In past research, we’ve seen just how much overlap there is between the role of film director and screenwriter – 74.9% of directors have received at least one movie writing credit and 34.3% of writers have received a directing credit.
There’s no doubt that the roles are heavily linked, with both being critical in the creation, shaping and telling of characters and plots. But at the same time, many aspects of the jobs differ. Directors are responsible for so many elements outside of the script that one could argue that either (a) this means they have more tools to bring a story they create to life; or (b) that they cannot focus and specialise in the writing process.
I was reconnected with this debate last week as a reader got in touch to ask if was better for a director to also be a writer on a project, or if it was better to leave those roles to different people. Sadly I’m not going to give a definitive answer one way or another. It’s a personal, subjective and contextual question, which data alone cannot answer.
But we can use data to inform our views. I turned to my database of 8,096 live-action, fiction feature films released in US cinemas over the past two decades and by bringing in measures of quality (namely, IMDb and Metacritic scores) we can look for patterns.
Write here, write now
Let’s start by looking at how frequently directors have a hand in the writing of their movies. It turns out – pretty frequently. Over the past two decades, 61.3% of movies credited at least one of the directors and also being one of the writers.
Interestingly, this has remained pretty static over these twenty years, despite massive changes the industry has experienced in production, distribution and exhibition.
Are movies by writer-directors better movies than those made by non-writing directors?
The quality of a movie is always tricky to define and measure precisely. However, as a shorthand for “How good is this movie?” we can use IMDb user scores to represent the audience and the Metascore to represent critics.
The topline answer from both groups is – yes, on average, writer-directors make (slightly) better movies than their non-typing peers.
The average IMDb score for movies from writer-directors was 6.33, compared with 6.18 for movies with no writer-director. Writer-directors have scored higher in 16 of the past 20 years, although in the most recent decade the difference has been marginal.
Film critics were more effusive of their love for writer directors (average score of 58.7 verses 50.4) and more consistent (writer-directors come top in every year I studied).
A twist in the tail
But this is not the end of the story. In looking at the data I discovered a fascinating detail – while it’s true that excellent movies are more likely to have been helmed by a writer-director, it’s also true that the worst movies are also most likely to be written by their director!
The chart below shows the percentage of films that have a writer-director, grouped by their IMDb user score. It reveals that writer-directors make up 63% of movies with the lowest score, 53% of movies with middling scores (in this case between 5.5 and 6.0) and 72% of movies with a score of over 8.5.
The data doesn’t reveal why this is. Among the reasons could be:
- Hit and miss – Having a writer-director is a gamble, which can pay off handsomely but also comes with the risk of a poor/confusing result.
- Movie by committee – Having many creative voices at the top could drag a film to the middle, whether that be up from being terrible or down from being brilliant.
- Correlation, not causation – It could be that that the kinds of people who push to both write and direct also happen to fall into one of two camps – the talented and the untalented.
I’ve tried to get further under the skin of this result but I haven’t been able to prove anything conclusive. What I can say, is that it’s not the same for every genre. Some types of films are more likely to benefit from having a writer-director, whereas it doesn’t seem to matter for others.
Three genres that strongly reward writing-directing are romance, family and comedy, whereas the writer-director agnostic genres include dramas, thriller and sports movies.
The data for today’s research came from a variety of sources, including IMDb, Wikipedia and Metacritic. This research is focused on fiction feature films (so not short films, TV movies, documentaries, etc) and includes all movies releaase in cinemas in North America.
I wanted to get to the heart of the idea of co-creation across the writing and directing roles, and so I took a broad view of how a writer is defined in today’s research. I included everyone who got an official writing-related credit on a movie, covering direct screenwriting credits (i.e. ‘screenplay by’), and source elements, such as ‘story by’, ‘characters by’ and if the director was an author of the source material.