Another Good Reason to Hate the Internet Movie Database

January 28, 2008

I’m extremely skeptical of the Internet Movie Database for a number of reasons, most of them basic conceptual flaws: the complete lack of sourcing for any of its information; its failure to designate entries which may be incomplete or unverified; its labyrinthine and opaque process for accepting (or ignoring) corrections; and its disinterest in consulting experts in lieu of accepting unpaid “submissions” by people who must, like the old joke about people who can’t get out of jury duty, have too much time on their hands and no productive outlet for their knowledge.  But recently I noticed a practice that’s disturbing and wrong-headed even by the IMDb’s dubious standards.  On the IMDb page for most major recent American films, the acronym (WGA) appears in parentheses next to the film’s writing credits.  The “WGA” is clickable and leads to this page, which explains that since 1999 the Writers Guild of America “has been furnishing credits directly” to IMDb.  Following that are a handy explanation of both the WGA’s jurisdiction (which extends to “USA-controlled live-action film and TV projects, produced . . . by studios or major independent producers,” i.e., signatories to the Guild’s Minimum Basic Agreement – the same companies that are being struck by the Guild right now) and its rather intricate process for determining those credits.

However, buried in the next-to-last paragraph of this lengthy document is a crucial disclaimer:

The IMDb will not accept uncredited writers for titles with WGA-determined credits.

In other words, for the past nine years, the IMDb has been colluding with the Writers Guild of America to suppress critical information about how some movies were written.

I guess I should step back a moment and explain the WGA’s process for determining screen credits.  It’s always been common, from the early days of the Hollywood studios up to the present day, for movies and TV shows to be written by committee – by a succession of different writers put on the project by a producer or director.  In the 1930s, the studios treated writers as interchangeable and disposable; weird on-screen credits like “adaptation by” or “additional dialogue by” proliferated, and it wasn’t uncommon for an unscrupulous producer to steal the writer’s credit for himself (or a flunky or nephew).  Outrage over these practices were part of what led to the formation of the Screen Writers Guild (now the WGA) in 1933.  Wresting control of writers’ on-screen credits from the studios was a major victory for the nascent Guild.

Today the WGA has, in its own words, a “strong feeling against a multiplicity of credits” on a film.  In other words, not every writer who contributes a few lines, or even certain major ideas, to a screenplay will receive credit.  When multiple writers have taken a whack at a troubled screenplay, only those who contributed substantially to the finished film will be awarded credit.  When a dispute arises, the matter goes to the WGA’s arbitration committee, a group of members who read all the drafts of the screenplay and issue a binding version of the final credits.  The arbitration process is viewed by most in the industry as essentially honorable and fair – albeit responsible on occasion for a perplexingly bad call.  In some cases even writers who “won” screen credit have opined publicly that they didn’t deserve it.

The problem is that while the WGA system might serve the interests of working writers, it’s counterproductive for historians.  Those of us who write about movies need, very obviously, as much insight into the production history of a film as possible.  If you’re writing about John Frankenheimer, for instance, you need to know that The Train was “really written” not by the credited team of Frank Davis and Franklin Coen, but by the blacklisted writers Ned Young and Howard Dimsdale. 

As it happens, the IMDb doesn’t record that tidbit about The Train, but for older films it does often list uncredited contributors to the script.  Its Ben Hur page, for instance, offers this breakdown of the film’s on-screen writing credits:

Lew Wallace   (novel) (as General Lew Wallace)
Karl Tunberg   (screenplay)

and then the following:

Maxwell Anderson   uncredited and 
Christopher Fry   uncredited and 
Gore Vidal   uncredited

The names of the unacknowledged writers (and the prospect of analyzing their work on the film) are far more tantalizing than that of the journeyman, Karl Tunberg, who received sole screenplay credit.  And that’s a relatively minor example.  How could anyone hope to untangle the creation of The Wizard of Oz if its list of uncredited writers were unavailable?  Again, a reproduction of the IMDb’s writing credits for the film:

L. Frank Baum   (novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”)

Noel Langley   (screenplay) and 
Florence Ryerson   (screenplay) and 
Edgar Allan Woolf   (screenplay)

