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Conflicts of Authorship and the Autonomization of Cinema in Pre-60s United States and France

Qu’est-ce qu’un (auteur de) film ? Prétendants au statut d’auteur et autonomisation du cinéma avant les années 1960 (États-Unis-France)
Qué es una (un autor de) película ? Aspirantes al estatus de autor y autonomización del cine antes de los años 1960 (Estados Unidos- Francia)
Jérôme Pacouret
Traduction de Jean-Yves Bart
Cet article est une traduction de :
Qu’est-ce qu’un (auteur de) film ? [fr]


L’article analyse les interdépendances entre l’autonomisation du cinéma et les luttes de définition de l’auteur de film qui ont opposé des producteurs, des scénaristes, des écrivains et des réalisateurs français et américains des années 1910 aux années 1950. Il présente les enjeux, acteurs et arènes des luttes de définition de l’auteur de film. Il montre que les prétendants au statut d’auteur de film ont contribué au processus d’autonomisation du cinéma en définissant les films comme des œuvres d’art, en défendant différentes conceptions des relations entre le cinéma et d’autres activités artistiques et en distinguant (ou non) la valeur esthétique des films de leur popularité et de leur rentabilité. Ces conceptions antagonistes du cinéma sont rapportées à ses relations avec d’autres champs de production culturelle. Favorisées par la rencontre entre des œuvres et professionnels de différents champs, les luttes de définition des auteurs de films ont été un vecteur d’autonomisation du champ cinématographique par rapport à d’autres domaines d’activité. Tout en analysant leur interdépendance, ce texte encourage à ne pas confondre les processus d’autonomisation d’un champ, de hiérarchisation de son personnel et d’attribution des œuvres.

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1Was it necessary for films to be attributed to authors for cinema to become an original art? Who were the authors of this new art? Pierre Bourdieu and Howard Becker both discussed the attribution of literary and artistic works to sole authors and artists. Bourdieu repeatedly asked “Who creates the creator?” (Bourdieu 1977; 1996; 2002; Bourdieu & Delsaut 1975). He challenged the “charismatic ideology of the creator” by attributing the value of artworks to the literary and artistic fields as a whole. Howard Becker explained that an artwork results from institutionalized cooperation between a large number of individuals (an “art world”) (Becker 1988). He introduced a distinction between artists and the “support personnel” of art worlds, which is partly based on their tasks. Howard Becker also observed that the definition of artists was a representation and a debated issue, especially in the case of motion pictures. The “charismatic ideology of the creator”—which Pierre Bourdieu described both as a preconception and a “well-founded” ideology (Bourdieu 1977)—remains a phenomenon that structures the production, dissemination, and reception of cinematographic works. For example, in France, film critics and cinema goers often praise “cinéma d’auteur” as opposed to “commercial” cinema. This article shows that the attribution of motion pictures to authors contributed to two dimensions of the autonomization of cinema: the differentiation of cinema from other cultural productions and the definition of a cinematographic value that cannot be reduced to the profitability and box-office success of films.

2Several sociologists have already associated the attribution of films to directors with the autonomization, “artification,” or artistic legitimation of cinema. Philippe Mary considered that the Cahiers du cinéma’s “auteur theory” and the French Nouvelle Vague established cinema as an autonomous art by asserting the power of directors over their collaborators (Mary 2006). According to Martine Chaudron and Nathalie Heinich, Cahiers du cinéma critics and Nouvelle Vague filmmakers invented the authorship of directors and defined cinema as an art (Chaudron & Heinich 2012). They supposedly did so by heralding B movies as expressions of genius by unconventional directors, and by highlighting the creative role of directors rather than the contributions of producers and actors. Martine Chaudron and Nathalie Heinich argued that “there can only truly be an ‘author’ of a film—someone who puts a signature on it—insofar as the filmmaker, or director, has control over the entire production process, from the choice or even the writing of the script to the final version of the editing” (Chaudron & Heinich 2012: 229-230). Shyon Baumann explained that the artistic legitimation of Hollywood cinema in the 1960s was favoured by the self-promotion and increased independence of directors, contrasting with their lack of recognition and perception as technicians in previous decades (Baumann 2007). Julien Duval’s work stands out by dating the beginning of the autonomization process of cinema back to the 1920s (Duval 2016: 81-128). He argued that the aesthetic innovations of a few American and European directors enabled cinema to free itself from the tutelage of the other arts and helped motion pictures to be granted aesthetic value regardless of their box-office success.

3These studies are right to relate film authorship to the definition of cinema as an original art, and with the emergence of an aesthetic value of motion pictures, distinct from box-office success. However, they have several limitations. First, the periodization adopted by Julien Duval is more accurate than that of the other cited studies. Indeed, it is between the 1890s and the 1920s that the three conditions for the emergence of a field of cultural production according to Bourdieu (Bourdieu 1971; Sapiro 2017) were met: the development of a market, the specialization of a workforce, and the introduction of specific instances of consecration (film critics). Second, these studies neglect the fact that the authorship claims of directors were challenged by other professional groups—mostly producers and the writers of screenplays, books and plays adapted as films. Third, when they argue that the definition of cinema as art was hindered by its “commercial” or “popular” character, the works of Julien Duval, Martine Chaudron, and Nathalie Heinich fail to consider that a fraction of professionals claiming to be authors, as well as some film critics, viewed cinema as a “popular” or “democratic” art. These professionals and critics did not subscribe to the idea of the “reversed economy” put forth by Bourdieu in his research on the literary field (Bourdieu 1996).

