Why are movie credits so long?

How do movie credits work? If you look at very old movies, only the actors and director are named. Now, the list includes everyone. What would happen if, say, Steven Spielberg decided he wanted to release his next film without the list of credits?
By Leslie Gornstein Feb 25, 2006 8:00 AMTags
How do movie credits work? If you look at very old movies, only the actors and director are named. Now, the list includes everyone. What would happen if, say, Steven Spielberg decided he wanted to release his next film without the list of credits?

By: Betsy, Cleveland, Ohio

A.B. Replies: Just in case you young 'n' disaffected types aren't sure what Miss Cleveland here is yammering about...

Most movies made before 1960 had all their credits at the beginning of the tale--even before Hitchcock could come oozing into the frame to gurgle something about mur-duah. And the credits were about as long as a founding member of the Lollipop Guild. Instead, the dames and daddios in the audience suffered through maybe 90 seconds of kudos--and absolutely zero warnings about how piracy...is...stealing. Key grips and continuity gals and assistants to Miss Garland all suffered in anonymity. The only crew member who may have gotten a mention was the costume designer, and only, it seems, if it was Edith Head.

According to three film historians rousted by this B!tch, the new way of running credits--you know, for 20 minutes, while KRS-One raps something about living with a lot of fear and how that's what's up--is the result of a combination of forces, most notably trade unions and George Lucas.

Unions representing hardworking crews argued that members' labor should be credited. Two reasons: to help those grips and continuity gals get future gigs and to provide a way for these passionate and creative people to "sign" their art.

They also had other reasons for wanting longer credits.

"Films have always employed dozens (if not hundreds) of people in various jobs," Clark University director of screen studies Tim Shary tells this B!tch. "But before the '60s, they tended to be in teams, and usually only the leader of the unit received onscreen credit. So, the art director would be listed but not all of the people (painters, decorators, landscapers, carpenters, etc.) that worked for him or her.

"Now, almost everyone who works on a film is a member of a union, and they have expectations about getting onscreen credit."

Could a director like Spielberg or a producer like Scott Rudin decide to eliminate those credits during one of his 18 daily ego meltdowns? Not likely, I'm told. During film's golden age, most movie workers were under contract to a studio, so the suits could credit their drones--or not--as they saw fit. Today, people hire themselves out film by film, giving them and their unions more power.

"The presence of many credits today are adjudicated by unions and guilds," says Penn State senior film lecturer Kevin J. Hagopian. "So, Steven Spielberg, even as a producer, could not decide simply to leave off these names."

In fact, directors who try those kinds of shenanigans may face fines. That's what happened to Star Wars mastermind Lucas in '77, back when he was still a genius. For rejecting opening credits and replacing them with now iconic phraseology about a galaxy far, far away, his own guild bitch-slapped him with a big fine, and fellow directors cowered at their desks and took copious notes.

One other factor: cheaper movies. Black-turtlenecked indie fans love to joke that the size of a small film's credits is inversely proportional to the size of its budget. (What, you expected these people to have a real sense of humor?) Instead of paying cash, indie-film producers often offer key spaces in their credits as a thank-you.

"When freelancing replaced the studio contract system, studios and producers realized they could pay people less if they gave them credit," San Francisco State University film professor Joseph McBride says. "So, the proliferation of credits went bananas in the '70s and '80s, to the point that now even the honey-wagon driver is credited."

Stars get honey wagons? Excuse me. I have to have a talk with my radio-show producer; who, by the way, so isn't getting a credit.