AE: Acrimony Over an Acronym

Is it OK to call an Assistant Editor an AE?

An Assistant Editor (or an AE?) at work.

by Pamela Malouf, ACE

The first time I heard my assistant editor referred to as an “AE,” the hairs on my back went up! I felt it was disrespectful and unbecoming — but why? After all, we call production assistants PAs without offense, so why not call assistant editors AEs? Well, for starters, PAs fetch coffee and deliver scripts, whereas assistant editors perform highly skilled creative and technical work in an artistic craft.

Still, as an old-time editor (having started assisting and cutting on film), I thought maybe I was overly sensitive and just not hip to the new slang. Yet, at industry mixers and Hollywood events, other editors echoed my sentiments. Past Editors Guild President Daniel Cahn, ACE, says, “Can we all please agree to call the assistant editor an assistant editor and not an AE?” Editor Chris Willingham, ACE, declares, “I hate the term AE; it’s degrading! I don’t know who termed it or why. Perhaps it’s an offshoot of AD [for assistant director], but that’s been around for decades — and it doesn’t make AE right.”

On the other side of the coin, assistant editor Jeff Cenkner says, “For me, what it really boils down to is: What’s in a name? Assistant editor or AE…does it make a difference? We work in a fast-paced creative industry where time is money. And any assistant editor worth his or her salt knows that if something can be done faster and more efficiently with the same results, it’s worth its weight in gold.”

It’s apparent that many assistant editors — particularly those who’ve entered the business in the last decade — do not mind the AE title because they think “assistants” get coffee, and that the term doesn’t matter because it’s their work that defines them, not their title.

Another assistant editor, who does not wish to be identified, tells me, “I’d rather be called an AE than an assistant. People need to get over it. I never heard an AD or DP [for director of photography] complain about initials instead of their full title.” Cenkner adds, “Hey, if you can describe my job in two syllables as opposed to six, why not? It  works for DPs and ADs.”

Ah, but does it work for those job titles? Because the moniker DP is widely used, most people assume that directors of photography (aka cinematographers) happily accept it, but this is not quite true. According to Rachel Bosley, managing director of the American Society of Cinematographers’ ASC Online, legendary society member Stanley Cortez, ASC, who started as a camera assistant in the 1920s, always objected to its use on the grounds that DP was the term for “displaced persons” — a reference to the refugees in World War I and II. Cortez died in 1997, but out of deference to him, American Cinematographer magazine has continued the practice of avoiding this term in its pages; even if someone uses it in a direct quote, it is changed to “cinematographer” or “director of photography.” The society’s president Richard Crudo, ASC, adds that, out of respect for Cortez, the organization does not use the term DP inside the ASC clubhouse. Nonetheless, the acronym has stuck and cinematographers accept it, lest they appear to have a bad attitude; plus, they’ve been called it now for so many years that most of them don’t mind.

Nor do assistant directors want to be called ADs, because that title puts them one step further away from the title of director — a job to which many of them aspire. As an associate director member of the Directors Guild of America, I can also personally tell you that assistant directors also dislike the abbreviation of their title, mainly because it doesn’t differentiate them from their fellow DGA classification: associate director — which is a totally different job. In addition, AD is also the initials for an art director. Conversations on the Members of the DGA Facebook page reflect this attitude. Assistant directors have just grown to accept the initialized moniker, but that doesn’t mean they like it.

“The association of the term AE with reality television seems to be where it started. Assistant editors have always been referred to — both contractually and in working relationships — as assistant editors; ‘editor’ being the operative word. The term AE serves to divide the assistant editor from the editor.

While the title “assistant director” obviously dates back to the pre-cinema era of theatre, the origins of its acronym are still somewhat murky. The entertainment industry trade publication Variety, which has been coining its own distinctive “slanguage” soon after it debuted in 1905 — likely as a means of fitting long words into limited space for headlines when type was still set by hand — includes a dictionary of its famous (or infamous) made-up terms on www.variety.com. Among them is “a.d.” (in lower-case letters and with periods), meaning assistant director. This connection may be far from conclusive, but it’s a fair bet that this abbreviation to mean an assistant film director (the term’s not really used in the stage world) was born as a last resort of a space-challenged copy editor trying to squeeze a headline onto a page in the early days of the trade paper. For what it’s worth, “d.p.” is also included in Variety’s slanguage dictionary.

Now, however, in 2015, I think that we (fellow picture editors and assistants, reality or scripted, union or non-union) are at a crossroads with the relatively new term AE. And we have an opportunity to stop it, or it too will become “stuck.”

So, what do we prefer? I worked in scripted television for 27 years and yet it was not until working on my first reality show in 2004 that I heard an assistant editor referred to as an AE. “The association of the term AE with reality television seems to be where it started,” says sound editor F. Hudson Miller, MPSE. “In the 75-plus years of the Editors Guild’s history, assistant editors have always been referred to — both contractually and in working relationships — as assistant editors; ‘editor’ being the operative word. The term AE serves to divide the assistant editor from the editor. For the past dozen years or so, one of the Guild’s big concerns has been that assistant editors are no longer being mentored into the editor’s chair. This moniker serves to stress the difference, and not the similarity, of the jobs.”