Irving Brecher   uncredited
William H. Cannon   uncredited
Herbert Fields   uncredited
Arthur Freed   uncredited
Jack Haley   additional dialogue (uncredited)
E.Y. Harburg   uncredited
Samuel Hoffenstein   uncredited
Bert Lahr   additional dialogue (uncredited)
Noel Langley   adaptation
John Lee Mahin   uncredited
Herman J. Mankiewicz   uncredited
Jack Mintz   uncredited

Or, to approach it from the other direction, anyone writing a biography one of Hollywood’s legendary “script doctors” – first-rank screenwriters like Robert Towne, Bo Goldman, or Alvin Sargent who have earned much of their living by punching up high-profile screenplays without credit – will have a tough time of it.  Such a figure’s involvement in a project is often a closely guarded secret, rarely reported in the press or the trades and disseminated only by word of mouth.  The IMDb could and should function as a repository to collect this data.

Of course, uncredited script revisions are “facts” that lie outside of a film’s official history, and should as such be treated cautiously.  And one of the IMDb’s major weaknesses is that one can’t evaluate the sources of its data; if, for instance, I managed to add Young’s and Dimsdale’s names to its page for The Train, you wouldn’t know that I gleaned their names from Frankenheimer himself, via his audio commentary on the DVD of the film. 

Still, there’s nothing to stop the IMDb from adding Young and Dimsdale to their page for the The Train.  But for any film made after 1999, that would be specifically forbidden. 

How important is this matter?  Essential, given that it’s still common practice for major blockbusters to be worked over by many (even dozens) of writers.  If the Los Angeles Times considered it newsworthy that such well-known writers as Ron Shelton, Jerry Stahl, and John Lee Hancock took a pass at the screenplay (if you can call it that) for Bad Boys 2, then it’s inexcusable that this reporting cannot be archived somewhere in the one place that is (for better or worse) everyone’s first stop for information about movies.

And, since this is a blog about classic television, consider what triggered my musings on the subject in the first place: the fact that Horton Foote wrote a draft of Denzel Washington’s new film The Great DebatersBad Boys 2 might provoke a scoff, but Foote is one of the most significant television writers and playwrights of his generation.  Any project on which he labored, no matter how insignificantly or futilely, is of interest to historians.  Foote’s participation in The Great Debaters is not recorded on the IMDb, nor will it ever be under the IMDb’s current policy.

It all reminds me of the cringeworthy conclusion to the Guild’s otherwise laudable project to restore the credits of blacklisted writers who worked under the table due to political oppression during McCarthy era.  During the 1990s the WGA undertook a comprehensive review of movies known to have been written by blacklistees, and to restore those writers’ names to the official credits (credits that originally went to fronts or pseudonyms) in its records.  The research was rigorous and conservative, and for all the credits it amended, the Guild reluctantly denied many that could not be substantiated. 

A heroic effort.  But then the WGA somehow convinced the major studios to physically alter the onscreen credits of many of the affected films.  The Bridge on the River Kwai‘s title card “Screenplay by Pierre Boulle” – notorious because Boulle spoke no English – was optically or digitally changed to “Screenplay by Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman” on all new prints and home video editions.  Not only was this historical revisionism at its most Orwellian, but in a savagely ironic way it contradicts the purpose of the Guild’s project.  By effacing Boulle’s absurd screen credit, the Guild erased evidence of the bitter farce that was McCarthyism.  (Plus, it was unnecessary: Why not simply add a new title card at the beginning or end of the film, with the names of the actual writers and an explanation of their initial omission, similar to the preservation credits appended to films that have undergone restoration?)

According to Craig Mazin, a Guild member whose blog contains the only other discussion of this issue I could find on the internet, the WGA pushed for its relationship with the IMDb as part of a general preference for keeping its arbitration backstories confidential.  Fair enough.  But why should the IMDb roll over for a special interest group whose goals run contrary to its own?  All that’s admitted on its WGA page is that the Guild has now spared the IMDb staff the oh-so-arduous task of retrieving certain TV and movie credits from published sources.  Hmmm . . . I wonder if there’s anything else the WGA might also have offered to secure the cooperation of the IMDb (or its corporate owner, Amazon.com)?

I don’t really expect any better than this from the Internet Movie Database, and I realize it’s ill-timed to bash the Writers Guild when it’s fighting for its relevance in a critical strike.  But come on, WGA: you guys are my heroes, and you’re letting me down.

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