4This article examines how members and representatives of several occupations claimed authorship of motion pictures. They did so by promoting different conceptions of the relations between cinema and other cultural productions, and by distinguishing (or not) the aesthetic value of films from their popularity and profitability. This article, which studies how authorship conflicts contributed to the autonomization of cinema, also aims to reach a better understanding of the attribution of motion pictures. It shows that film authorship was shaped by the relations between the field of cinema and other fields.

  • 1 The idea that French and American modes of film production are (very) different has been nurtured b (...)

5This article reveals that similar conceptions of film authorship were promoted in France and in the US, despite differences in film production between the two countries1. The main purpose of this binational framework is not to observe similarities or differences between two national cases, but to avoid two forms of “methodological nationalism” (Dumitru 2014; Wimmer & Schiller 2002)—circumscribing the study to the borders of nation-states and characterizing a social group based on nationality or location, assuming that these properties distinguish it from groups of other nationalities. Instead of considering that French and American professionals belong to national fields or worlds, I study them as actors in a transnational division of cinematographic labour, as well as in authorship conflicts and a process of autonomization unfolding in several countries. This partial denationalization of the study is all the more relevant as cinema has been characterized by very intense transnational exchanges and international competitions since its inception. These exchanges and competitions contributed to its process of autonomization (Duval 2016: 124-126) and to the appropriation of films by authors. Although I cannot present all the international and transnational dimensions of these phenomena here, I will consider the claims of international professional associations and the exchanges that structured the attitudes of screenwriters, producers, and directors towards box-office success.

  • 2 For instance, not all Hollywood directors defined themselves as the sole authors of motion pictures (...)

6My sources include the discourses of screenwriters, producers, and directors who participated in authorship conflicts in the press and in copyright negotiations. Being unable to account for all the existing views on filmmaking, I have focused on spokespersons of professional associations and commercially successful or critically acclaimed professionals. The fame and recognition of these professionals made their views more likely to be shared by other members of their groups or to serve as models. However, their discourses, are not representative of all the views on filmmaking expressed by screenwriters, producers, and directors2. The period under study begins with the emergence of film authorship battles in the 1910s and ends in the late 1950s/early 1960s, when the status of author was codified by the 1957 French copyright law and the 1976 Copyright Act in the US. This periodization shows that film authorship existed and was disputed long before the Nouvelle Vague, New American Cinema, and New Hollywood—which have already been studied extensively—reinforced the recognition of directors as authors. This article is based on a PhD thesis on film authorship and copyright law from the 1900s to the 2010s (Pacouret 2018).

7The first section briefly introduces the participants in authorship battles and their motives. Subsequent sections respectively address the differentiation of cinema from other cultural productions and the differentiation of the aesthetic and economic value of motion pictures.

1. Film Authorship Conflicts

8Struggles over the definition of film authors have contributed to the process of autonomization of cinema. However, these conflicts cannot be reduced to a cause, an effect or a mere corollary of the differentiation of cinema. What was at stake in these struggles was not only the definition of cinema and its relations with other cultural productions, but also the distribution of power, money, and recognition among film occupations.

9Film authorship was claimed by members and spokespersons of occupations that specialized in the 1900s and 1910s, in connection with transformations such as the production of longer movies and the growth of motion picture companies (Bordwell, Staiger, Thompson 1985: 113-153; Carou 2011). From 1907 on, the coordination and direction of shootings, previously taken on by cameramen, was appropriated by directors following the model of theatre. Between the late 1900s and early 1910s, the writing of stories, previously assumed by cameramen and directors, was entrusted to writers. This facilitated the production of feature films and also aimed to benefit from the popularity of writers and playwrights. In the 1910s, the position of producer began to differentiate in the largest companies. Subsequently, the term “producer” came to refer to both the companies’ owners and those in charge of planning production and controlling costs.

10Directors, producers, and the authors of scripts, books, and plays adapted for the screen claimed to be authors for various purposes and in various settings. Michel Foucault related the emergence of the “author function” in literature with the development of property over writing (Foucault 2001). Self-proclaimed film authors sought to secure rights similar to those granted to writers and artists under the French, US, and international laws on literary and artistic property. Films were defined as copyrighted works by a revision of the 1908 Berne Convention and a 1912 amendment to US law. These legal provisions followed two sets of struggles (Carou 2002; Decherney 2012; Jeancolas, Meusy, Pinel 1996). On the one hand, film companies tried to prevent their competitors from reproducing and selling the films they had produced. On the other, writers, playwrights, publishers, and theatre owners sought to control film adaptations of books and plays, benefit from adaptations, and protect theatre from the competition of cinema.

  • 3 The Berne Convention was constantly renegotiated during the first half of the twentieth century, an (...)

11From the 1920s to the 1950s, writers, screenwriters, producers, and directors participated in numerous revisions or attempts to revise French, US, and international copyright laws3. In these negotiations, they claimed the status of sole author and owner of films. They were represented by preexisting organizations, such as societies of authors founded by playwrights and writers (the Société des auteurs et compositeurs dramatiques and the Authors League), associations of motion picture employers and/or new professional associations created to defend their members’ authorship and property rights, such as the Société des auteurs de films (1917) and the Screen Writers Guild (1920) (Armengol 2013; Carou 2002; Jeancolas et al. 1996; Loyant 2009; Wheaton 1974). During the 1930s and 1940s, in order to take part in national and international copyright negotiations, producers, screenwriters, and directors founded international associations bringing together professionals from a few dozen countries: the International Federation of Film Producers’ Associations and the International Federation of Film Authors (which represented screenwriters and directors).

