Final cut tussles

The New York Times had a very interesting article on what could happen when a director doesn’t get final cut rights. The final cut of a film refers to the cut/version of the film that is shown to the public.

It is a rare privilege when a studio will give a director final cut because the final cut can determine the economics of a film. A few directors do get/have gotten final cut rights. It is usually the really big name directors who could make their film with any studio. But for most directors this option is just not on the table.

Despite the fact that no one can actually predict which films will do well and which ones won’t, producers and studios spend tons of money on market research. They make a cut of the film and test it on the target audience (ever been recruited at a mall to watch a pre-release movie? That’s the testing). They do a few of these and based on audience reaction and the excruciatingly detailed feedback cards that the viewers fill out, they decide if the movie is funny – does it get laughs at the right places, if it is too long, too short, not enough drama or too much drama. On and on, the lists go. The firms that moderate these focus screenings then crunch the data and give the studio input.

I have two problems with this kind of testing:

1. Is there any proof out there that there is any sort of predictive accuracy? From what I hear, the testing agencies don’t release data on how their test compared to market actuals. I don’t know if anyone is measuring them and holding their feet to the fire to be accountable for their recommendations.

2. New products, especially stunningly new ones that break out of the mold, may not do well. Sometimes you have to assume you know what the consumer wants better than he/she does. Case in point in the technology world – Apple and the iPod.

According to the NY Times piece, the final cut tussle has gotten ugly for director Julie Taymor on the film Across The Universe:

After Ms. Taymor delivered the movie to Joe Roth, the film executive whose production company, Revolution Studios, based at Sony, is making the Beatles musical, he created his own version without her agreement. And last week Mr. Roth tested his cut of the film, which is about a half-hour shorter than Ms. Taymor’s 2-hour-8-minute version.

As a director, you feel the film is your baby. You are the visionary, you make it happen. You sweat over it. You did all the pre-production, worked night and day, dealt with all the on-set issues, managed a large crew and made a great film! Wow. Of course you are going to feel protective. (I felt that way for my tiny little short done on three intense days of shooting – just imagine the intensity of a feature!) Someone else making a cut of your film, disregarding your own cut, has got to hurt badly.

While I completely empathize with the director, find the way that studios and marketers test films very odd and don’t necessarily agree with that process, I also feel that the passion of being a director can cause you to be too attached to certain scenes. And very passionate directors, who have made wrong calls can scar producers forever:

Mr. Roth, who vowed never again to allow a director final cut after the disastrous 2003 Martin Brest movie “Gigli,” said that the various versions were testing well, but that he had a responsibility to find the most successful incarnation. “It’s ‘show’ and it’s ‘business,’ ” he said.

Despite my wanting to be fully on the side of the director, Roth has a point – of course films need to be commercially successful. That’s what allows the director to make the next one.

Since I am not emotionally embroiled in such a fight, it is easier for me to see both sides and I am quite torn on this issue. In the ideal world, the director will try to detach themselves a little and the producer would never go behind his director’s back. And it always seems like it is a good idea to put a project away and come back to it in a while, but that is rarely possible when you need a return on investment as soon as possible.

At the end of the day, everyone probably compromises to make the film a reality. And Roth and Taymor (who also directed Titus and Frida) will likely compromise too, despite the fact that it is going to be harder after all the public words and Taymor’s consideration of removing her name from the film (the most drastic step a director has in her arsenal) :

Mr. Roth said he believed that the current tensions would be worked out, and that Ms. Taymor would find the best, final version of the film somewhere between his own and her last cut.


Ms. Taymor herself struck a more conciliatory note in her statement: “I only hope that we will be able to complete the film we set out to make.”

This is such a tough part of the film-making process – this is the reason you see all the director’s cuts of movies where the director has his/her say many years after the official release.

I am not sure if there is any blanket way to solve this – it probably all comes down to the relationship you have with your director or producer. So, be very, very careful who you get into bed with – even if they flash a lot of money in your face!

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  • Art can’t be made by consensus or by focus groups. Products are made by con. What are you setting out to make? Seems to me conflict is inevitable when different members of a team have such different objectives. Great blog post, Shri.

    KCRW’s Martini Shot had a great 4 minute spiel in part on entertainment industry market research (all the Martini Shot clips are great). KCRW is L.A.’s NPR channel with a lot of original, entertainment-industry programming that is all available online and on iTunes.

    Martini Shot:

    …and scroll down to “The Bonus”. Then check out other clips for inside scoop and satire on movie and tv show production/writing.

