Typically, pseudonyms are a product of the Byzantine rules that govern how credits appear in movies. As part of their contracts with the major studios, each of the various Hollywood labor groups (the Directors Guild of America, the Writers Guild of America, the International Cinematographers Guild, etc.) have strict rules that govern how their members are credited on screen.
But sometimes those rules conflict with filmmakers' preferences. "My policy is to have my name on a movie only once," [Steven] Soderbergh says. "Having your name once increases the impact of that credit because I think every time you put your name up there, you're actually diluting it."
When I learn that a movie starring "Bob Smith" was also written, produced, and directed by that individual, I immediately suspect that the project was insufficiently funded or was so poorly conceived that nobody else wanted to be involved. That was the case when I first viewed what was to become my all-time favorite movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou?--a film written, produced, directed, and edited by Ethan and Joel Coen (who are mentioned in the Slate piece), and I'm assuming that's what Soderbergh has in mind when he speaks of "dilution." We don't have that problem in the world of book publishing; writers write and editors edit and publishers publish and that's that. Yet there is sometimes a concern that if an authors' books come out too close together, they'll cannibalize the previous books' sales.
When the scarily prolific Nora Roberts, who writes a romance novel about every fifteen minutes, began dabbling in mystery, she adopted the pseudonym J.D. Robb in part to keep the genres straight for her readers but mostly because it was feared that the market was already saturated with her books; surely people would get sick of Nora Roberts. So far, they haven't; even though J.D. Robb's true identity was quickly discovered by readers.
But even the publishing industry isn't as wonderfully weird as Hollywood:
For his movie Traffic, [Soderbergh] proposed that the credit read, "Directed and Photographed by Steven Soderbergh." While the directors and cinematographers guilds both signed off on Soderbergh's proposal, the Writers Guild would not, since its rules say writers must be credited before cinematographers, and Soderbergh's "directed and photographed by" solution would break that rule.
Here's my favorite part of the Slate article:
"Alan Smithee" is probably the most famous pseudonym, invented by the Directors Guild for directors who are so unsatisfied with a studio or producer's meddling with their film that they don't think it reflects their creative vision anymore. The first movie to use it was Death of a Gunfighter in 1969, and it has since been used dozens of times.
Occasionally, one of my novelist friends will say her editors (or the printers) made such a mess of her latest book that she's embarrassed to have her name on the cover. But don't look for any Alan Smithee novels at Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Book contracts include authors' names or pen names, and by the time an author learns her book's been mangled, it's far too late to take her name off the project.
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