On gifting away the posessory credit

by Paul William Tenny

j-michael-straczynski.jpgWhat's bothering me today? Glad you asked. It's a little thing called the possessory credit. If you've "A Film By" at the beginning of a movie and ever wondered what that means, it's an ego credit for directors. That's really all there is to it, it's in their contract with the AMPTP (as far as I know) that they have a right to claim the credit and use it whenever they feel like, which means it's never going away by force -- although I do believe it could be traded away in the future. It's pretty offensive to anyone who isn't a director since everybody sees it in huge letters right at the beginning of a film, and it gives the false impression that the director had so much creative involvement that it should be known as "their film" rather than the coop that it really is.
I get the argument that it only bothers you if you let it bother you since it doesn't have any impact on what you get paid or any other metric, it's just a stick in the ribs more or less. But I also get how insulting it is that really the third tier talent is taking first billing like that for no purpose other than narcissism and egotism.

Some directors take it as a matter of course and I've even heard stories of some people taking flak for not taking the credit, while others recognize that it's unjustified and want nothing to do with it. In the middle, I'm sure, a lot just don't care. While I've got a bone to pick with that first group, it's not like directors are solely responsible for this. The media treats them like super star celebrities when they work on movies -- even though they get hardly any attention or power when doing basically the same job for television -- which pumps up their notions of self importance.  The public exasperates this, or at least the bloggers who cover this stuff do, by automatically referring to all films as "John Doe's BlahBlah" just as a matter of course.

It's bad enough people write this way without thinking, but it's just horribly egregious when it happens to people who have worked very hard all their lives to break into the A-list, and when they finally get their, they still don't really matter in the eyes of the vapid, character obsessed pundits and media.

While sorting through news from the past four or five days I found several stories about The Changeling, a feature script written by J. Michael Straczynski, a huge name in television but a relative rookie when it comes to big features. This guy may very well be one of the most accomplished and learned writers in modern history to make it to the top rung so late in his career, purely as a measure of how hard it is to get there irregardless of ones actual talent.

Straczynski got to that level by having his script picked up by Ron Howard, with Howard set to direct. From what I understand, having that happen will bump you to the top no matter who you are or what you've done in your life -- another sign of how obessed our culture and Hollywood is with directors, justified or not -- and that's exactly what happened for Straczynski. He has virtually disappeared off the Internet since that day after having dozens of projects fall into his lap due to his new status, and The Changeling is what made it all happen for him.

I don't remember the precise details, but Howard ended up moving to another project but had at least some hand in bringing Clint Eastwood on to replace him. The project didn't slow down a bit, Straczynski buried himself in whatever project piqued his interest -- something his new status allows him to do these days -- and Changeling marched slowly forward until it started opening some eyes at the Cannes festival. Only you wouldn't know that J. Michael Straczynski even existed based on what I read this afternoon.

Slash Film: Clint Eastwood's Changeling: Video Clip and Photos
Yahoo! Movie: Eastwood's "Changeling" a Jolie tour de force
Rotten Tomatoes: Eastwood Enjoying Burst of Productivity
Cinematical: Line from Cannes: Eastwood's The Exchange -- or Changeling
AP: Jolie, Eastwood film premiering at Cannes festival
Reuters: Eastwood joins dark films among Cannes favorites
Yahoo!: Eastwood directs Jolie in 1920s lost child drama

Granted, this is a movie based on a true story (supposedly) so even though it's not 100% original, it's downright offensive to unilaterally declare this film to belong to, and have the sole creator as, Clint Eastwood. He's a fine director and nobody in the world would argue otherwise, but this isn't his flick -- he wasn't even the first director attached to the project, nor would he have ever found it had Ron Howard not shined a spotlight on it.

It's bad enough to do this with medicore writers, and really it's bad to do it to anybody (including actors and other creative participants) but for bloggers and the media to just hand sole credit over to Eastwood, completely ignoring one of the most accomplished and respected writers around is beyond disgusting.

This is the stuff of pure shame.

This story, uncovered by screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski in the city's records and newspapers, adds a forgotten chapter to the Los Angeles noir of "Chinatown" and "L.A. Confidential." Christine's utter intransigence and truth-seeking in the face of absolute corruption does what no newspaper in that city is willing to do: challenge the official stories of City Hall.

Sticking fairly closely to the facts, the movie necessarily drags us through a couple of courtrooms that cause the drama to sag momentarily. But Straczynski and Eastwood are good at cutting to the chase. Seldom does a 141-minute movie feel this short.

That's all the credit that Straczynski gets from Reuters, and I'd expect that from the general media because they are the equivalent of intellectual zombies -- they want brains, but don't have any of their own -- but bloggers are supposed to be smarter, or at least a little more intellectually honest about these mythical, ego-based precepts.

Instead what you've really got are a lot of TV and movie blogs that emulate the mainstream media, mostly the wire service reports, but telling you most of what you already know in the same tones and phrasing that you can get everywhere else, propagating stereotypes and refusing to challenge this discrimination against writers.

Cinematical happily reports that this is Eastwood's new film, and that Jolie may get an Oscar out of it. Apparently directors and create new films from scratch with nothing but actors, and actors can win Academy Awards without lines or scripts. Straczynski is only mentioned once -- insulted no less, no big surprise there -- and subsequently dismissed as irrelevant to the cause. In the L.A. Times coverage, Straczynski isn't even mentioned until the 11th paragraph of a 19 paragraph story, with only two mentions barely worth enough to remind you that yes, someone did indeed sit down at a keyboard and spend a couple months writing this thing.

It doesn't matter what Straczynski thinks about the script, since he's never quoted or interviewed in these things that amount to personal press releases for Eastwood, it's all about Dirty Harry's vision. Given the subject matter, I don't find it all surprising that Eastwood himself shows more respect for Straczynski and his work than the papers do.

Reality-based or not, underlying everything Eastwood does, he says, is the mantra that "the story's the king. If the story's so weak you have to gimmick it up, maybe it's not worth telling." The same reasoning underlies "Changeling's" length, which ended up at 2 hours and 21 minutes because that's what the director felt it took to tell the story.

"The story has to be true to the material; I'm not making it because the distributor says we could get one more screening per day if it was shorter," he explains. "I've been around for 55 years, and I figure, 'OK, I'll just do whatever it is.' "

I don't know if he'll take a possesory credit for this film or not, but it's kind of a moot point since every publication that has written about The Changeling this week has gifted him with it whether he wants it or not.
in Feature, Film


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