I've read that while the writer/screenwriter creates the story, it's the director's vision that makes the motion picture. So, whose picture is it, anyway?

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    Can you give a clearer definition what exactly you want to know? A movie is project created by a multitude of people. How do you define the "ownership" you are talking about?
    – magnattic
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:35
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    @CGCampbell This reminds me of an anecdote a professor related in film school. A director was being interviewed about his "technique" in his latest film. The director talked at length about how he created his movies. Soon after the interview was published, the writer of the movie sent 120 blank pieces of paper to the director, along with the note: "Try to apply your technique to these." (In my film major, I focused on screenwriting.) Jun 4, 2014 at 18:45
  • At the moment this seems like very fuzzy and slightly subjective question. "Whose picture is it?" - Well, officially the producers'/studio's, I guess. But it's a very interesting point you adress in general (especially if someone could present a more in-depth historical survey of the ermergence of modern day's director-culture in an answer) and I would be glad if someone could back the question with a little more substantial wording.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jun 5, 2014 at 11:05

3 Answers 3


In addition to other answers, that already pointed out the collaborative nature of film-making (and thus the complexity of making a definite decision "whose picture it is"), I'd like to share some additional info, be it only to further emphasize how difficult a definite answer actually is. But beware that this information is entirely Wikipedia-based and I'm far from an expert on the topic.

First of all, there is the so-called Auteur Theory, which emerged in France in the 50s (first and foremost advocated by François Truffaut and fellow critics from Cahiers du Cinéma), which said

that a director's film reflects the director's personal creative vision, as if they were the primary "auteur" (the French word for "author"). In spite of—and sometimes even because of—the production of the film as part of an industrial process, the auteur's creative voice is distinct enough to shine through studio interference and the collective process.

So they basically tended to place the director as the primary creative force behind a movie and encouraged directors to actively imprint their own visions in the final product, favouring directors who acieved to mark their works with a distinct and consistent audiovisual style.

This might have been a direct reaction/aversion to the Hollywood Studio System, in which movies seemed to be an entirely industrialized process with the writer/director/cinematographer/actors simply being employees to produce the movies for the studios' profit. And this artistic and director centric approach later ushered in the movies and directors of the French New Wave (Nouvelle Vague) (and probably also the New Hollywood as a consequence of the collapsing Studio System).

Yet, this director-centric view was also frowned upon from different sides, mainly because film-making is a collaborative process and people saw that fact hurt by privileging the director that much. Special criticism came also from writers, who disagreed with the idea of directors being more authorial than screenwriters (and exactly for shifting the attention to the screenwriter, David Kipen developed the so-called Schreiber Theory as a reaction, yet in turn a rather intentionally exaggerated reaction it seems) and from people that claimed that Auteur Theory did not withstand the economic and industrial realities of film-making.

Personally speaking, I am a bit torn on the topic myself, too. While I agree that the director is usually the person with the most artistic influence on the final movie (which is so much more than just a story) and definitely deserves credit for that (in the end Auteur Theory didn't emerge out of nothing), the director-centric view of modern culture (maybe largely influenced by Auteur Theory and its decendents) sometimes tends to be exaggerated too much, in my opinion, especially when the screenwriter gets forgotten in discussions about a movie's plot. Film-making is a collaborative effort and the director is by far not the only major contributor, even if maybe the most important one.

But so much to the artisitic aspect of this whole question. With movies usually being industrial products there is however also a legal and economical aspect, which might not be any easier to answer, but nevertheless should have a more definite answer due to the more uncompromising nature of law.

Given that it is indeed usually the producers or the studio that give their money for the realization of the movie they in the end carry the financial responsibility of it and deserve to be called the "owners" of the movie in an economical sense, I guess (and are also the ones who sack the Academy Award for Best Picture for that matter).

Though, copyright law is another legal aspect that needs to be considered, and which can vary from country to country. For example Wikipedia says that under the influence of the afore mentioned Auteur Theory:

In law, the film is treated as a work of art, and the auteur, as the creator of the film, is the original copyright holder. Under European Union law, the film director is considered the author or one of the authors of a film.

But I have a strong feeling that this whole matter of copyright laws and legal ownership is far more intricate and needs to be investigated further. But suffice for now to say that there is both an aritistic/creative aspect of ownership as well as a legal/economic one and they both might not always walk hand in hand.

All in all the whole matter of "whose picture it is" can most probably not always be answered in a clear or definite way and might even vary from movie to movie. Yet, I think modern culture seems to largely agree that the director is generally more important than the screenwriter, however correct that might be to you or to reality.

  • Man, I am continually finding myself slightly at awe of your expertise. Wiki-based or not.
    – CGCampbell
    Jun 9, 2014 at 17:46
  • @CGCampbell Thank you, but to be honest it is really just a single Wikipedia article that I read some time ago and that sprang to my mind when this question appeared.
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jun 9, 2014 at 17:54
  • To all, I've changed this to my accepted answer. While the original one was an answer, I beleive that Napoleon's interpretation of what he read to be more so. He also brings in the "legal" and "copyright" views. Personally, I am strongly of the opinion that the current world wide consternation et. al. copyright and their violations is dooming creativity, instead of helping to protect it.
    – CGCampbell
    Jun 9, 2014 at 17:58

Movies are always collaborative efforts, unless the writer, director and cinematographer are all the same person:

  • The writer creates the story, so that's theirs.
  • The screenwriter adapts the story from what's usually a novel, play or existing movie into a screenplay, a script with limited character interaction details. The amount they add to the project really depends on how much they've changed the story to fit a movie format.
  • The director and cinematographer (a.k.a director of photography) will then collaborate to create a storyboard which adapts the screenplay into actual shots, describing blocking (character positions and movement) and set design.

And even if they are the same people, actors on set can always adlib which can give scenes more depth than was originally described.

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    Not to forget executive producers who make the movie possible from an organisational and financial point of view, editors, cutters, CGI and other post production staff who have a large influence on atmosphere, tone, visual and audio experience. As you said, its a collaborative effect, even if the director usually gets most of the credit in the end.
    – magnattic
    Jun 4, 2014 at 18:47
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    Not to forget the production designer, who is ultimately responsible for the physical appearance of everything visual in shot (costume, set design, props, location..) Jun 5, 2014 at 18:43
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    @JohnSmithOptional Don't you have some insightful answer about Auteur Theory and its influence, advantages and disadvantages up your sleeve?
    – Napoleon Wilson
    Jun 6, 2014 at 15:32
  • I think just drawing attention to auteur theory (and its detractors), as you have done, is probably enough! Jun 6, 2014 at 20:29

The general idea is that:

Theater is the writer's medium. TV is a producer's medium. Cinema is a director's medium.

Each of these general idea's come from who is being billed as the "storyteller" of a particular piece.

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