checks. When you're in that terrible condition, you're desperate for adulation. But I really don't care."

Mr. Simon, co-author of such films as the adaptation of "Enemies: A Love Story" and "Scenes From a Mall," said the Writers Guild held no animus toward producers.

"This is not an attack on them," he said. "But we feel it's almost legendary how the writer has not been given his due in Hollywood. Go back to F. Scott Fitzgerald and all the literature. You see writers being laughed at. We are simply trying to redress what we feel is unjust inequality."

Almost unnoticed in the flap is the fact that writers also hope to make some advances against their oldest foe on the credit issue: directors.

These include sharply restricting the credits that directors take at the beginning of a film. They now read "A Film by . . . " and have long outraged writers because they disregarded the writer's role.

Studios agreed to limit these credits, which are stipulated in the directors' contracts, with representatives of writers and directors meeting to work out formal details.

"The feeling by the studios and the writers was that this had gotten out of hand," said Mr. Simon. "Originally, it was to go to the Hitchcocks of the world. Now it's 80 percent of films."

In addition, studios agreed that writers would be invited to view the "director's cut" of a film, or the first edited version that studios see in a movie's early stages. Traditionally, writers have never been asked.

"We're not asking for authority, we're asking to be heard," said Mr. Simon. "We just want our voices to be heard."

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