Alan Smithee

burn hollywood burn

Alan Smithee was an official pseudonym used by film directors who wish to disown a project, coined in 1968. Until its use was formally discontinued in 2000, it was the sole pseudonym used by members of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) when a director dissatisfied with the final product proved to the satisfaction of a guild panel that he or she had not been able to exercise creative control over a film. The director was also required by guild rules not to discuss the circumstances leading to the move or even to acknowledge being the actual director.

Prior to 1968, DGA rules did not permit directors to be credited under a pseudonym. This was intended to prevent producers from forcing them upon directors, which would inhibit the development of their résumés. The guild also required that the director be credited, in support of the DGA philosophy that the director was the primary creative force behind a film.

The Smithee pseudonym was created for use on the film ‘Death of a Gunfighter,’ released in 1969. During its filming, lead actor Richard Widmark was unhappy with director Robert Totten, and arranged to have him replaced by Don Siegel. Siegel later estimated that Totten had spent 25 days filming, and he had spent 9-10, and each had roughly equal footage in Siegel’s final edit. But he made it clear that Widmark – rather than either director – had effectively been in charge the entire time. When the film was finished, Siegel did not want to take the credit for it, and Totten refused to take credit in his place. The DGA panel hearing the dispute agreed that the film did not represent either director’s creative vision.

The original proposal was to credit the fictional ‘Al Smith,’ but that was deemed too common a name, and in fact was already in use within the film industry. The last name was first changed to ‘Smithee,’ which was thought to be distinctive enough to avoid confusion, but without drawing attention to itself. Critics praised the film and its ‘new’ director, with The New York Times commenting that the film was ‘sharply directed by Allen Smithee who has an adroit facility for scanning faces and extracting sharp background detail,’ and Roger Ebert commenting, ‘Director Allen Smithee, a name I’m not familiar with, allows his story to unfold naturally.’

Following its coinage, the pseudonym ‘Alan Smithee’ was applied retroactively to ‘Fade-In’ (also known as ‘Iron Cowboy’), a film starring Burt Reynolds and directed by Jud Taylor, which was first released before the release of ‘Death of a Gunfighter.’ Taylor also requested the pseudonym for ‘City in Fear’ (1980) with David Janssen. Taylor commented on its use when he received the DGA’s Robert B. Aldrich Achievement Award in 2003:

‘I had a couple of problems in my career having to do with editing and not having the contractually-required number of days in the editing room that my agent couldn’t resolve. So, I went to the Guild and said, ‘This is what’s going on.’ The Guild went to bat for me. I got Alan Smithee on them both. It was a signal to the industry from a creative rights point of view that the shows had been tampered with.’

Over the years the name and its purpose became more widely known. Some directors violated the embargo on discussing their use of the pseudonym. In 1998, the film ‘An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn’ was released, in which a man named Alan Smithee (Eric Idle) wishes to disavow a film he has directed, but is unable to do so because the only pseudonym he is permitted to use is his own name.

The film was directed by Arthur Hiller, who reported to the DGA that producer Joe Eszterhas had interfered with his creative control, and successfully removed his own name from the film, so ‘Alan Smithee’ was credited instead. The film was a commercial and critical failure, and the harsh negative publicity that surrounded the film drew unwanted mainstream attention to the pseudonym. Following this, the DGA retired the name.

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