    If interested in more in-depth discussion of movie-making, check out KCRW’s “The Business” and “The Treatment” (the latter is interviews with directors mostly).

    The Treatment:

    The Business:

  • Krishna

    I dispute the notion that a “ground-breaking” movie (let alone) cannot be predicted accurately.

    While in product design, it’s very difficult to test a revolutionary theoretical product – people sometimes need to “find the need the product meets”

    With a ground breaking movie, it’s not a “theorical construct”- people get to see a finished product (maybe not a ‘final product’) and judge.

    The only question to be asked is if the group of people is “representative” and if they can really tell the truth about how much they enjoyed a film. Statistically, if they are, the results should tell a lot about how the overall population will enjoy the movie (not necessarily how many will go back to see the movie- what caused Titanic to succeed)

    Movies are no more unique than any other product (most of Product Design is in designing creative, innovative product)

    The thing that all sampling misses is the impact of the “buzz” factor that sometimes makes movies “succeed” (though there are other methods to measure & create that)

  • I see the following merits in not allowing the Director to make the final cut:
    -The director shares a parent child relationship with the movie. How many parents can objectively understand their children’s faults especially in a public context ?Every developer feels his code is perfect but this is never true. People make mistakes but when the emotional bond is strong it is hard to accept criticism.
    -I do not know much about movie economics but perhaps the studio has put bulk of the money in. If this is true, it is only fair that they call the shots.

    But formal market research need not work.
    A few years back we had a movie called “Rok Sako to rokh lo”. A corporate house had decided to use formal marketing/testing and were very confident of success. The movie flopped.

    My hunch is that the future will be on demand in-the-field editing of movies. The Web 2.0 model would be applied with users giving feedback and collective intelligence being used to decide the best version. There could be multiple versions in circulation with different subcultures among the audience favouring different versions. People would stop coming to movies just to see the movie, but would come to be involved in the process of movie making. I know this sounds a little Negropontish, but a decade back who thought we could have Wikipedia or blogs?

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  • @ August – thanks for the fabulous links!!

    @ Krishna – I see your point in comparing a product and movie and the differences there. However, the issue I have is that a lot of the sampling is used to then “fix” the movie. So if the sample tells you “it is not funny enough” then you go back and make it funnier. I think this “adding flavors” based on sampling is ridiculous. At the end of the day, you keep adding, cutting and the movie could become unrecognizable.

    Also, is the sample the best judge? Often, as Prakash mentions, no.

    @ Prakash – Regarding your point of Director getting final cut – I agree that directors can be very attached to their movies. However, remember that an editor is the one doing the editing. The editor puts together what he/she thinks is the best version in concert with the director. So there is already another point of view that has a huge hand in how the movie is shaped.

    And yes, the studios fun the movies, but I disagree that they should get to call all the shots. That’s the issue with art – why hire an artist if you know exactly what you want? Hire a trained monkey instead.

    Multiple versions – interesting… somewhat like “choose your own ending” in some of the kids books I have read. While certain types of movies lend themselves to that, a lot of others (most?) do not – could there be different endings to Gandhi? Maybe it is different cuts (less humor, more humor). But as a writer, I wrote a story – I want THAT story told!! If you don’t like the story, make something else, but don’t make me give you ten options, you know? Again, the struggle of art versus business. Coming from the business world, you idea is so perfect – I totally get it with technology products, but with art… my heart switches 🙂

  • The Directors Guild of America (DGA) has accepted standard business agreements ( — see article 7) which define a director’s rights while working with their producers:

    1) Nobody is allowed in the editing room except for the director and editor; others may only come inat the director’s discretion.
    2) Until the film is completely cut, nobody except the director gives notes to the editor.
    3) The Director has the right to watch the dailies.
    4) At the presentation of each cut, the producers have the right to give notes to the Director, but the Director has no obligation to use them. (But the producers have no obligation to release the film unless there is a distribution commitment.)
    5) Authority of the final cut rests with the Producers, unless otherwise specified in the director’s deal memo, i.e. the Producers have final authority over what to do with the film.

    I find it hard to believe that Roth didn’t voice objections about Taymor’s film earlier in the process, but even if he did, Taymor had no obligation to listen, except that Roth is footing the bill, so he has a right to have the film recut… though he may have signed that right away in Taymor’s deal memo.

    Producers have rights over what they produce — it’s their dime — but there’s a proper time and place for a producer’s input: it’s in the screening room, not in the editing room.

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