An auteur (/oʊˈtɜːr/; French: [otœʁ], lit. 'author') is an artist, usually a film director, who applies a highly centralized and subjective control to many aspects of a collaborative creative work; in other words, a person equivalent to an author of a novel or a play. The term commonly refers to filmmakers or directors with a recognizable style or thematic preoccupation. Auteurism originated in the French film criticism of the late 1940s as a value system that derives from the film criticism approach of André Bazin and Alexandre Astruc—dubbed auteur theory by the American critic Andrew Sarris. The concept was invented to distinguish French New Wave filmmakers from studio-system directors that were part of the Hollywood establishment, and has since been applied to producers of popular music as well as to video game creators.
Even before the auteur theory was clearly defined, the director was considered to be the most important among the people working on a film. Early German film theorist Walter Julius Bloem credited this to film being an art for the masses, and the masses being accustomed to regard someone who gives the final product (in this case, the director) as an artist, and those who contribute before (i.e. screenwriters) as apprentices.  Likewise, James Agee, one of the most famous film critics of the 1940s, said that "the best films are personal ones, made by forceful directors".
Around the same time, the French film critics André Bazin and Roger Leenhardt became advocates for the theory that it is the directors who bring the film to life and use the film to express their thoughts and feelings about the subject matter as well as a worldview as an auteur. They emphasised that auteurs can use lighting, camerawork, staging and editing to add to their vision.
The French magazine Cahiers du cinéma was founded in 1951 and quickly became a focal point for discussion on the role of directors in cinema. François Truffaut criticized the prevailing "Cinema of Quality" trend in France in his 1954 essay Une certaine tendance du cinéma français ("A certain tendency in French cinema"). He characterised these films as being made by directors who were faithful to the script, which in turn was usually a faithful adaptation of a literary novel. The director was used only as a metteur en scene, a "stager" who simply adds the performers and pictures to an already completed script. Truffaut argued that the directors who had authority and flexibility over how to realise the script were the ones who made better films. He coined the phrase La politique des auteurs ("The policy of the authors") to describe his view. These discussions took place at the beginning of the French New Wave in cinema.
From 1960, with his first self-directed film The Bellboy, Jerry Lewis was one of the earliest Hollywood studio-system actor-turned-directors to be critiqued as an auteur. His attention to both the business and creative sides of production: writing, directing, lighting, editing and art direction coincided with the rise of the auteur theory. He earned consistent praise by French critics in both Cahiers du Cinéma and Positif. His singular mis-en-scene, and skill behind the camera, was aligned with Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock and Satyajit Ray. Jean-Luc Godard said, “Jerry Lewis...is the only one in Hollywood doing something different, the only one who isn’t falling in with the established categories, the norms, the principles. ...Lewis is the only one today who’s making courageous films. He’s been able to do it because of his personal genius”.
Andrew Sarris coined the phrase "auteur theory" to translate la politique des auteurs and is credited for popularizing it in the United States and English-speaking media. He first used the phrase in his 1962 essay Notes on the Auteur Theory in the journal Film Culture. He began applying its methods to Hollywood films, and expanded his thoughts in his book The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929–1968 (1968). The impact of Sarris's work was that critical and public attention on each film focused less on its stars and more on the overall product.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, the filmmaking industry was revitalized by a new generation of directors. Known as the New Hollywood era, these directors were given increased control over their projects. Studios showed an increased willingness to let directors take risks. The phase came to end in the 1980s, when high-profile financial failures like Heaven's Gate prompted studios to reassert control. 
The auteur theory had detractors from the beginning. Pauline Kael was an early opponent and she debated it with Andrew Sarris in the pages of The New Yorker and various film magazines. Kael opposed privileging the director and instead argued that a film should be seen as a collaborative process. In her 1971 essay Raising Kane (1971), on Orson Welles's Citizen Kane, she points out how the film made extensive use of the distinctive talents of co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz and cinematographer Gregg Toland.
Richard Corliss and David Kipen have argued that writing is more important to a film's success than the directing. In his 2006 book, Kipen coined the term Schreiber theory to refer to the theory that the screenwriter is the principal author of a film.
Film historian Georges Sadoul pointed out that the main author of a film is not necessarily the director, but can be the main actor, screenwriter, producer, or even the author of the original story (in case of literary adaptations). Also, he argued that the film can be seen only as a work of a collective and not as a work of a single person. Film historian Aljean Harmetz, referring to the creative input of producers and studio executives in classical Hollywood, argues that the auteur theory "collapses against the reality of the studio system".
Some criticize the auteur theory, and the practice of praising auteurs, for being male-dominated. Writing for IndieWire in 2013, Maria Giese noted that pantheons of auteur directors rarely included a single woman. One study says this is merely a result of the broader lack of women directors; for example, in 2016 just 7% of all directors for the top 250 grossing movies were women.
There are references in law, where a directed film is treated as a work of art and the auteur, as the creator of the film, is the original copyright holder. Under European Union law, the film director is considered the author or one of the authors of a film, largely as a result of the influence of auteur theory.
The references of auteur theory are occasionally applied to musicians, musical performers and music producers. From the 1960s, Phil Spector is considered the first auteur among producers of popular music. Author Matthew Bannister named him the first "star" producer. Journalist Richard Williams wrote: "Spector created a new concept: the producer as overall director of the creative process, from beginning to end. He took control of everything, he picked the artists, wrote or chose the material, supervised the arrangements, told the singers how to phrase, masterminded all phases of the recording process with the most painful attention to detail, and released the result on his own label."
Another early pop music auteur was the Beach Boys' multi-tasking leader Brian Wilson, who himself was mentored by Spector. Before the progressive pop of the late 1960s, performers were typically unable to decide on the artistic content of their music. Wilson became the first rock producer to use the studio as a discrete instrument, thus making the Beach Boys one of the first rock groups to exert studio control. Music producers after the mid 1960s would draw on his influence, setting a precedent that allowed bands and artists to enter a recording studio and act as producers, either autonomously, or in conjunction with other like minds. The Atlantic's Jason Guriel wrote that Wilson "paved the way for auteurs like Kanye West ... anticipat[ing] the rise of the producer ... [and] the modern pop-centric era, which privileges producer over artist and blurs the line between entertainment and art. ... Anytime a band or musician disappears into a studio to contrive an album-length mystery, the ghost of Wilson is hovering near."
In broadening the use of the terms associated with auteur theory, it has also been applied to the audio-visual environment as encountered in video games. Japanese developer Hideo Kojima (Metal Gear series) is considered to be the first auteur of video games. Others who have been described as auteurs include Tetsuya Nomura (Final Fantasy, Kingdom Hearts series), Fumito Ueda (Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian), Hidetaka Miyazaki (Souls series), Ragnar Tørnquist (Dreamfall: The Longest Journey), Shigeru Miyamoto (Mario series, The Legend of Zelda series), Goichi "Suda51" Suda (Killer7, No More Heroes series), Tim Schafer (Grim Fandango, Psychonauts), and Ken Levine (Bioshock, Bioshock: Infinite).