The importance of script clearance and research to film and television production—from the classic Hollywood era to the present day—has long been uncharted territory for media scholars. Fortunately, UCLA alumnus Michael Kmet has begun thoroughly examining not only the everyday realities of this type of work but also the greater importance that firms such as de Forest Research have had on the overall structure of creative content both past and present. The scope of this project, including a substantial amount of primary research at archives around Los Angeles, requires more than just one researcher, and I am very pleased to state that I will be assisting Michael in the expansion of his already impressive research.
This blog post is an overview of the research Michael has already conducted as well as a discussion of the project’s future trajectory. I am looking forward to assisting Michael with his fascinating and exciting project, and I will be posting updates to the Mediascape Blog as our research progresses. —Jessica Fowler
Historically, the world of primetime commercial fictional television has been described as “the producer’s medium.” Since the mid-2000s, for example, television producers of programs as diverse as Gossip Girl (2007–2013), Battlestar Galactica (2003–2009), and Eureka (2006–2012) have recorded online podcasts in which they assume creative responsibility (as well as creative credit) for the television programs they produce.1 However, as many subscribers to the auteur theory of motion picture authorship (especially the kind popularized by the late film critic Andrew Sarris) have discovered, such individualistic conceptions of authorship are problematic when it comes to the collaborative nature of the film and television industry.
To date, little attention has been given to the critical (and, as I will argue, creative) role performed by script clearance and research departments working in both film and television production. Script clearance and research has been the subject of only a handful of newspaper and magazine articles, has been marginalized or totally ignored by popular “making of” books, and has never, as far as I’ve been able to determine, been the subject of a dissertation or an academic essay. The purpose of my project is twofold. First, I want to begin to map out the history of script clearance and research in the film and television industry, focusing on de Forest Research, the most dominant research firm. Second, I want to argue that script clearance and research is an act of fundamentally creative labor, and it should be recognized as such by media scholars.
For those unfamiliar with the terms, script clearance and research are two distinct processes in the film and television industry, but they’re often done at the same time by the same firms, which is why I am considering them in tandem. Script clearance is the legal process of ensuring that the proper names of people, products, companies, etc., in film or television do not present a conflict with ones that actually exist. Script research is the process of checking for scientific, historic, geographic, and series-specific accuracy and continuity. It is the job of a researcher to point out every possible legal conflict, inaccuracy, and continuity error and to suggest legally cleared and accurate alternatives.
Kellam de Forest in Hollywood
During the height of the vertically integrated Hollywood studio system, script clearance and research was conducted internally. By the late 1940s, however, the major studios had either downsized or closed their internal research departments. In 1950, just as the industry was at this turning point, Kellam de Forest—who would eventually run the largest script clearance and research firm in the business—made his way to Hollywood. He had recently graduated from Yale, earning a degree in American History in 1949, and was looking to work in a creative industry. Eventually de Forest found a job with a short-subject producer who was venturing into independent production after being laid off by MGM. Although de Forest would later do research for such notable productions as The Godfather (1972) and Chinatown (1974), the first film he worked on was a modest one: a short subject on traffic safety. However, the market for theatrical short subjects was drying up, and after the film was completed de Forest found himself out of work. This led him to seek employment in the nascent television industry and to found his firm, de Forest Research.
De Forest’s most important professional relationship was with Desilu, the production company run by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. This relationship significantly increased the profile of de Forest Research in 1957, when Desilu bought out RKO. Along with studio space in both Hollywood and Culver City, the acquisition also included RKO’s shuttered studio research library. Desilu ended up handing de Forest control of the library, along with office space on the studio lot, rent-free. Not only did this guarantee de Forest the business of every television program produced by Desilu, it also guaranteed his firm the business of all the production companies that rented out studio space from Desilu.
At the same time that Desilu took over RKO, television was growing increasingly popular in the United States. In 1950 only 9.7 million television sets had been sold in the U.S.; by 1959 that number had skyrocketed to 67.1 million. As a result of this rapid increase in the popularity of television, the chances of litigation due to the use of names, copyrighted material, and plagiarism also increased. While many television shows didn’t require a significant level of research, every television show needed to have its scripts cleared so that the production company “could prove that due diligence had been made.”2 If a script featured a character named Edward Bunker living in present-day New York, for example, de Forest Research would have to check New York telephone books and directories to ensure that nobody had that name, or that the name was so common that no individual could sue, claiming they were personally maligned. (In this particular example, a man named Edward Bunker did show up in a Queens telephone book, leading de Forest to come up with the now-familiar name of Archie Bunker as a replacement.)
