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March 21st, 2015 8 Comments



I’m a huge fan of My Fair Lady.


In fact, I not only have all of its songs committed to memory; I put Rex Harrison to shame back in my high school theatre days when I essayed the role of Henry Higgins.


One of my favorite moments comes after Eliza, that squashed cabbage leaf of a Cockney girl transformed by Higgins into a proper Edwardian lady, manages to pass herself off as the real thing at an ambassador’s ball.


Higgins and his associate Pickering celebrate her triumph in song. “Tonight, old man, you did it! You did it! You did it! You said that you would do it. And indeed you did.”


They continue in that vein until Higgins modestly reminds Pickering that he didn’t do it alone. “Now wait! Now wait! Give credit where it’s due. A lot of the glory goes to you!”


I’m sure it’s just an oversight—the sort of thing that could happen to anyone, but they unfortunately manage to ignore Liza’s not unimportant contribution to the evening’s success.


It’s shame that the film industry was still in its infancy back in 1913 because Higgins and Pickering were born to be directors.


Many directors are plagued by faulty memories.


Rarely do they recall that the films they claim as their own (“A Film by….”) began life as scripts by someone else.


A recent example?


Ava DuVernay.


Ms. DuVernay was, you may recall, distressed at her failure to win an Oscar nomination for her direction of Selma and the failure of David Oyelowo to win a nomination for best actor.


She registered no such distress over the failure of the film’s writer, Paul Webb, to win recognition for his contribution to the project.


In fact, she herself not only neglected to acknowledge him but also claimed credit for the script, especially the scenes which distorted President Johnson’s role in the Selma march and the Voting Rights Act.


DuVernay, laying claim to authorship of the screenplay, goes a step beyond the memory lapse that seems to afflict many directors.


Most don’t claim credit for the writing because they don’t have to.


The studios, with the granting of possessory credits, and the critics, with their embrace of the auteur theory, do it for them.


Here’s the way it works out in practice.


If a film is a big success, everyone credits the director, conveniently forgetting that it ever had a writer.


If a film is a failure, it is, of course, the writer’s fault.


The poor director did his best, but in spite of all his talent, he just couldn’t overcome the problems with the script.


It used to be much worse.


Back before the Writers Guild won the right to arbitrate film and television credits, producers sometimes awarded credit to themselves or to the girlfriends who served them so well.


It was, from the producers’ point of view, a wonderful system—lamented, I’m sure, for years after its unfortunate demise.


Today, for better or for worse, the responsibility for the determination of credit belongs to the Writers Guild.


Once a film wraps, the producer submits a proposed writing credit to the Guild, which then sends a notice of that credit to every writer who worked on the project. If any one of these writers challenges the proposed credit, the Guild conducts an arbitration to determine the fair and proper credit.


Three anonymous arbiters—veteran writers with produced credits of their own—review the various drafts along with position statements from the involved writers. When their review is complete, they make a credit determination—a decision that is final and subject to appeal only on procedural grounds.


It’s an imperfect system—an attempt to impose objective rules on what is inescapably a subjective judgment.


I myself have been frustrated on more than one occasion while serving as an arbiter, forced by the rules to award credit to the author of an inferior version of the story and deny it to a writer whose work was clearly superior but whose contribution to the shooting script was insufficient to justify acknowledgement of his or her role in the development of the film.


This, of course, is a problem not with the WGA rules but with studio executives, producers and directors who, in their inept attempt to make the script better, almost invariably make it worse.


What was it Churchill said about democracy?


It’s the worst form of government, except for all the others.


So it is with the WGA credit arbitration system.


Everyone hates it…until they consider the alternatives.


One thing about the system that everyone can applaud?


The rule that anytime a proposed writing credit includes a production executive (that means you, producers and directors), the credit goes to automatic arbitration.


It’s a wonderful brake on the producer and director’s potential abuse of their power.


