Battle Zone Hollywood: The Writers Fight Back
The French started it. Once they came up with their 'auteur' theory, directors seized power in the film industry. But now a new book says it's time to recognise that writers are the true authors of movies. The legendary movie mogul Irving G Thalberg put it most succinctly. "The writer is the most important person in Hollywood," he once said. "But we must never tell the sons of bitches."
Did Orson Welles hijack the credit for Citizen Kane from its 'true' author, screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz?
Everyone in the film business pays lip service to his estimation of the importance of screenwriters; the constantly repeated truism is that a film can't be any better than its script.
Yet for the past 50 years most of us have thought about films in terms of who directed them, not who actually wrote them. Happily, we can legitimately blame the French for this. A group of critics writing for Cahiers du Cinéma, led by François Truffaut, first espoused the auteur theory in the mid-'50s, insisting that a film's director was its true "author".
According to these auteurists, the director is god, setting a film's tone and style. But this summer all Hollywood is talking about a pocket book-sized manifesto, written partly in tongue-in-cheek spirit, which reasserts the screenwriter's role.
David Kipen's The Schreiber Theory asks us to imagine a world in which audiences might make decisions about which films to see based on a screenwriter's track record rather than a director's. In this world, films will be known by who wrote them, not who directed them. Thus Schindler's List is a Steven Zaillian film, not a Steven Spielberg film; Eyes Wide Shut is "by" Frederic Raphael, not Stanley Kubrick.
This world already exists in Los Angeles, within the narrow confines of the Writers' Guild of America film society. Call its number for forthcoming attractions, and you hear films announced along with who wrote them.
David Gritten's full report on David Kipen's The Schreiber Theory is published in the DAILY TELEGRAPH