The dark arts of poster billing

Working out what stars go in what order on a movie poster is quite a job. And causes many, many arguments...

Billing can be important to an actor’s career. Arguably, it’s more important to their ego. Most of all, though, it’s cross-eyed dead crucial to their agent. The order in which actor’s names appear on a poster might be contested as if it’s a matter of life or death. It’s no exaggeration to say that people have been sent to the electric chair with less wrangling or dispute than a handful of movie star names have been splashed onto a poster.

To be ‘top of the bill’ originally meant, literally, that your name is at the top of the bill – i.e. the poster. In variety theatre or music hall terms, this implies that you would take the stage last of all, the big attraction that the audience will wait all night for.

But in motion picture terms, the big star is usually not held back until the final reel. Order of billing on a movie poster reflects something else, such as an actor’s screen time or how central their character is. Even more so, it’s there to show who has the biggest star status.

When a film can be argued to rest on the shoulders of more than one star, billing can be a little more complex. I’ve tried to work out who gets the best deal in this poster for Steel Magnolias:

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Assuming that each position is worth 1-6 points, with the highest scores on the left, it adds up like this:

Four star points to Julia Roberts. Five to Daryl Hannah. Six to Dolly Parton. Seven to Olympia Dukakis. 10 each to Shirley MacLaine and Sally Field.

And that’s only if you assume identical weighting for image and name.

While billing disputes are almost as old as cinema, the most important – at least in terms of trendsetting – may well be the arguments surrounding The Towering Inferno.

The Towering Inferno was a huge movie, and it had several huge movie stars in it. Hugest of all were Steve McQueen and Paul Newman, absolute monsters of 1970s Hollywood superstardom. As far as all public knowledge goes, they were paid exactly the same amount for the film, and apparently (though this might just be a great urban myth) given exactly the same amount of lines.

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The story goes that McQueen didn’t want Paul Newman to have more lines than he did, and so his role was rewritten significantly to expand it. Nor did he want Newman to get better billing on the poster. That bit sounds like it might have been a simpler request to fulfil, but satisfying the actors and their agents here actually needed a lot of creative thinking in its own right.

The original posters that gave us the notion of billing to start with would list cast members in a vertical stack. The higher on the page your name is, the better your position. At the same time, people reading posters in the English speaking world will read from left to right. It was by combining these two ideas that a poster was created to satisfy the billing needs for The Towering Inferno.

Here’s how it looks. You’ll see Newman’s name is above McQueen’s, but McQueen’s is to the left of Newman’s.

Note how Faye Dunaway gets both right-most and lowest billing. Has Hollywood’s gender divide ever been so geometrically laid out for us?

This staggered billing wasn’t a new idea. In fact, it had apparently been conceived a few years earlier… when McQueen and Newman had almost starred in Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid together.

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Incidentally, The Towering Inferno was a co-production between 20th Century Fox and Warner Bros., but their billing is much more straightforward – Fox first, Warners second.

The studios got together because one had the rights to a book called The Glass Inferno, the other to the novel The Tower, and rather than race to make similar films (as they would these days), they teamed up, mashed the stories together and set an example of relatively peaceful, co-working good spirits that evidently didn’t trickle all the way down to the actors’ trailers.

I rather like the poster for Boeing Boeing which criss-crosses the billing for Jerry Lewis and Tony Curtis. To my eye, this seems to be more successful than The Towering Inferno in creating some sort of two-way equity – but it’s maybe not so good for the supporting cast, all of whom are relegated to a strip across the bottom.

Say what you want about McQueen – and I’d call him a genuine, bonafide movie star to start off with – but he’s also had a lasting effect on movie posters.

But I don’t think he’s necessarily the best example of an actor’s desire for billing creating chaos in the marketing materials. That honour goes to Shelley Long.

Here’s the title card for Cheers, in which Shelley Long gets the higher, right-most position – the Newman slot, as it were. It’s The Towering Inferno all over again, but in Shelley Long terms this is nothing. This is child’s play.

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Here’s a report on the star billing order of Outrageous Fortune from the Sun Sentinel in 1987. I feel quite comfortable just quoting them here. You know. Just in case Shelley Long’s lawyers are reading this.

“Long originally agreed to perform in the film with the understanding that she would receive top billing. But when Disney’s Touchstone Pictures lined up Midler as a potential co-star, Long agreed to a Solomonlike compromise on the credits: The two women split everything 50-50.

Half the prints, publicity material, posters and trailers for the film bill Long first. The other half bill Midler first. Even the invitation to the press screening was printed both ways – upside down and right side up – so that the billing order depended on how you pulled the invitation out of the envelope.”

The LA Times followed up with some responses from Long and Midler’s people:

“Not so, Long’s personal manager Marty Mickelson now pleads: “Bette actually started it by demanding first billing before agreeing to sign for the movie. Shelley wanted so badly to work with Bette that she came up with the evenly split credits.”

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The Divine Miss M is apparently tired of the bickering. Through her agent came Bette’s mollifying reply: “It’s true. It’s true. It’s all true. Shelley is fabulous. I’d do the same for her anytime.”

There are two uploads of the film’s 15-second teaser trailer on YouTube. Both favour Bette Midler.

We could argue about this forever, and it’s clear that agents would, but one clear truth of the matter is that Steve McQueen, Better Midler, Paul Newman, Shelley Long and the whole bunch of Magnolias each played their part in getting bums on seats and – more than that – making these movies work. And whatever the print on the poster says, I know which ones take top billing in my heart.