Structure Opening and Closing Film Credits the Right Way

Theater's ending credits showing behing cinema seats

You probably don’t stay in the theater until the very last film credits roll, unless you work in the movie business, or live in a theater. 

The opening and closing credits are a way to credit and thank all of the people involved in making a film. And all of the big people, too. Actually, they’re mostly there for the big people, but the production company is contractually obligated to list almost everyone who worked on a film.

From the earliest days of cinema, movie credits appeared both before and after motion pictures. Today’s screen credits are almost an art unto themselves, so you’ll want to take the time to get them right on your own film production.

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What are film credits?

Film credits outline the roles people played in creating a movie or television show. In modern films, the opening credits typically run through the key creative forces behind a project, such as the production company, executive producers, the director, the lead actors, and the show creator if applicable. The closing credits tend to be more comprehensive and may include all the individual crew members.

In older films, before television was more widespread, the opening credits were often the only credits on a film and listed the major creative and financial forces in the film, the entire cast, and much (if not all) of the crew. (Of course, there are many exceptions to this, like the original Star Wars trilogy or Citizen Kane.) In contrast to film, television shows and movies, which are more ephemeral productions that are often shorter in length than a typical film, used the closing credits to list everyone who worked on the show. This trend caught on in film world around the mid-1960s; by the early 2000s, most American films had done away with opening credits entirely. 

The importance of film credits

Film credits are a big deal in the world of TV and cinema. Production team members rely on them to get the word out about their contributions, particularly if they happened behind the scenes. Cast credits might reveal the identity of a character actor who disappeared into their role, or that one actor whose name was on the tip of your tongue the whole movie. Writing credits and design credits call attention to the team members whose creative visions shaped the production.

Professional unions and guilds, such as SAG/AFTRA and the Writers Guild of America, may stipulate specific billing orders within a film credits template. They do this to advance the careers of their union and guild members. Some film companies specifically hire a production credits editor to ensure that credits appear in the right way and no angry letters arrive from Hollywood law firms.

The structure of opening credits

The standard film credits order for an opening credit sequence goes as follows. Some films include all or parts of this information and some films don’t have opening credits at all—this is mostly a creative choice on the part of the director. Most contemporary films list the cast and crew in the closing credits. 

1. Distributor: The distributor acquires films and releases them in cinemas or to home video platforms. The distributor also helps market and advertise the film. To think of it in a different way, the distributor for a film is like a television network for a show.

2. Production company: This is the company that oversaw the actual production, from financing to locations to legal contracts. Very large entertainment companies (think Disney or Warner Brothers) might have both the film’s production company and its distributor under the same roof. In other cases, these are separate entities.

3. Film title: The title usually comes after most of the heavyweights on a film, though sometimes the lead actors’ names appear before the title (and sometimes films don’t show the title card until the end). 

4. Lead cast: The featured lead actors may get their names before the film title (particularly if they’re super famous), or they may wait their turn and appear the title in the credits.

5. Supporting cast: The supporting cast either have roles smaller than those of the big stars, or they’re just actors whose names aren’t particularly snazzy (yet!). Either way, they typically appear after the film title and the lead actors.

6. Casting director: The casting director is the person who leads the overall casting process, including scoping talent and auditioning roles. For many films, though, the director has the final say in casting decisions.

7. Music composer: If a film has original music (most do), the film composer might be credited right around this point. This would not be the place to list the bands whose music you licensed for the film. (Yes, even that Nickelback song, as great as it is. Specific songs and bands are credited during the closing credits.)

8. Costume designer: The costume designer (but not the individual costumers) usually gets acknowledged right around here in the opening credits sequence.

9. Associate producers: In most cases, associate producers aren’t the bigwigs whose name and money bring caché, but they do a lot of the actual work to make film sets function.

10. Editors: Editors take all the footage from the film shoot and then shorten and shape it in post-production. They work closely with the director in this process, and they approach the director’s level of influence in the final product an audience sees, however they are credited after many other key players in a film.

11. Production designer: The production designer oversees all visual design choices in a movie, from sets to costumes to props to hair and makeup (and maybe even the fonts used for the very opening credits you are watching). Other designers who work beneath them may not get mentioned until the end credits, but the production designer often ends up right around here.

12. Director of photography: Also known as a cinematographer or DP, the director of photography is in charge of the actual filming process (plus the lighting and camera considerations that go along with it). In many cases, their artistic role on set may be second to only the director.

13. Executive producer: The executive producer title gets thrown around quite a bit in Hollywood, and its meaning can shift from production to production. Sometimes the film’s stars serve as executive producers. Sometimes the EPs come from the studio. Sometimes they are the managers of the directors and screenwriters. Whatever role they had in the film, they provided either money or some kind of meaningful services to the film production.

14. Producer: In most cases, the producers are the bosses of the film. They have arranged for all the financing and legal rights, and they can hire and fire pretty much everyone on set including the director. In some cases, the producers are the principals in the production companies listed at the top of the opening credits. They might get mentioned twice, but those are the perks of the job.

15. Writers: The penultimate item in most opening credit sequences is a screenwriting credit. This goes to the writer or writers who drafted the script. When you see multiple screenplay credits on a film, this may mean it underwent substantive rewrites. The first name listed is the person who wrote the original draft.

16. Director: Finally we get to the director. The director is considered the lead artistic figure in a film production. The producer has the money and the legal rights and can hire and fire people, but the director is the boss of every designer, actor, and crew member on set. They also get the premium billing in an opening credits template.

Closing credits structure

Opening credits tend to have a much more uniform structure than closing credits. In the old days of Hollywood, nearly all the credits came before a film, and the end credits typically just named the production company or said “The End”. Here is how closing credits are structured:

1. Director

2. Writers

3. Producer

4. Executive producer

5. Cast (often in order of appearance or in order of story importance)

6. Director of photography

7. Production designer

8. Editor

9. Associate producers

10. Costume designer

11. Music composer

12. Music supervisor (someone who oversees all of the film’s music, both original and licensed)

13. Music collaborators and facilitators (orchestrators, contractors, copyists, editors)

14. Casting director

15. Unit production manager

16. First assistant director

17. Second assistant director

18. Entire production crew (separated into departments like electrical, sound, set, and costumes)

19. Entire post-production crew (separated into departments like editing, color, sound, and visual effects)

20. Stunts (performers, directors, choreographers)

21. Second unit credits (a film crew that shot additional footage beyond the main production)

22. On-set catering and craft services

23. Title design (literally the person who picks the visual layout of your film title)

24. Licensed songs (including artists, composers, and publishers—here’s where Nickelback gets their big moment)

25. Final sound design, including mix recording studio

26. Special thanks

27. Shooting locations

28. Logos for guilds, unions, rental houses, equipment sponsors, and local film boards or government agencies that helped the film by way of tax credits or other incentives.

29. The film’s copyright

30. Disclaimers (e.g., the film is a work of fiction, no animals were harmed in the making of the film, etc.)

When should you use logos in the credits?

You’ve probably seen film credits examples where various logos appeared alongside names of the cast and crew. These logos may be for film commerce boards (National Film Board of Canada), equipment makers (Panavision), guilds (The Writers Guild of America), or production companies (Broadway Video).

Whenever these logos appear, you can safely assume they were specifically negotiated with the film’s producers. For instance, the National Film Board of Canada may have provided the producers with great locations, favorable tax incentives, and 2-for-1 Tim Horton’s coupons, but they had to put that logo at the end of the film in exchange. If you end up making a film that requires logos in the end credits, you can expect those parties to provide their own logos for you to use.

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