Alan Smithee is probably the most famous person you’ve never heard of. According to the IMDb, in the time between 1955 and 2008, he’s directed 68 films, written 12, acted in 7, as well as taking on the role of cinematographer, editor, producer, art director, make-up, and production design.

You’d think that such a jack-of-all-trades would be famous, right? Assuming he really existed, he probably would be famous! But he doesn’t exist.

When the director has control of the film taken away and things are looking like they’ll go badly, the director can apply to the Director’s Guild to have his name removed from the production. The Guild has worked long and hard to have the director of a film recognized largely as the person responsible for the film’s success or failure so they do not want a director removing their name from a project on a whim. If the Guild agrees that the director is no longer in control and therefore really not responsible for a project crashing, they’ll allow the director to remove his or her name from the project.

But a director is always credited… so they often use the name Alan Smithee. The tip-off that all is not as it seems is that Smithee’s IMDb listing includes the names of the real directors, if known. If you see a film with this name attached, it’s probably going to be a disaster.

This bit of trivia has become less and less of a secret over the years. In 1998 a film called An Alan Smithee Film: Burn Hollywood Burn was released, taking tongue-in-cheek advantage of the name and further publicizing its real meaning. The Director’s Guild has stopped using the name as of 2000 but no successor has yet appeared.