If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if an Emmy award-winning filmmaker is taken off the credits for one of the year’s biggest TV series, did she really work on it?
That is the question British editor Selina MacArthur fears potential employers will ask themselves after her name failed to appear at the end of an episode of new Game of Thrones prequel, House of the Dragon.
“I spent 7 months editing Episodes 2 & 3 of #HouseoftheDragon,” she tweeted earlier this month. “I did leave the show early, but the majority of my edit remained the same as I left it. How disappointing not to be credited for my hard work.”
MacArthur said she was only credited for one episode instead of two. And whilst almost nobody actually reads TV end credits, which have accelerated to almost unreadable speeds in recent years, and now have to share the screen with information about what’s coming up next (because broadcasters are so desperate to stop us switching channels), they are, in the words of one producer, “fraught with politics and frankly a complete nightmare.”
“I was once involved in a TV drama that was basically a two-hander with two prominent actors,” she recalls. “The to-and-fro about whose name would appear first on the opening credits was absurd. It went on for days, possibly as long as the actual shoot. I wanted to scream: ‘No-one in the audience even notices.’”
Actors’ billing has been a thorny issue ever since the 18th century when David Garrick became theatre’s first star and started appearing in large letters at the top of posters (the word “billing” comes from these “play bills”) and is usually the second most hotly contested subject during contract negotiations, after money.
The words every egotistical actor wants inserted in their agreement are: “Main titles, single card, first position” - in other words, a guarantee that their name will appear first, and on its own, in the opening credits. (The word “card” is a hangover from the days of silent movies when credits were written on cards.)
But, of course, if there is another “big name” among the cast, executives can find themselves on the horns of a rather delicate dilemma. According to one US show business insider, who blogs anonymously under the name the Entertainment Strategy Guy, such issues normally come down to: who makes the most money for the studio.
“That’s the equation at the heart of Hollywood,” he says. “How much money does an ounce of fame create? The more you make for the studio or streamer, the higher up the billing you can ask to sit. The biggest star, usually with the most time on screen, is selling the show to the audience and they usually come first.”
So, in this year’s adventure comedy The Lost City, Sandra Bullock’s name came before that of her co-star, Channing Tatum, not just because Bullock had more screen time, but because her films tend to make gazillions of dollars for film studios.
“In television, if the part's large enough and an actor is well known enough, I can easily get a single card,” says one UK-based agent with Hollywood experience. “But smaller actors usually end up sharing a card.” In a case like that, the wording in the contract might be something like: “Main titles, shared card, alphabetical order, no more than three names on card”.
“You would not believe how many hours I spend arguing about [this],” she says.
Such horse trading explains something that has always puzzled film fans: why the name on a poster often fails to correspond to the picture of the actor underneath it. But the truth is that when it comes to names, status goes horizontally – the further to the left, the bigger the star – while graphic designers tend to place the biggest star in the centre. Thus, on the poster for last week’s romcom blockbuster Ticket to Paradise, George Clooney’s name is above a picture of Julia Roberts and Roberts’s name is above a picture of Clooney (Clooney is considered the bigger draw these days).
This baffling state of affairs reached its apogee on the poster for 1989’s Steel Magnolias where Sally Field, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Daryl Hannah, Olympia Dukakis and Julia Roberts all stood under someone else’s name.
The designers on Seventies thriller The Towering Inferno, meanwhile, had to contend with the film’s testosterone-fuelled leads Steve McQueen and Paul Newman who were each adamant that they were the biggest star on set (to the extent that McQueen insisted Newman’s lines be cut so they had equal screen time). In the end, Twentieth Century Fox concocted a poster on which the actors’ names appeared in an arc, so that McQueen’s name was the furthest left, but Newman’s was the highest up.
There is, however, one exception to the “higher-up, furthest-to-the-left” rule: the name that appears after the word “and” or “and also starring”.
“In some cases, being billed last on the title credits is better than going second,” the UK agent explains. As an example, she cites the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the reruns of which are currently cult viewing on Disney+. In that show, the veteran British actor Anthony Head was billed as “...and Anthony Stewart Head as Giles".
“So-called "last billing" is usually reserved for well-known actors playing smaller roles,” the agent explains. “[Lead actress] Sarah Michelle Gellar had status from daytime soaps, but Anthony Head was almost as famous as her and much more experienced than most of the cast so, even though Giles was a minor role, he effectively won second billing by coming last, if that makes sense. It’s the place Robert Downey Jr appeared in the Ally McBeal credits.”
“Last billing” has become even more desirable in recent years, with the rise of streaming and the ability viewers now have to skip the opening credits because, when you jump a title sequence, you still tend to catch the last name (especially if the director has chosen to show the final credit or two over the opening scene). Being the final name can mean yours is the only one credit-jumpers see.
Credits have not always been such a contentious issue. In the early days of celluloid, producers felt adding yards of additional expensive film to the end of a feature just to name the catering personnel wasn’t worth either the time or money. Hence, of the 391 people who worked on The Wizard of Oz, only 11 received an end on-screen credit.
With the arrival of digital, however, it became possible to include everyone at no extra cost. So now, if your name doesn’t appear, then it's probably because you either violated your contract in some way or fell out with the boss.
“Every contract I've ever signed, any credit is at the discretion of the producers,” explains Adam McCann, a camera operator. “They usually bash the credits together at the last moment after everything else is done and you have to hope they remember you because they send the final list of credits to sites like IMDb, the site of record for the industry and sometimes the only actual evidence you worked on a project.”
Selina MacArthur can take some consolation that her name has not been lost to the tumbleweed of TV’s forgotten lands. On the IMDb listing for House of the Dragon she is third on the list of editors, below Tim Porter and Crispin Green but above Chris Hunter.
And yet, this only provokes further questions: there are still three episodes where no editors are listed. Keep an eye on Twitter.