Translated from the French, auteur simply means "author," but use of the term in relation to cinema—since the 1950s at least—has caused much controversy and critical debate. The frequent retention of the French word, as auteur and in the somewhat ungainly "auteurism," marks the prominent part played in those critical debates by French film critics, especially those associated with the journal Cahiers du Cinéma (literally: cinema notebooks), in the 1950s and 1960s. Controversy arose in part from the industrial and collaborative nature of most film production: given that collaborative context, who might be considered as, or who might claim to be, the "author" of a film? If authorship is claimed, on what basis of evidence might the claim be made? Claims were made for the director to be considered the most likely member of the filmmaking team—in industrially organized commercial film production—to be the author of a film. However, this did not mean that every film director should be considered an auteur , or author, or the author of a particular film. Indeed, in many ways it could be said that the director as auteur should be considered the exception rather than the rule.
Does a film need to have an author? Perhaps, to qualify as "art," a film needs an author, an artist. The question of authorship is important in every art form, whether for reasons of intellectual property rights and the art market or for reasons of status and identification. Painting and sculpture have usually offered reasonably clear examples of the individual artist as author, as have the novel and poetry. But other arts can pose considerable problems for straightforward identification of authorship. A playwright may be the undisputed author of a play text, but who authors a play text in performance? In the twentieth century, many theater directors claimed authorship on a par with playwrights (although television drama has usually preferred the writer as author). A composer may be the undisputed author of a musical score, but what about music in performance?