12Authorship claims had financial motives. French and American copyright laws grant authors with a monopoly over the reproduction and diffusion of their works. They may transfer their property rights in exchange for compensation that is in some cases more profitable than a wage. French screenwriters and directors sought as authors to obtain compensation correlated with the revenue or profits derived from the films. Authorship and ownership claims also attempted to accumulate recognition or symbolic capital: the author status distinguishes those who benefit from it from the rest of the personnel by attributing the former most of the aesthetic value of the motion pictures and allowing them to associate their names with those of the films. The mention of authors’ names in film credits and advertising has been the subject of litigation and was one of the first claims of professional associations. The symbolic benefits associated with authorship may also increase the authors’ income and power over other workers. Professional power was also at stake in copyright battles. In France and the US, societies of directors and screenwriters claimed a “moral right” allowing them to oppose changes to their work, such as re-editing by producers and cinema owners.

13Authorship conflicts also took place in arenas other than copyright negotiations. Members of the same occupations tried to secure collective agreements providing for rights close to the ones they claimed in copyright negotiations. The definition of film authors was also debated in cultural and film publications that appeared in the early twentieth century (Abel 1988; Frey 2015; Gauthier 2008). In the film press, producers, screenwriters, and directors presented themselves as authors, which nurtured their public and critical recognition. According to many articles and autobiographies from this period, authorship conflicts also occurred in the workplace, where producers, screenwriters and directors tried to control screenwriting, casting, editing, etc.

14Film authorship was equally debated and constructed by actors other than screenwriters, producers, and directors. Workers in lower positions in the economic and symbolic hierarchies of cinema, such as cinematographers and editors, valued their work by challenging the attribution of films to one person only, or conversely by presenting themselves as collaborators of the director (Crisp 1987; Denis 2011; Marion 1949; Morrissey 2011; Namburg 1938). Legal experts also competed in copyright negotiations and in courts, where they supported authorship claims. In the press, motion pictures were attributed to authors by film critics, who borrowed ways to classify and evaluate art works from literary and art critics (Abel 1985; Gauthier 2008). Pre-war critical anthologies clearly attest that both in France and the US, the attribution of motion pictures to individuals, especially to directors, was very common before Cahiers du cinema even existed (Abel 1988; Hochman 1982).

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

Portrait and name of author on the cover of La Revue du cinéma (1930).

Source: Calindex.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Portrait and name of author on the cover of La Revue du cinéma (1930).

Source: Calindex.

15Authorship battles have some similarities with the jurisdictional conflicts conceptualized by Andrew Abbott (Abbott 1988: 59-85). He contended that the tasks and rights of the members of a profession depend on its competitions with other groups for the monopoly over areas of jurisdiction. These struggles over jurisdiction unfold in three main arenas: the workplace, the state and public opinion. Yet the struggles over the definition of film authors contrast with struggles over jurisdiction in the sense that their actors were not so much divided regarding the distribution of tasks and the monopoly over certain competencies as about their contribution to the value of films. Screenwriters, producers and directors have each sought to impose opposite representations of film production and its hierarchies. In this way, authorship conflicts resemble struggles over the definition of other social groups, such as class and socio-economic groups (Boltanski 1982; Bourdieu 1984). As we will see, producers, screenwriters, and directors also promoted different conceptions of cinema and of its relations with other fields of cultural production.

2. Conductors, Writers, and Composers for the Screen

16Several studies have shown that the autonomization of an artistic field is favoured by the affirmation of its singularity in relation to other arts and by comparison to older, more legitimate artistic activities (Boltanski 1975:42; Heinich & Shapiro 2012: 294-295). This phenomenon can be observed in film authorship battles. Producers, screenwriters, and directors claimed to be the sole authors of an original art while comparing their activities to those of authors, artists, and entrepreneurs working in other fields.

17To define themselves as authors, producers stressed the collective and costly nature of filmmaking. They also emphasized the differences between motion pictures and artworks attributed to individuals such as novels and paintings. In 1951, the producers’ international federation adopted a charter for film production which stated that a motion picture is a work produced collectively,—a work of the mind just as much as a technical and industrial good (Le Film français 1951). This charter also stated that a motion picture cannot be reduced to another work, even in the case where a literary or artistic work is being adapted. In keeping with their view of cinema as an art and an industry, spokespersons for producers presented themselves as entrepreneurs to justify their status of authors and owners. In 1958, in the negotiation that led to the 1976 Copyright Act, the Motion Pictures Association of America claimed that the sole author was “the entrepreneur or producer, who, for the purpose of this recordation of a single captured rendition, has financed and coordinated the intellectual labours of various persons employed not only to create or adapt source materials of a literary, dramatic, or musical nature for the rendition, but also the intellectual labours of an artistic and interpretative character of those who have performed therein and directed such performances.” (Copyright Office 1958). In a piece published in 1931 in Le Temps and reproduced in 1951 in Le Film français, the president of the trade union body Chambre syndicale de la cinématographie and of the International Federation of Film Producers’ Associations, Charles Delac, likened the producer to an author, an entrepreneur, and a “genuine conductor, weighing each contribution so that none of the parts of the work is sacrificed to others; in this feverishly creative environment, the producer constantly offers critical input, calm, and moderation, as well as his knowledge of the needs of cinema” (Delac 1951).


