The number of films credited to a single director is neither illustrative of quality, nor of celebrity. Steven Spielberg has directed 56 productions (according to IMDb, including TV and documentary shorts); Scorsese 60; Alfred Hitchcock, 70, etc. In contemporary filmmaking, these numbers would be considered pretty special. Indeed, the release rate is affected quite significantly by the era of each director, not forgetting that active directors are mid-flow rather than looking back on their careers. But for the sake of argument, if we look at contemporary directors like Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Christopher Nolan, they have just 20, 19 and 14 credits (for directing) respectively. Then compare that to pioneering director of silent movies Alice Guy-Blaché who is estimated to have helmed close to 450 projects between 1896 and 1920 – that’s a rate of about three releases every two months!
The most prolific director in recent years is someone you’ve probably never heard of, nor will you ever clap eyes on. With 100 credits on IMDb, Alan Smithee is almost unparalleled in the modern cinema system. Only Jean-Luc Godard continues to add to his 124 titles at the ripe old age of 87. What might be surprising is that Alan Smithee’s career is chock full of utter trash. We’re not talking popcorn-stupid spectacle or eye-rolling rom-coms, we’re referring to truly terrible movies. Movies so bad that nobody wants anything to do with them.
You’ll never see or hear of Alan Smithee for the simple reason that the man does not exist. The name is a pseudonym – a “nom-du-désastre” (Dixon and Foster, 2011) – conjured up by the Directors Guild of America and adopted by any director unsatisfied, angry, disenchanted with a project. Directors live and die by their reputations, so in the event of disagreements in production or the curtailing of creative control, they may opt to strip their own name from the credits, unwilling to be tied to such cinematic trash for the remainder of their careers. That’s where Alan Smithee steps in.
“the most well-known nobody in Hollywood” – Directors Guild
Smithee’s extensive career kicked off in 1969 (Franklin, 2015). He stepped in as the third director on the Western “revisionist” flick Death of a Gunfighter, which tells the tale of the final clash between the iconic cowboy character and modern society; the end of the West. Neither of its two actual directors wanted anything to do with the hopeless production, so the Directors Guild of America came to the rescue, crediting Alan Smithee in the first of dozens of cinematic disasters. And yes, if a director appeals to have the pseudonym assume responsibility – and if the Directors Guild judges their request valid – the chances are that the original director will lose any further income or royalties from the film. Presumably a short dry spell is preferable to never working again.
After directing such ill-conceived projects as the 1994 sequel to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) among many many others – including deliberately ironic nods to the invisible cult hero – the pseudonym was supposed to end its career with the release of An Alan Smithee Film: Burn, Hollywood, Burn (1997), a big budget satire in which the protagonist is an unfortunate director named Alan Smithee who finds himself burdened with a disastrous final cut but despaires at his sharing of the ill-fated moniker. Unable to relinquish responsibility to the Directors Guild’s pseudonym, he tries to destroy the film instead. The actual film turned out to be something of a disaster in itself, such that the real director, Arthur Hiller (Love Story), credited Alan Smithee in his place. To qualify its dreadfulness, Burn, Hollywood, Burn wound up winning a total of five Golden Raspberry awards – the film industry’s wooden spoon – including Worst Picture.
For whatever reason, the name was meant to have been retired after this and apparently replaced with alternatives, though recent directors (predominantly TV) continue to cover up their mistakes, satirically or otherwise, with the “nom-du-désastre”.
This is not the only pseudonym to have been in circulation in Hollywood, nor is disaster or mistake the soul reason for adoption. Celebrity directors like the Coen brothers and Steven Soderbergh have been known to credit made-up crew members for reasons of modesty, fear of persecution or even pure and simple entertainment value (Obias, 2013). The aforementioned have employed Roderick Jaynes and Mary Ann Bernard as their respective editors having actually done the work themselves but not wanting to see their names appear multiple times in the credits. Roderick Jaynes has even been nominated for two Academy Awards (Fargo and No Country For Old Men), but we never got to see the Coen brothers explain the curious situation they might have found themselves in.
You can well imagine why a director, particularly in the risky and inhospitable environment of modern moviemaking, might not want to take the wrap for a dud. After consistent success, names accrue value and even sell tickets before the film has hit the screen, but helm a flop and studios or investors will be reluctant to support your next project. At the end of the day, it all comes down to marketing, not just of the film, but of each individual’s own personal brand. Alan Smithee and his successors are going nowhere fast.
Dixon, W.W. & Foster, G.A. 2011. 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation. Rutgers University Press.
Franklin, B. 2015. Alan Smithee Is Officially the Worst Hollywood Director of All Time. Vice. 17th August 2015.
Obias, R. 2013. 8 Pseudonyms Famous Writers and Directors Used in Movie Credits. Mental Floss. 9th April 2013