Schreiber Theory

David Kipen by Don Bachardy


The Schreiber theory is a writer-centered approach to film criticism which holds that the principal author of a film is generally the screenwriter rather than the director. The term was coined by David Kipen, Director of Literature at the US National Endowment for the Arts. In his 2006 book ‘The Schreiber Theory: A Radical Rewrite of American Film History,’ Kipen argues that the influential 1950s-era Auteur theory has wrongly skewed analysis towards a director-centered view of film. In contrast, Kipen believes that the screenwriter has a greater influence on the quality of a finished work and that knowing who wrote a film is ‘the surest predictor’ of how good it will be.

Kipen acknowledges that his writer-centered approach is not new, and pays tribute to earlier critics of Auteur theory such as Pauline Kael and Richard Corliss. He believes that the Auteurist approach remains dominant, however, and that films have suffered as a result of the screenwriter’s role being undervalued. Kipen refers to his book as a ‘manifesto’ and in an interview with the magazine ‘SF360’ stated that he wished to use Schreiber theory as ‘a lever to change the way people think about screenwriting, and movies in general.’ In seeking a name for his theory, Kipen chose the Yiddish word for writer – ‘schreiber’ – in honor of the many early American screenwriters who had Yiddish as their mother tongue.

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