Video 1

Trailer for a film produced by Samuel Goldwyn: The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).

Crédits : YouTube

19Spokespersons for writers and screenwriters, on the other hand, justified their author status by defining motion pictures as representations or translations of their writings into images. In 1925, speaking before a House of Representatives committee, writer and screenwriter Alice Duer Miller argued that a screenplay is to a film what a manuscript is to a book and a play to a theatrical performance (House of Representatives 1925: 61). To prove her point, she described the shooting of a scene, quoting a screenplay that included specifications for decor, characters, their movements, dialogues, emotions, as well as ways of filming them. In 1928, commenting on the Berne Convention revision, president of the Société des auteurs de films Michel Carré claimed that the importance of the writer could not be underestimated, as “in cinema, as in theatre and in literature, subject is everything” (La Cinématographie française, 1928). In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the development of sound film was heralded by playwrights and screenwriters such as Marcel Pagnol and Robert Sherwood (Pagnol 1991; Sherwood 1929). They saw sound film as the promise of a new dramatic art where the screenwriter would be the sole author. In 1936, during a congressional hearing on the Berne Convention, screenwriter John Howard Lawson argued that talkies and their dialogues made the importance of the screenwriter more apparent than it used to be when Hollywood was dominated by directors and then producers, whom he held responsible for the poor quality of motion pictures (House of Representatives 1936).

20While defining film authors by referring to theatre and literature, writers and screenwriters emphasized the specificities of writing for this medium. As early as 1921, writer and screenwriter Somerset Maugham claimed that the screenwriter was more important than the director on the grounds that the conventions of writing for film were different than for novels and plays (Maugham 1921). Whilst defending the idea that sound film would become the dramatist’s art, Marcel Pagnol and Robert Sherwood also made a distinction between writing scripts and writing plays. To the American playwright, a talking film could not be described simply as the recording of a theatrical play; a movie was as independent of a play as it was of a fugue. Robert Sherwood decried the adaptation of many plays from Broadway. He believed that Hollywood’s former white hopes were unable to write and direct dialogue, while newcomers from Broadway did not understand the art of expression in moving pictures (particularly close-ups). According to Marcel Pagnol, talkies would enable dramatists to surpass Molière and Shakespeare, making it possible to jump over handrails, turn around the stage, tear down the walls of the theatre and break decors and actors into pieces.


Video 2

Trailer for the film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead (1949).

Crédits : YouTube

22Like screenwriters and producers, directors defined cinema as a new art, while comparing their activity to the work of artists and authors in other fields. They distinguished themselves from the stage directors with whom they were associated by the spokespersons of screenwriters and writers. In the early 1920s, Germaine Dulac called for the abolishment of the term metteur en scène (director, a term also used for the theatre) and its replacement by visualisateur (literally, visualizer). She defined the visualisateur as the “artist, who, on a given theme, composes and delivers images, which are the film’s words, their flow” (Dulac 1994). The same director then advocated for the terms cinégraphiste, compositeur visuel (visual composer), and cinéaste. In 1928, while the Berne Convention was being revised, Léon Poirier elected to use compositeur over metteur en scène, deeming the latter term unsuitable on the grounds that it was borrowed from the vocabulary of theatre (La Cinématographie française, 1928). More broadly, directors emphasized the originality of cinema compared with other arts, especially literature and theatre. In 1924, Germaine Dulac defined cinema as a “wonderful art that dons the robes of other arts as a superfluous luxury,” even if it could “borrow from architecture its harmonious lines, from sculpture its pretty forms, from music its rhythm, from painting its elaborate use of lighting, and soon maybe its colors” (Dulac 1994: 45). The following year, she blamed literature for “believing it had the right to reduce cinema to its own laws” (Dulac 1994: 53-54).


Video 3

 “Impressions visuelles de Germaine Dulac” : Disque 957 (1928).

Crédits : YouTube


Video 4

Maya Deren, A Study in Choreography For Camera (1945).

Crédits : YouTube

25While screenwriters and writers saw in cinema the promise of a new dramatic art, some directors again emphasized the differences between theatre and cinema. In response to Marcel Pagnol’s views, René Clair argued in 1929 that sound film must remain even more distinct from theatre than silent film used to be: in cinema, words only mattered in relation to the image, whereas in theatre, what was seen only existed to serve the actors’ words (Abel 1988: 39-40). According to him, talking cinema made the director doubly important, as he was now in charge of both image and sound.

26American directors also defined themselves as authors by defining cinema as an original art and comparing their own work with the work of artists in other fields. This was the case of the first two presidents of the Directors Guild of America, King Vidor and Frank Capra. The former wrote that the director had to be a writer, a playwright, an editor, a technician, and a musician all at once—the paradox of cinema being that it brings all arts together without being reduced to any of them (Vidor 1972: 36 and 229). The latter presented cinema as a new language and a new art, with only one author, like theatrical plays and musical compositions (Capra 1997: 33-34).


Video 5

Trailer for Frank Capra’s film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). 

