When filmmakers and financiers fight over the contents of a film, we tend to see it as a battle between art and commerce. But is this true? Tom Brook investigates.

It is one of the most prized prerogatives of directors. Revered British filmmaker Mike Leigh maintains that without it filmmaking just “wouldn’t be worth doing”.  For Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan, whose movie Winter Sleep just won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the freedom he enjoys by having it is central to his being as a filmmaker. “My motivation comes from that freedom only,” he says.

Both are referring to ‘final cut’ which is the cherished right of a filmmaker to control the content of their film so that their approved edit is the one that the public gets to see.

2014 has witnessed some bitter rows over final cut. Director Darren Aronofsky ultimately prevailed with his version of the biblical epic Noah but that was only after intense exchanges with executives from Paramount Pictures, who had made their own cuts which they felt might be more audience friendly. French director Olivier Dahan’s edit of Grace of Monaco, the opening night picture at Cannes, put him at odds with a displeased Harvey Weinstein, the film’s American distributor, who reportedly thought it was too dark.  Harvey Weinstein also took issue with South Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho’s graphic novel adaptation Snowpiercer – to be released in the US on 27 June –  allegedly because of concerns over pace and length.

Having final cut used to be commonplace for filmmakers in Hollywood, but that’s hardly the case nowadays – especially when it comes to studio films. “There are fewer directors now that have it than don’t have it,” says Hollywood entertainment lawyer Matt Galsor.

There are of course exceptions – industry heavyweights Steven Spielberg and James Cameron can expect to get it. In some instances stars will have final cut.

But final cut is never absolute. “You get into a lot more weeds than you did in years past,” he says. “If the director goes over budget or over schedule, you can lose final cut.” 

Studios will often conduct test screenings of a film – and only if it pleases the audience sufficiently will the director retain control. “If the test scores come in and clear a certain threshold you keep your final cut,” says Galsor.

The reasons why the big studios are reluctant to grant final cut is because of the huge cost of making and marketing a Hollywood film. No studio really wants to leave the final edit of such an expensive commercial property in the hands of a single individual director, however gifted.

Money talks?

Battles between executives and directors are nearly always a struggle between commerce and art. Executives want a picture that will maximise box office takings. Anything that might dampen ticket sales can become part of the tussle.  Film length is often a major concern as are complexity of plot and whether or not the film has a ‘feel good’ ending that sits well with focus groups.

The annals of movie history are filled with clashes. Early cuts of Ridley Scott’s classic science-fiction film Blade Runner (1982) infuriated producers who commented that parts of it were dull and confusing. Terry Gilliam had difficulties in 1985 with his picture Brazil, which was 142 minutes long. Although it already had been released outside the US, the president of Universal Pictures ordered a dramatic re-edit for the American market despite objections from Gilliam. After a very public dispute, a longer cut, supervised by Gilliam, was released by the studio – but it failed to drum up much excitement at the box office.

In fact it’s not always the case that final cut is protecting a filmmaker from heartless profit-driven executives riding roughshod over the artistry of filmmakers.  Some would take the view that audiences might have benefitted from a little studio-ordered editing of films from at least two directors who enjoy final cut privileges: Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg. Jackson’s recent Hobbit films have been criticised for being overlong – as has Spielberg’s Lincoln in 2012.

As a rule final cut is a right enjoyed more commonly in the world of independent filmmaking. But not always, and that can create frustrations for directors working on movies which are real passion projects.

“I did not have final cut and it was tough,” says American filmmaker Jim Mickle, whose crime thriller Cold in July starring Michael C Hall has just been released. It is a very American story but the edit was controlled by French investors who had little familiarity with the material.

“One of the hardest moments of my life was being in a position where it was French financiers who were determining what was funny and what worked, saying what was funny about a Texas movie by a Texas author,” says Mickle.

It takes two

Most directors crave final cut, but they take the view that to get ahead they may have to cede some artistic control to producers. It’s not necessarily a combative partnership – it can be seen as collaborative.

Ned Benson, the director of the forthcoming romantic drama The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy, didn’t have final cut. But he was by no means dismayed.

“Final cut is an interesting thing,” Benson says. “I'd like to have my opportunity to have my cut, but I also know that we’re in such a collaborative medium I don’t want to be so closed off that I’m not open to making my films better through outside opinions.”

Many auteur directors have no problem when it comes to seeking outside opinion yet they balk at the idea that final cut should rest with anyone other than themselves.

That authorial control comes with a cost, however. “You pay for your privileges,” says director Mike Leigh, who was at Cannes this month with Mr Turner, his biography of the British painter JMW Turner. Had he been prepared to accept less autonomy Leigh believes he could have received much more money to make the movie. “We did make it with a very tight budget. We made it for less than we would have liked to have made it,” he says.

Although for Hollywood executives granting final cut may not make financial sense, there’s a strong argument that it can lead to better filmmaking. Many critics would argue that the best studio pictures in recent times have been ones where a director’s personal vision has prevailed. Case in point, this year’s Oscar-winning space epic Gravity, from Warner Bros. It was bold,breathtaking and it had vision. The name of its director Alfonso Cuarón was written all over it. He had final cut.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.