It’s our Writers Guild saying to the Henry Higginses and the Pickerings of the film world, “Give credit where it’s due. A lot of the glory goes to…the writer.”


He or she did it!


He or she created the damn thing, and without him or her, there would be nothing.


Who knows?


With a little bit of luck, the writer might one day be acknowledged as the real author of the film, just as the dramatist is acknowledged as the author of the play.


I’m kidding, of course.


Only a cockeyed optimist stuck like a dope could express such a hope.


It could happen only if screenwriters, like every other kind of writer in the world, were able to retain the copyright on their work, the copyright the studios now hold “throughout the universe unto all eternity”—a standard phrase in every contract I ever signed.


The studios give up screenplay copyright?




When hell freezes.


And when it happens, I’ll dance all night on the ice.











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8 thoughts on “WHODUNIT?

  1. Mary D

    I love the movie “My Fair Lady.” Don’t ask me why because Henry Higgins is a bit of a jerk. Actually, one of favorite parts is when they go to the races. Henry has done his best to train Eliza on the right behavior, but to no avail. She begins to talk about how she thought one of her relatives was “done in” for a hat. The best part is when the horses start to race and she has bet on one. She say something like “Come on Dover run your blommin ass off. ” I just thought that was very funny. Also, Audry Hepburn did not sing any of the song, the songs were dubbed in by another singer. Talk about not getting any credit for something.

    1. Dan Bronson Post author

      It was the incomparable Marni Nixon. She was also the voice of Deborah Kerr in THE KING AND I and Natalie Wood in WESTSIDE STORY. Finally appeared on screen as one of the nuns in THE SOUND OF MUSIC.

  2. Mary D

    I was thinking some more about the credits in a movie. If you have ever been in a movie theater you know that people will leave as soon as the credits start to roll. Even if you watch a movie on TV or Netflix you will turn it off as soon as they start the credits. However, the first thing you do see when the credits roll is the director’s name in big bold letters. Directed by so and so. Any name after that is going to be in smaller and smaller letters. If you have ever sat through all the credits by the time they get to the crew people it is almost impossible to read. Some times they will have written by after the director. When my husband and I go to a movie we don’t chose the movie by the director. I can think of only one or two exceptions Steven Spielberg or Peter Jackson, but not always. I have gone to movies based on what looks good or interesting to me. Otherwise, I might go if there is an actor that I like. I have seen two Sherlock Holmes movies and a few Ironman movies just because Robert Downey, Jr was in them. I did enjoy those movies.

    1. Dan Bronson Post author

      You should watch older films on TCM…the ones made back in the day before there were end credits. The multiplicity of credits developed when the studios, in their contract negotiations with the guilds, came upon the brilliant notion of offering union workers credits in place of higher minimum wages. The proliferation of credits has unfortunately made them meaningless. The only people who sit through them are industry insiders wanting to show respect for the hard-working, behind-the-scene folk who make the movies…or eager kids hoping for some outtakes at the very end of the film.

  3. Jon Kettenhofen

    It did occur to me that producers and directors may have originally taken credit for the script to avoid other producers or directors taking notice of writing talent and “stealing” that talent.

    Perhaps the new system is, in part, responsible for some very good writing in some of the new TV series that have us streaming excessive hours of Netflix.

  4. Mary D

    Maybe, the studios holds on to the copyrights so that the script is not sold to another studio. There was a problem with the movie “The Butler” a title that Oprah wanted to use for the movie of the same name. However, the title belonged to some other movie that was made several decades ago and they couldn’t use it. They ended up having to use “Lee Daniels the Butler” so they wouldn’t be sued.

    1. Dan Bronson Post author

      The studios take the copyright so that they can do anything they want with the screenplay, including hiring a dozen other writers to “improve” it. It gives them total control of the material and its profit potential. Titles are a different matter. You can’t copyright a title, but you can register it with the MPAA. It’s the industry equivalent of copyright.


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