Crédits : YouTube

28How to explain that several professional groups defined themselves as the authors of works in a new art, while comparing themselves to the authors, artists, and professionals working in other fields? First, their discourses were fuelled by those of other actors involved in authorship battles. They challenged the views of members of other occupations who were also claiming the authorship and ownership of motion pictures. Also, their views of cinema were shaped by their claims: producers, screenwriters, and directors sought to obtain the property rights granted to the entrepreneurs, artists, and authors with whom they compared themselves. The discourses of producers, screenwriters, and directors also echoed those of critics. As mentioned above, film criticism quickly made the “author function” one of its main tools for classifying and evaluating motion pictures, generally opting to attribute films to directors. Like self-proclaimed authors and in the wake of writers such as Canudo (Andreazza 2006; 2018), film critics too defined cinema as a new art, which enabled them to claim competencies that distinguished them from critics in other artistic disciplines. Whether they likened cinema to more prestigious activities or celebrated virtues and promises that were out of reach for authors and artists in other fields, the discourse of film “authors” and film critics was likely to increase the cultural legitimacy of cinema at a time when it was challenged by “cine-phobic” writers, critics, and intellectuals (Baumann 2007: 113-117; Gauthier 1999: 240-242; Restoueix 1995; Sherman 2016). Whether they concurred or clashed with the discourse of critics and other professionals, the definitions of cinema promoted by self-proclaimed authors ensured their dominant position in a developing professional hierarchy while promoting the cultural legitimation of cinema. Their discourse was thus likely to increase the economic and symbolic rewards resulting from their activity.

29The views of cinema and film authorship promoted by screenwriters, directors, and producers were also shaped by their professional activities and career paths. Members and spokespersons for these groups sometimes compared themselves with authors and professionals whose “bundles of tasks” (Becker 1988) were somewhat similar to theirs, like novelists in the case of screenwriters. Such comparisons, and more broadly the struggles over the definition of film authors and the value of motion pictures, were favoured by the training and other activities pursued by producers, screenwriters, and directors. Luc Boltanski showed that the formation of a field of comic books and the production of “auteur comics” were favoured by the training and failed careers of some comic writers in other artistic disciplines (Boltanski 1975: 38). The same phenomenon can be observed in cinema. Some screenwriters could easily consider themselves as film authors as they were writing books and plays, or had done so. Beginning in the 1910s, societies such as Le Film d’Art, the Société cinématographique des auteurs et gens de lettres, and Eminent Authors (a Goldwyn affiliate) offered “author’s screenplays” in order to benefit from the reputation of successful writers (Carou 2002; 2013; Fine 1993; Rosten 1941: 306-317). The craftsmanship of writers also came in handy as films became longer and sound film became widespread. Roughly 150 published writers were hired as screenwriters in Hollywood in the 1930s (Fine 1993: 12). Like screenwriters, many film directors had worked in other artistic fields. Unsurprisingly, the first generations of film directors had first worked in the theatre (Bordwell & al. 1985: 117-120; Carou 2013). Many directors active in the 1920s to 1950s had written plays, poems, or novels, or learned and practiced painting, sculpture, architecture, or music (Crisp 1997: 160 and 330; Duval 2016: 106-107). As for the producers, they found it all the easier to compare themselves to entrepreneurs as many of them had founded and directed companies that marketed products and services other than films. Some of them used to be cinema owners and manufacturers of motion picture equipment (Aberdeen 2000: 26; Alberta, Gili & al. 2001).

30Struggles over the definition of film authors and the relations between cinema, literature, and theatre were also nurtured by adaptations of books and plays. In the late 1900s, these adaptations were among the first motion pictures to be advertised as “auteur films”—the authors being the writers whose works had been adapted for the screen (Carou 2002; Bordwell et al. 1985: 131-132). Numerous adaptations were made over the following years and decades, with various aims: facilitating the production of feature-length talking films; benefiting from the reputation acquired by novelists and playwrights; avoiding moral reprobation; legitimating cinema in comparison with the theatre and attracting a bourgeois audience. In 1930, as talking film was becoming widespread, more than 20 per cent of Hollywood films were adaptations of Broadway plays and musicals (Chabrol 2016: 64). In France, adaptations of novels and plays made up barely under half of the feature-length films produced between 1936 and 1959 (Crisp 1997: 290). Adaptations were central in authorship conflicts, both in the press and in copyright negotiations. On the one hand, writers and screenwriters claimed authorship and moral rights in order to oppose detrimental changes to books, plays, and scripts made by producers, and directors. On the other, producers, screenwriters and directors valued the changes they made in books and plays. Some of them also dismissed adaptations on the grounds that they made cinema subordinate to literature and theatre.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

Advertisement by Film d’Art.

Source: Mounet-Sully and Paul Mounet.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Advertisement by Eminent Authors.

Source: Internet Movie Database.

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

Advertisement by Eminent Authors.

Source: Wikimedia Commons.

3. Auteur Versus Commercial Cinema?

31The differentiation between the aesthetic value of films and their popularity and profitability is another dimension of the autonomization of cinema. This process has structured authorship conflicts and has been influenced by those struggles in return. Indeed, screenwriters, producers, and directors defined themselves as authors by denouncing the financial constraints imposed by other occupations (particularly producers). They also criticized the members of their own professions who were supposedly the most driven by money or public success. However, not all self-defined authors depicted aesthetic value as conflicting with profitability and popularity: some producers, screenwriters, and directors defined themselves as authors of an industrial, commercial, or “popular” art. Several scholars have perceptively pointed out that representations of cinema as a “popular art” neglected the class relations that structure the production and consumption of motion pictures (Duval 2016; Montebello 2003)—which in French is accentuated by the polysemy and strategic uses of the word populaire (Bourdieu 1983), which may mean both “widely successful” and “lowbrow.” Still, the promotion of cinema as a “popular” art was not without sociological foundations. The attitudes of screenwriters, producers, and directors towards public success and the pursuit of profit should be related to characteristics of the film market and the relations between cinema and other fields.

