I’ve spent decades now doing my own writing, while trying to get paid for it as best I can, and also “writing for hire,” where payment is agreed upon and the work is not my own, despite the fact that I’ve done it. I’m not in any practical sense the author of the work I do for hire: copyright, control, and other aspects of authorship are held by somebody else, per contractual agreements. I just write it.
Legally, that is, “authorship” refers not to who did the work but to who owns and controls the product and the rights in it. You’ll see this at the end of closing credits on a movie: “Columbia Pictures [say] is the author of this motion picture for the purpose of copyright and other laws.” It means that the Hollywood studio that distributes the film has become its author, per contract, regardless of the degree to which the film was actually made by others. Assigning authorship is a price of getting film distribution.
My work-for-hire contracts often involve restrictions on disclosing anything I know about the work and how it was done, including the fact that it was done by me. So details will naturally be lacking here.
But it’s interesting to me that film directors don’t have this issue: A director might pitch his or her own favorite idea for a movie he or she wants to make or be approached to take on a directing role in a project that’s already in development. Either way, unless the director funds the thing himself, or otherwise has a producing role, or unless there’s a very unusual deal involved, if the project is underway, the director is in a way working for hire. Successfully pitching your own film idea doesn’t get you copyright on the resulting film; it gets your idea bought and you hired to do it.
The supposed downside, compared to book deals, is that the director is legally not the author. In a book deal for something I pitch, with my name on it — unlike in my writing for hire — I retain copyright, control, and many of the subsidiary rights.
The upside for filmmakers, though, is huge. The director is, if not the author, the auteur. People may have their opinions about the relative quality of Martin Scorsese’s films, but nobody thinks Scorsese is a great director when making “Gangs of New York” and a lowlife hack when making “Cape Fear.” One was a pet project, one a job. And you might be more interested in Scorsese pet projects than in studio-inspired remakes. Both pictures, however, because of the dynamics of Hollywood, were work for hire, with copyright not held by the director. And yet both are “Martin Scorsese films,” made in a trademark style and assessed as part of the director’s artistic output. Both films will appear in retrospectives.
The auteur theory was born, indeed, in an effort to identify artistry and style in the work of Hollywood directors who were assigned work by studio bosses in the 1930’s and ’40’s. Just because they were hired workers, the theory ran, doesn’t mean they didn’t create identifiable bodies of work, just like book authors. And they might do so across a variety of genres. Howard Hawks made “Bringing up Baby,” “Scarface,” “His Girl Friday,” and “Red River,” among a host of others. Few today care which studios he did those films for. The retrospectives are for Hawks.
Then there are the b-picture directors (sometimes the same people as the a-picture directors), who often worked with notable speed and relied on simple materials and narrative formulas: hardly viewed as hacks, some of them are among the auteur theory’s favorites. Sometimes the briefer the schedule and the less rich the resources, the more evident the invention, polish, or taste of the director.
Many writers who publish work they want to write, under their own names, and even get paid when doing so, have to find other sources of income as well, and some of us find it in writing for others. Many do so grudgingly, but the weird thing is that I often like it — find it fun, enjoy my mastery over it, gain what can be valuable experience for my own writing, even when my own writing diverges widely from what I do for hire. (OK, I do it grudgingly, but only the way I do any and all work grudgingly. Some days I’d rather be lying on the beach.) I’ve always wanted “day job” and “passion” to connect not necessarily by becoming identical but by enjoying some mutual flow, the way I fantasize they do for a film director, who both works for others and gets to do his own films. I envy a situation in which both modes are usually, legally, work-for-hire, yet both are part of an auteur’s body of work.
I get the feeling those guys just really like film, and working with it. And despite the fact that I prefer the times when I’m engaging with more complex and challenging ideas and finding my own ways of addressing them, when all is said and done I find I just really like writing, and not just narrative, either. I once took great satisfaction in writing user manuals for a huge mainframe system. I used standard approaches, which I was trying to learn and also to improve as I went. Those manuals were seriously, seriously good. Better than many. I still look at them sometimes with pride.
And I can look over old text I wrote for some corporate website in the late 1990’s and get a self-approving feeling of solidity from the way it refuses to say stuff like “to see more pictures, click the link below reading ‘I’d like to see more pictures,'” as so many did in those days. (Do I exaggerate? Only slightly.)
Ah: the sheer appropriateness of my standards!
Since I’m also a writer, historian, and critic whose views and methods err on the side of, shall we say, independence, my take on this issue may be weird: I actively like the writing I do on behalf of others. But precisely because I’ve spent decades dissenting from what I see as received hierarchies, where certain works I consider as hackish as all hell are held up as benchmarks of narrative-nonfiction excellence, and some stuff others disdain I consider fine, this may make some kind of sense. In one way, I don’t see bright lines between what is disdained and what is revered. Not “it’s all good”; it’s all, to me, pretty bad! The blatantly hack stuff at least has blatancy going for it.
Then again, when I read something I think is good, the lines between it and all of the other stuff, from the supposedly hack to the supposedly high-tone, become as bright as can be.