Raging Bullshit: Credits and the Hollywood Economy

Raging Bullshit: Credits and the Hollywood Economy

Raging Bullshit: Credits and the Hollywood Economy

The Max streaming platform debuted a credit system that obscures the actual work done by film writers and other creative workers. 


On May 24, the streaming platform Max, until recently HBO Max, and before that just HBO, issued an apology for a “an oversight in the technical transition from HBO Max to Max.” News of the “oversight” went viral on Twitter, thanks to an anonymous user posting under the handle John Frankensteiner.

Frankensteiner noticed that on Max’s interface for movies, the company had condensed many of the screen credits into one category, “Creators.” If you want to watch Raging Bull, the 1980 biopic of boxer Jake LaMotta starring Robert DeNiro and directed by Martin Scorsese, you will see that its “creators” are, in order: “Peter Savage, Martin Scorsese, Mardik Martin, Robert Chartoff, Paul Schrader, Jake La Motta, Irwin Winkler, Joseph Carter.” Max lists the actors under the catchall “Starring” designation in this order: “Frank Vincent, Cathy Moriarty, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro.”

By 1980, De Niro had won an Oscar for Godfather Part II, and on the original Raging Bull movie poster, his name appears above the title. As they say in the business, he earned it. In the Max-formatted version of the movie, he’s billed last. Likewise, at the time of Raging Bull’s release, Scorsese had directed Mean Streets and Taxi Driver, among other films, and Paul Schrader had written Taxi Driver, Obsession, Hardcore, and made his writing-directing debut with 1980’s American Gigolo. In the reconfigured credits for the streaming version of the movie, the first “creator” listing goes to Peter Savage—one of three cowriters involved with LaMotta’s original as-told-to memoir—but not an actual credited screenwriter for the movie.

Max downplays all this as a formatting glitch, but the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and Writers Guild of America (WGA) saw it as yet another power grab from the streaming industry—coming while the WGA strikes, the Screen Actors Guild endorsed its strike by a 97 percent membership vote, and (as of this writing) the DGA presents an offer from the producers to its members, over fair wages and work protocols in Hollywood. DGA President Lesli Linka Glatter said, “Warner Bros. Discovery’s unilateral move, without notice or consultation, to collapse directors, writers, producers and others into a generic category of ‘creators’ in their new Max rollout while we are in negotiations with them is a grave insult to our members and our union.” The WGA was equally harsh. “This attempt to diminish writers’ contributions and importance echoes the message we heard in our negotiations with [the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers],” WGA President Meredith Stiehm said, “that writers are marginal, inessential, and should simply accept being paid less and less, while our employers’ profits go higher and higher. This tone-deaf disregard for writers’ importance is what brought us to where we are today—Day 22 of our strike.”

Whether intentional or scheduled months ago in the transition, the clear, diminishing message to artists is clear. To some, the jostling for credits on movies may seem like pure ego. Yes, quite a bit of hardball can get played behind the scenes over star billing: who gets their name over the title, who gets screenplay and who gets “story by” credit, or the director’s “a film by” credit. Is this last attribution a “signature credit,” as directors call it, or a “vanity credit,” as others would say, for wannabes who fancy themselves the next Hitchcock? 

At the same time, though, credits are a core financial and labor issue that artists have been trying to control for more than a century.  They mattered in the early 20th century for the same reasons they matter now:  audience and fan support are the basis of artists’ salary demands and negotiating clout with the studios. In 1910, actor Florence Lawrence, who appeared anonymously in Biograph films like What Drink Did (1910) and Lady Helen’s Escapade (1910), directed anonymously by D.W. Griffith, became an audience favorite—but no one knew her name. The only way to see her was to buy a ticket to a Biograph film. The public only knew her as the “Biograph Girl.”

Lawrence sought to leverage her popularity into regular weekly, not daily, pay, and made a demand seen at the time as the essence of pampered diva conduct: her own makeup table. So Biograph fired her. Producer Carl Laemmle, future founder of Universal Pictures, hired her and soon made Florence Lawrence’s name public, in a bid to draw her fans over to his company. Exactly what the studios feared most happened next—Lawrence became what we today call a “movie star.” By 1912, she produced her own movies in partnership with Laemmle and her director husband, Harry Solter, as the Victor Company.

Writers began organizing in 1920, and the fight for fair crediting was a linchpin of their efforts. After a series of abortive organizing drives, they finally got the right to determine screen credits—21 years later, with the WGA Basic Agreement of 1941.

Previously, studio executives might choose to list a more well-known writer (say, a famous playwright or novelist) and ignore lesser-known studio contract writers to better market a movie. They could also simply give a writing credit to a screenwriter or director they favored personally (the producer’s brother-in-law, say, or a college pal—a not uncommon practice). Writers, like actors, must rely on audiences—and hence studio acknowledgment—as the basis for building their careers.

It’s also a more complicated determination for writers. While there is only one actor playing Jake LaMotta in Raging Bull, the film credits two screenwriters (Paul Schrader and Mardik Martin). On Max, even if you knew who the five writers were in that undifferentiated list of “creators,” you would not know which of the five wrote the screenplay. In the WGA-approved format for the original film release, Schrader’s name came first in the credits over Martin’s. This is an economic calculation as well as a matter of career prestige: Who gets listed where in a film’s credits determines residual payments and tells the industry who the WGA thinks did the actual work.

The WGA’s arbitration process for allocating credit is famously far from perfect, but it at least offers a standardized model for placement and takes that determining power away from management and people with a personal stake in the movie. Max’s clumsy compression of the whole process diminishes the clout writers, directors, and actors have in determining their audience draw. It’s true that after 43 years, the “creators” of Raging Bull will not be affected much—but with thousands of other lesser-known films rolled out on Max, combined with the precedent it may set for other platforms, the “creators” category, if permitted to stand, will shape—and diminish—careers.

That’s also why the director’s guild has been quick to call out the practice—it reprises the basic struggles over creative control that launched their union. “There are only half a dozen directors in Hollywood who are allowed to shoot as they please and who have any supervision over their editing,” Frank Capra wrote in The New York Times in 1939, as the directors inched closer to their first deal with the studios. “Truly a sad situation for a medium that is supposed to be the director’s medium.”

The fight to establish creative autonomy is why the DGA has always insisted that a director’s name appear alone on the screen, not shared with any other member of the team. The DGA’s studio contract even dictates the size of the director’s name in advertising: “The Director of the film shall be accorded credit on all positive prints and all videodiscs/videocassettes of the film in size of type not less than fifty percent (50%) of the size in which the title of the motion picture is displayed.”

Tossing Scorsese’s name into an apparently randomly ordered list of creatives gives the impression that all creative people on Raging Bull made an equal contribution to the film—and that is not the case. One can argue the merits of the auteur theory movie by movie—but never the central role of the director in making a film, which the DGA’s director credits establish immediately.

Max has said it will correct its crediting protocols. It has to, in deference to the minimum basic agreements of these guilds and the individual contracts of the talent involved. However intentional this crediting “oversight” may be, it should be understood as yet one more symptom of a serious industry-wide rollback. Online tech corporations tend to view artists much as the Biograph studio did in 1910: gig-economy workers, anonymized commodities, always and forever subservient to the brand. The effort to revive that mentality in today’s entertainment industry represents a direct attack on the careers of the people who create movies and television.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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