32Some directors defined themselves as film authors at odds with the industrial character of cinema, the pursuit of profit and the tastes of the majority of viewers. Germaine Dulac, René Clair, and Maya Deren denounced the economic constraints weighing on film authors owing to audiences and other workers (Clair 1951: 37-43; Deren 1946: 37-43; Dulac 2004). René Clair accused producers of accustoming audiences to poor distractions and imposing their tastes on authors, when their only skills were in business. In his view, the director could still introduce, through some sort of ruse, fragments of “pure cinema”—meaning purely visual themes in a script with little literary value and made to please as many as possible. According to Maya Deren, writers and screenwriters forced literary forms on cinema, in contradiction to its essence as a visual art, whereas producers sought to recover their huge investments by relying on tried and true materials, methods, and personnel. More common and clear-cut among those directors closest to the avant-garde, the opposition between film value, profitability, and public success was not entirely absent in the writings of some successful Hollywood directors. King Vidor praised the attitude of producer Irving Thalberg, in whose view MGM could stand to support a few experimental projects that did not turn a profit (Vidor 1981: 118). He also claimed that several of his best films had been box-office failures and that the box-office did not mean much in the long run (Vidor 1972: 230).

33Accused by some directors of being responsible for the commercial character of cinema, screenwriters and producers also defined themselves as authors by criticizing the pursuit of profit or the “industrial” dimension of cinema. In 1945, the president of the French screenwriters’ union, Henri Jeanson, compared the screenwriter’s art of cinema with an industry peddling “botched merchandise” (Jeanson 1945). He also took aim at other screenwriters, who pocketed large sums of money to write scripts that were so stupid that even a producer might give up on shooting them (Jeanson 1990: 169-172). Some producers also defined themselves as authors by distancing themselves from other producers, whom they accused of being too profit-driven. Raoul Ploquin, for instance, contrasted the good producers, who did not sacrifice quality on commercial grounds, with “merchants” (Marion 1949: 68-69). The latter were supposedly virtuosos of financial arrangements, ready to do anything to bring costs down and boost their profits to the detriment of quality and artistic and moral considerations. In his memoirs, Pierre Braunberger praised his American colleague Irving Thalberg, claiming that he put creating masterpieces first and strict cost control second (Braunberger & Berger 1987: 17-30).

34Not all self-proclaimed authors were opposed to the pursuit of profit and public success—not by a long shot, in fact. As they viewed cinema as both an art and an industry, a fraction of producers measured the value of a film on the basis of its profitability and the size of its audience. This is reflected in the writings of the two Paramount founders, Jessy Lasky and Adolph Zukor. Lasky defined cinema as an industrial art (MacCann 1987: 143-149). He commended himself for being the head of the most successful company in the world and for having produced one of the most profitable silent films in history, The Covered Wagon. Zukor, for his part, entitled his autobiography The Public is Never Wrong (Zukor 1953). French producer Roger Richebé chose to use this Victor Hugo quote as an epigraph for his own memoirs: “Between the critics who claim that a play is good and the critics who claim that a play is bad, there is only one undeniable thing, and that is the material fact, the numbers, the revenue” (Richebé 1977).

35Producers were not the only self-proclaimed authors who saw no contradiction in describing cinema as an art and seeking public success and economic profit. Marcel Pagnol was dismayed that critics treated commercial success with scorn, “as if the release of a flop wasn’t also a commercial attempt, albeit one that didn’t obtain the expected success” (Pagnol 1991: 120). While he accused producers of sacrificing the interests of authors and audiences to make money, a founder and leader of the US Screen Writers Guild, Lester Cole, argued that the desire to produce quality films and the pursuit of profit were not contradictory (Cole 1945). Frank Capra celebrated his own success with the public and the “average man,” whose verdicts he valued more than the opinions of critics and his Hollywood peers (Capra 1997: 484). While he denounced directors driven only by the desire to make money, Jean Renoir defined cinema as a “popular art by essence” (Renoir 1974: 78, 106 and 296). He wrote that he had always been honestly and sincerely moved by the desire to please viewers, even if his taste for classicism sometimes put him at odds with the audience (as was the case with The Rules of the Game).

36The relations between aesthetic value and the box office were also a polarizing issue for film critics. In the second half of the 1920s, critics such as Emile Willermoz in France and John Larkin Jr. in the US encouraged the production of films geared towards the elite and less dependent on commercial requirements (Abel 1988: 274-279; Guzman 2005; Haberski 2001). On the other hand, the “commercial” or “popular” dimensions of cinema were defended by other prominent critics. In the 1910s and 1920s, Louis Delluc praised the tastes of “the crowd” (Abel 1985: 15-16; Delluc 1985: 186-190). He argued that cinema was lucky to be both an art and an industry. However, Delluc also encouraged producers and cinema owners to be wary of the idea that a good film should please everybody. In 1938, Gilbert Seldes, president of the National Board of Review, said that cinema should be produced for the widest audience possible (Hochman 1982: 387-392).

