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5 Reasons Why Film Directors Get Too Much Credit and Too Much Blame

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Steven Spielberg
Having received formal training as a creative writer, you might say that I’ve got a proverbial horse in this race. What I’m about to say is either a genuinely uncommon piece of insight or something so obvious that nobody bothers pointing it out anymore. Here it is:

Film directors get way too much blame for bad movies and entirely too much credit for good ones. In comparison, screenwriters are criminally overlooked, unless we’re talking about one of the industry’s do-it-all auteurs like Joss Whedon, Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino or the Cohen brothers.

With remarkable predictability, it’s the directors who make public apologies for films that get critically panned, and yet it’s those same directors who embark on the talk show circuit to get congratulated about carrying out their remarkable vision. There are a number of reasons for this – some of them practical, some less so. Here are five of them.

1. They’re Household Names

The biggest reason for this trend is simple precedent and/or tradition. For whatever reason, directors are, and have always been, household names. Maybe they’re inherently more photogenic than screenwriters? I really don’t know.

What’s your favorite movie? If you had a gun to your head, could you say who wrote it? How about, just as an example, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial? Everybody in the world knows that Steven Spielberg directed it, but how many could tell you that it was written by Melissa Mathison? Probably none but the most dedicated film buffs. I’m just as guilty; I had to look it up.

2. It’s a Failure of Marketing

Do you remember Man of Steel – the Superman reboot of 2013? Just about all of the pre-release promotional material drew significant attention to the fact that it was produced by Christopher Nolan and directed by Zack Snyder – both significant talents in the industry, but arguably not the people most instrumental in the shaping of the film’s story.

That responsibility fell to David S. Goyer, who also wrote Dark City, the Blade films and all three of the films in the Dark Knight trilogy. Despite a seriously impressive résumé, he still played second fiddle when Man of Steel came out.

3. Directors are Egotistical

There, I said it. I know there are probably countless exceptions, but it’s hard not recognize that the mystique of The Director is not so much a cult of personality as an empire of personality.

Take, for example, James Cameron. He’s helmed some of the most recognizable and highest-grossing films ever made, but do you know how many of those he’s actually written? Of the 35 films he’s been involved with since 1978, he wrote only 19. A respectable number by any measure, but it still represents the sort of industry-wide oversight that’s now become a pattern.

How about George Lucas? He’s the most recognizable name attached to the Star Wars films, but he had rather little involvement in writing either The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi – arguably the two strongest installments in the franchise.

4. There’s Only One Director

The movie we see on the screen is the product of countless hours of work, provided by nearly innumerable and highly trained men and women. In other words, there’s a reason why modern movie credits are nearly as long as the feature itself.

The screenplay and the cinematography is largely a joint effort and is more often than not a product of significant collaboration. Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, Marc Forster’s World War Z and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire were all written (or re-written) by multiple screenwriters.

There’s only one director per film, however – a fact that, for better or worse, makes them the most obvious figurehead when a movie is well received, as well as the most convenient lightning rod if the film tanks. There are simply too many names attached to any one movie, making it only too easy for the public, and even critics who know better, to grab hold of the director’s name as a convenient repository for either accolades or condemnation.

5. We Let Them

It might be useless to decry this pattern as “good” or “bad” or anything other than an observable fact. It simply is. A great deal of the problem is that the average moviegoer doesn’t really seem that interested in the names behind the films they enjoy; they walk out, tell their friends they either liked or didn’t like it, and then they move on. Only the promise of an after-credits scene keeps audiences in their seats after the film ends.

Again, there are plenty of exceptions, but by and large, there doesn’t seem to be any real inquiry into the sheer crucible of talent that goes into creating a modern movie. It’s a great deal easier to attach our affections to the four or five members or our favorite bands, or to the single author of the books we read. It seems a lot more to ask that people take the time to remember the names behind the scenes of their favorite films.

Adrienne is a freelance writer and designer who loves social media and music. You can see more of her work on her design blog.