“If you want a cause to champion, it should be dropping assistant from the name and changing it to something that doesn’t make producers think it is okay to ask you to get coffee,” comments the anonymous assistant editor. “The mentoring thing is an issue, but it has absolutely nothing to do with initializing someone’s title. If assistant editors have an issue with people giving them an initialed title — just like that given to a creative department head like the DP — then they need to check their egos at the door.”

Editor Maureen O’Connell makes an interesting counterpoint: “I believe that there are people in certain segments of our industry who are invested in designating assistant editors — verbally and on paper — as AEs.” This is very much technology-speak, intentionally moving away from the arts and into engineering or near-military terminology, and is just as dehumanizing. It reminds me of why we formed, and still need, our Guild. Guilds are siblinghoods of artists, learning their art, craft and trade in a journeyman structure, and apprenticed to be able to move up the creative ladder. Assistant editors are editors, as are apprentices. They just have not yet attained the highest level of their art.

If assistant editors have an issue with people giving them an initialed title — just like that given to a creative department head like the DP — then they need to check their egos at the door.”

“To refer to them by initials rather than their Guild-conferred artistic title is to allow management to define them,” she continues. “And I cannot possibly convey how eager management is to disempower us all.” To which Miller adds, “Removal of the word editor from the title is just another attempt to reduce post jobs to technical rather than creative positions.”

In my opinion, the AE title sounds less important, like the title “digitizer,” who could know nothing else (that’s the implication), versus an assistant editor, who assists the editor in all facets of the film or television program — from dailies to special effects to turnover, including sound and music. The editor is a department head; the editor’s assistant is a job title worthy of embracing. Offers Cahn: “An AE sounds like someone who can be replaced; an assistant editor does not.”

“In my mind, the value of our jobs isn’t determined by an abbreviated title,” counters Cenkner. “It’s determined by the quality of our work and the equal respect we’re given by other members of our team in any given situation. And as long as that integrity and respect is maintained, by all means, call me an AE for brevity’s sake.”

“To refer to assistant editors by initials rather than their Guild-conferred artistic title is to allow management to define them. And I cannot possibly convey how eager management is to disempower us all.”

It’s apparent that many assistant editors — particularly those who’ve entered the business in the last decade — do not mind the AE title because they think “assistants” get coffee, and that the term doesn’t matter because it’s their work that defines them, not their title. “I’m not promoting the title AE; in fact, I couldn’t care less — which is actually my point,” opines the unidentified assistant editor. “My self-worth is not determined by whether someone decides to use my full title or its initials. People respect me and my position not because of my title, but because of my experience, my knowledge and the quality of my work…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The American Cinema Editors, together with the Editors Guild, is fighting to gain picture editors recognition in awards categories at film festivals worldwide (all the other comparable disciplines are already represented), through the Petition for Editors Recognition (see www.editorspetition.com). We need all the help we can get. Respect is a cumulative effect, just like every edit and every frame is a cumulative effect; that’s why one or two frames do make a difference. And yes, a title does matter. Why do you think people make Deal Memos prioritizing and guaranteeing their titles?

What do you think would happen if everyone started calling directors “DTs?” Except that would never happen; everyone has too much respect for the craft to dare call a director by such an abbreviation. Let’s have too much respect for our craft to call an assistant editor an AE and perhaps — just perhaps — cumulatively, assistant editors can get more respect and that may lead to better pay. Let’s not refer to them in the same manner as we do unskilled production assistants.

The value of our jobs isn’t determined by an abbreviated title. It’s determined by the quality of our work and the equal respect we’re given by other members of our team in any given situation. And as long as that integrity and respect is maintained, by all means, call me an AE for brevity’s sake.”

I have jeopardized several jobs fighting for my assistant editor (in more ways than one) and, when addressing studio heads or producers, I always refer to my assistant with a title that represents him or her in the most favorable light. And trust me; it’s not, “my AE.”

“Editorial is a very old profession that has its own traditions,” says Miller. “When we join the brotherhood/sisterhood, we adopt those traditions. There are lots of old-fashioned terms that are the traditional lingua franca of our trade; ‘assistant editor’ is one of them.”

Upon considering this, the anonymous dissenter concedes, “AE is just lazy speech. But if that’s your cause, more power to you. I’m tired of the inevitable corrective responses if I utter those two heinous letters. So yes, I acquiesce; let’s all stop using AE so I can stop hearing people incessantly complain about it. Agreed?”

Agreed. Now…can we start to discuss how to utilize our journeyman structure to help assistant editors and new editors climb the creative ladder to attain the highest level of their art?

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