37These conflicting views on public success helped to justify the claims of self-defined authors and film critics who were promoting opposite conceptions of the value of motion pictures and the contributions of each occupation. The contrasting attitudes of authors and critics towards the popularity of films were also informed by relationships between the field of cinema—which was on a path towards autonomy—and other, older fields. Directors, screenwriters and producers came from fields where the pursuit of profit and popularity was relatively legitimate. They included heads of non-cultural companies essentially driven by the accumulation of economic capital and writers and artists from cultural fields structured to various extents by the logic of the “reversed economy.” The novelty, popularity, technical, and aesthetic potentialities of cinema, as well as the opportunities for income and the recognition it offered, attracted writers with highly varied positions in the literary field: successful novelists and playwrights, consecrated or soon-to-be consecrated writers and playwrights, little-known and little-recognized aspiring writers, and avant-gardist authors attracted by the medium’s novelty.

38Whether the popularity of film was praised or dismissed also related to the symbolic competitions between authors and critics in various fields of cultural production. Discrediting commercial cinema could be a way to legitimate a fraction of films in relation to more prestigious cultural productions structured by the reversed economy logic. This process can be observed in the writings of Germaine Dulac, who stressed the originality of cinema compared with all the other arts, but envied writers and painters for their freedom from commercial demands and audience tastes (Dulac 1994). Yet praise for “popular” cinema could also reflect an artistic legitimation strategy—or a form of stigma reversal—in the face of the “cine-phobes” who dismissed cinema as a popular pastime. US critic Gilbert Seldes lauded the working-class origins of cinema and its broad audience as opposed to other arts with aristocratic roots (Hochman 1982: 388-390). He criticized artists and critics who believed that they were infinitely superior to the people and who considered that the value of a work was inversely proportional to the size of its audience. Another example is Marcel L’Herbier, who justified having given up on his literary aspirations for a career in film on the grounds that “unlike iambic poetry, the filmic ode would be accessible to all and as big as the world” (L’Herbier 1979: 36-37).

39If cinema was honoured as a popular and/or industrial art, it is also because it was not the first to be honoured as such, or to warrant being so. Jean Renoir admitted that cinema “might be a minor art, sullied by industrialism and commercialism.” However, the same could be said of a piece of Urbino pottery, a Beauvais tapestry, or even of plays and symphonies, which also entailed financial compromises (Renoir 1974: 106). Guillaume Apollinaire saw in cinema “the popular art par excellence,” reminiscent of the times when poetry was “recited by the people” (Duval 2016: 133). Erwin Panosky, whose thoughts on cinema oriented the acquisition policy of the Museum of Modern Art’s Film Library, compared the production of a motion picture to the construction of a cathedral (Panofsky 1936). He noted that “non-commercial” arts were the exception rather than the rule. Panosky also valued Dürer’s engravings and Shakespeare’s plays as praiseworthy “commercial” works. Many American critics and professionals made references to Shakespeare to promote the ‘democratic’ character of cinema and reject the conflict between art and commerce (Haberski 2001: 9-32).

40The promotion of “popular cinema” was also boosted by the politicization of some critics and aspirants to author status. In the 1930s, commercial cinema was denounced by communist critics, such as the Frenchman Léon Moussinac and the American Somerset Logan. Instead, they valued an art of the director, serving the people and the Revolution (Abel 1988: 420-421; Logan 1932: 28-29).

41Informed by the relations between cinema and other fields, the promotion or dismissal of commercial success also related to a number of characteristics of motion picture supply and demand. The transposition of the reversed economy logic to cinema was spurred by sharp inequalities in success between films and by the contrast between commercial success and the recognition granted by instances of consecration. Obviously, successful professionals were inclined to praise audience tastes and the popular character of cinema. Conversely, some avant-garde directors were all the more likely to criticize the tastes of the audience as their own films were seldom shown and seen. In the 1930s, French directors who are now critical favourites suffered box-office failures or had less success than directors of comedies who have since fallen into oblivion among cinephiles (Crisp 2002: 304-331). Yet some of the most critically acclaimed directors also had huge box-office successes, such as Marcel L’Herbier in France and Charlie Chaplin in the US and worldwide. The fact that some professionals combined public success and critical recognition encouraged some film workers not to see a contradiction between the aesthetic value of films and their commercial success. The cost of film production was also an incentive, as unsuccessful professionals risked being excluded from this activity (Duval 2016). It is also possible—though difficult to prove—that the promotion of “popular cinema” was favoured by the ratio between cinematographic supply and demand. The first generations of upper-class cinephiles faced a supply that was much more recent, limited, and less exclusive than the supply of literary works available to writers, literary critics and the readers best endowed in cultural capital. The latter could theoretically find an entire lifetime’s worth of reading material in libraries without ever getting their hands on a book that might please readers with “lowbrow” tastes. The limited size of motion picture supply certainly encouraged critics to find or invent a few qualities in works that were enjoyed by a vast and diverse audience—so that they would not deny qualities to an art that they were precisely seeking to value.