As the 1960s wore on, de Forest Research took over more and more of the script clearance and research business in Hollywood. In February of 1967, Gulf and Western, then the parent company of Paramount Pictures, announced their intention to buy out Desilu. By July 27 of that year the deal was finalized and the wall between the Paramount and Desilu lots in Hollywood was torn down. As a result of the merger, de Forest Research eventually took over the Paramount research library and began handling script clearance and research for all of the television shows and theatrical features produced by Paramount. By 1984 de Forest Research was described in The New York Times as “the largest Hollywood research firm operating today.”3
Since the late 1980s, the business of script clearance and research has become much more fractured than when de Forest Research was dominant, but it continues to have an important effect on the shape of film and television today. It is my goal with this project to further map out the history of script clearance and research in Hollywood. Investigation of the studio files held in various archives, such as the RKO files at UCLA and the Warner Bros. files at USC, could lead to a clearer picture of how these departments functioned before most of them were shut down. Disney and Universal never shut down their research departments or their libraries, where current and former employees may still be alive and interested in discussing their work. It would also be useful to visit and observe the workplace at script clearance and research firms to get a better idea of how they operate in the industry today.
The Marginalization of Script Clearance and Research
The subject of script clearance and research interested me for the same reason I’ve been drawn to many areas of cinema and media studies: what I found in the archival record (and, later, in my interview with Kellam de Forest) didn’t match what I was reading about the subject elsewhere. For example, in The Fugitive Recaptured, a retrospective “making of” book about the television series The Fugitive (1963–1967), Kellam de Forest’s role is confined to pointing out a potentially liable situation and a factual inaccuracy in the pilot episode. Yet my interview with de Forest confirmed that he did research and clearance for all 120 episodes of the series, including regularly providing the art director with visual materials, especially those related to the look of law enforcement in different parts of the United States (an essential element, given the constantly changing setting of the series). Furthermore, after reading more than three dozen de Forest Research memos (although not memos from The Fugitive, which appear to be unavailable), it seems likely that in the pilot episode alone de Forest’s suggestions led to more than just two significant changes.
One anecdote that Kellam de Forest related to me struck me as important. According to de Forest, in the original screenplay for Chinatown, written by Robert Towne, the villain was named Joshua Cross. After checking a 1930s period telephone directory, however, de Forest discovered that a man with that name not only lived in the area the movie was set, but was still alive. The original name of Joshua now considered too risky to use, de Forest considered several alternatives before finally recommending the name of “Noah, since [the movie] was all about water.”4 The name change was ultimately adopted. All I could think about upon hearing this information was how often Towne must have been praised for the use of such a symbolic name. Sure enough, a simple Google search of the terms “Noah Cross” and “biblical” resulted in a dozen examples of authors making this claim. Indeed, one website discussing the film wrote, “There is no doubt some biblical portent to Noah Cross’s name.”5 While this website gets the biblical portent right, the creative contribution of script clearance and research in its conception goes uncredited.
This leads me to the second goal of this project: to demonstrate that script clearance and research is a fundamentally creative act. Certainly Kellam de Forest thinks so. One of the first things he told me was that he entered the field because he “wanted to do something involved in creativity.” Although I’ve been lucky enough to read about three dozen de Forest research reports at UCLA, a broader sample of script research materials will only strengthen this point, and I hope I’ll be able to uncover many more of them as I continue this project. Recently I discovered that the Bruce Gellar files at UCLA may contain de Forest Research reports for episodes of Mission Impossible (1966–1973) and Mannix (1967–1975), and I’m eager and curious to see what can be found there. Although it doesn’t have the corresponding research memos, UCLA does possess 600 boxes of TV scripts from de Forest Research, a wealth of material I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of.
1. ^ Kompare, Derek. “More ‘moments of television.’: Online cult television authorship.” Television in the age of Media Convergence. Ed. Michael Kackman, Marnie Binfield, Matthew Thomas Payne, Allison Perlman, and Bryan Sebok. Routledge: New York, 2011. 95–113.
2. ^ De Forest, Kellam. Personal interview. 6 Dec. 2011.
3. ^ Farber, Stephen. “Before the Cry of ‘Action!’ Comes the Painstaking Effort of Research.” New York Times. 11 Mar. 1984. H17. Print.
4. ^ De Forest.
5. ^ Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, 2004. Web. 8 Dec. 2011. http://www89.homepage.villanova.edu/elana.starr/pages/chinatpwn.htm.
Michael Kmet received a B.S. in Cinema and Photography and a B.A. in Politics at Ithaca College, and an M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. His research interests include early American science fiction television, audio-visual film and television marketing, product integration strategies for “Quality TV,” and developing digital teaching tools for cinema and media studies.