42The promotion and dismissal of “commercial cinema” were also related to international exchanges and competitions. The global success of a fraction of French film production, and subsequently of Hollywood films, fuelled the idea that cinema was a “universal” art—some professionals associated this with the idea that it was geared towards all social classes. For instance, to the director Jean Benoit-Lévy, the taste of French viewers for the Marx Brothers and the enthusiastic reception of some French films in the US showed that “a genuinely sincere film will affect audiences from all classes, all countries, and even all eras” (Benoit-Lévy 1945). However, the international dominance of Hollywood films also favoured the dissociation between the aesthetic value and the popularity of motion pictures. French directors who worked in Hollywood, such as Julien Duvivier and René Clair, contrasted the singularity and individualism of French cinema with what they saw as a more standardized “commercial cinema” from Hollywood (Clair 1947; Le Forestier & Morrissey 2011). Likewise, beginning in the 1920s, American critics began celebrating the aesthetics of European films that were seldom shown in their country, in contrast to successful American films (Guzman 2005).

43Ultimately, the depiction of cinema as a popular art and the denunciation of the economic restrictions faced by filmmakers served different struggles: the authorship between screenwriters, directors, and producers, but also the struggles between economically dominant and dominated productions (such as avant-garde versus commercial cinema and French versus Hollywood cinema), the legitimation battles that pitted film professionals and film critics against artists and critics in other cultural fields, as well as the political struggles of communist critics and professionals. The various conflicts in which “authors” were involved explained the ambivalence some of them displayed towards public success. They would emphasize the popular character of cinema in contrast to other arts while denouncing the commercial constraints imposed by producers or the domination of the international film market by Hollywood firms. Also, as Julien Duval pointed out, directors who strove to attract as broad an audience as possible may, through their work, have been influential in the creation of works that were more tailored to fit the tastes of the culturally dominant fraction of the dominant class than those of the working classes or of a cross-class audience (Duval 2016: 96 and 109).


44Authorship conflicts were shaped by the relations between cinema and other activities. In return, they contributed to the autonomization of the field of cinema in relation to other fields. Imported from literature, theatre, and other disciplines, authorship was used to construct the autonomy of cinema from other cultural productions and to promote various visions of the relations between the aesthetic value, profitability, and popularity of motion pictures. The authorship claims of directors, producers, and screenwriters also show that cinema was defined as art not only through the differentiation of the aesthetic and “commercial” value of films, but also through the validation of public success and of the “popular” dimensions of cinema.

45While showing that these phenomena are interdependent, this paper suggests that the autonomization of cinema and the symbolic appropriation of films (and more widely the construction of this field’s professional hierarchies) are distinct processes. Directors were not the only professionals to define themselves as film authors by proclaiming the originality of cinema. The reasons why their group accumulated more symbolic capital than screenwriters and producers are beyond the scope of this paper, but they cannot be reduced to an effect or a cause of the autonomization of the field of cinema. More broadly, the autonomization of cinema was the work not only of all the occupations which claimed the authorship of motion pictures, but also of all the actors involved in their making, dissemination, and promotion. By attributing most of a film’s value to a single individual, authorship claims resulted in obscuring many of the actors (or authors) of the autonomization of cinema.

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1 The idea that French and American modes of film production are (very) different has been nurtured by international economic and symbolic competitions. This idea overshadows many similarities between the divisions of labour that can be observed in the two countries (such as the definition and stratification of occupations), the variety of their productions, as well as the transnational competitions and exchanges of films, ideas, techniques, and professionals that contributed to the genesis and existence of French and American cinema. In both countries, the occupations whose members and representatives claimed authorship held dominant positions in the professional hierarchies of cinema, alongside lead actors in terms of salary, prestige, and power over the rest of the personnel alike. For more information on the division of film labour in France and the US in the first half of the twentieth century, see Janet Staiger (Bordwell, Staiger, Thompson 1985) and Colin Crisp (1987).

2 For instance, not all Hollywood directors defined themselves as the sole authors of motion pictures. Likewise, some scriptwriters and directors in both countries agreed to define a film as the joint work of the director and the scriptwriter.

3 The Berne Convention was constantly renegotiated during the first half of the twentieth century, and revised in 1928 and 1948. In the mid-1930s, a bill on literary and artistic property, named after Jean Zay, was drafted, debated and then abandoned during the Second World War. Negotiations continued during the German occupation, after the French Liberation, leading up to the 11 March 1957 law. In the 1920s and 1930s, numerous bills were unsuccessfully drafted in order for the US to ratify the Berne Convention. Negotiations began in the 1950s over a comprehensive revision of copyright law, leading to the 1976 Copyright Act.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1
Légende Portrait and name of author on the cover of La Revue du cinéma (1930).
Fichier image/jpeg, 58k
Titre Fig. 2
Légende Portrait and name of author on the cover of La Revue du cinéma (1930).
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Titre Fig. 3
Légende Advertisement by Film d’Art.
Crédits Source: Mounet-Sully and Paul Mounet.
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Titre Fig. 4
Légende Advertisement by Eminent Authors.
Crédits Source: Internet Movie Database.
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Titre Fig. 5
Légende Advertisement by Eminent Authors.
Crédits Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Fichier image/jpeg, 108k
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Jérôme Pacouret, « Conflicts of Authorship and the Autonomization of Cinema in Pre-60s United States and France »Biens Symboliques / Symbolic Goods [En ligne], 4 | 2019, mis en ligne le 27 juin 2019, consulté le 13 juin 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Jérôme Pacouret

Institut de recherche médias, cultures, communication et numérique (IRMÉCCEN)/Centre européen de sociologie et de science politique-Centre de sociologie européenne (Cessp-CSE)

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