However, in 1906, Biograph actress Florence Lawrence received billing on the credits of her film, and she became the first movie star with celebrity status. From then on, actors received billing on film. Also originating during that time was the system of billing above and below the title, to delineate the status of the players. Big stars such as Pickford, Fairbanks, and Chaplin were billed above the the title, while lesser movie stars and supporting players were billed below the title.
During the era of the studio system, on-screen billing was presented at the beginning of a film; only a restatement of the cast and possibly additional players appeared at the end, because the studios had actors under contract and could decide billing. The studios still followed the billing system of the silent era.
However, after the studio system's collapse in the 1950s, actors and their agents fought for billing on a film-by-film basis. This, combined with changes in union contracts and copyright laws, led to more actors and crew members being included in the credits sequence, expanding its size significantly. As a result, since the late 1960s, a significant amount of the billing is reserved for the closing credits of the film, which generally includes a recap of the billing shown at the beginning. In addition, more stars began to demand top billing.
Billing demands even extended to publicity materials, down to the height of the letters and the position of names.
By the 1990s, some films had moved all billing to the film's end, with the exception of company logos and the title. Although popularised by the Star Wars series (see below) and used sporadically in films such as The Godfather and Ghostbusters, this "title-only" billing became an established form for summer blockbusters in 1989, with Ghostbusters II, Lethal Weapon 2, and The Abyss following the practice. Occasionally, even the title is left to the end, such as in The Mummy Returns, The Passion of the Christ, Hot Fuzz, Apocalypto and The Dark Knight.
The major starring actors generally come next, then the title of the movie and the rest of the principal cast. The following production credits also usually form part of the main billing:
If their contribution is deemed significant, other personnel (such as visual effects supervisor) may also be included. These are then followed by the other producers, the screenwriter(s) and again the director (as in "Directed by..."). The order in which the latter are billed is usually directly related to an individual's status in the film industry or role in the film. If the main credits occur at the beginning, then the director's name is last to be shown before the film's narrative starts, as a result of an agreement between the DGA and motion picture producers in 1939. However, if all billing is shown at the end, his/her name will be displayed first, immediately followed by the writing credits.
Some directors are so highly regarded that they receive what seems to be a producer's credit, even if they did not produce the film. Victor Fleming was one such director: his films always featured the credit "A Victor Fleming Production", even when someone else produced the film. James Whale was similarly credited.
The actors whose names appear first are said to have "top billing". They usually play the principal characters in the film and have the most screen time. However, well-known actors may be given top billing for publicity purposes if juvenile, lesser-known, or first-time performers appear in a larger role: e.g., Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman were both credited above Christopher Reeve in Superman (1978), despite Reeve playing the main character. Frequently, top-billed actors are also named in advertising material such as trailers, posters, billboards and TV spots. Having a particular star at top billing can often draw audiences to see a movie regardless of any other aspect of it.
An actor may receive "last billing", which usually designates a smaller role played by a famous name. They are usually credited after the rest of the lead cast, prefixed with "and" (or also "with" if there is more than one, as Samuel L. Jackson was in the latter two Star Wars prequels). In some cases, the name is followed by "as" and then the name of the character. This is not the case if that character is unseen for most of the movie (see Ernst Stavro Blofeld).
The two or three top-billed actors in a movie will usually be announced prior to the title of the movie; this is referred to as "above-title billing". For an actor to receive it, he/she will generally have to be well-established, with box-office drawing power. Those introduced afterwards are generally considered to be the supporting cast, not the actual "stars" of the movie.
Actors that have high status in the industry don't always get top billing; if they only play a bit part, then it may go to the person who portrayed the main character. Some major actors may have a cameo, where they are only noted within the other cast during the end credits. Sometimes, top billing will be given based on a person's level of fame. For example, besides his brief appearance in Superman, Marlon Brando received top billing in both The Godfather and Apocalypse Now.
If an unfamiliar actor has the lead role, he may be listed last in the list of principal supporting actors, his name prefixed with "and introducing" (as Peter O'Toole was in Lawrence of Arabia). Sometimes, he may not receive special billing even if his role is crucial. For example, the then-unknown William Warfield, who played Joe and sang "Ol' Man River" in the 1951 film version of Show Boat, received tenth billing as if he were merely a bit player, while Paul Robeson, an established star who played the same role in the 1936 film version of the musical, received fourth billing in the 1936 film.
If more than one name appears at the same time or of a similar size, then those actors are said to have "equal billing," with their importance decreasing from left to right. However, an instance of "equal importance" is The Towering Inferno (1974) starring Steve McQueen and Paul Newman. The two names appear simultaneously with Newman's on the right side of the screen and raised slightly higher than McQueen's, to indicate the comparable status of both actors' characters (this also features on the advertising poster). If a film has an ensemble cast with no clear lead role, it is traditional to bill the participants alphabetically or in the order of their on-screen appearance. An example of the former is A Bridge Too Far (1977), which featured 14 roles played by established stars, any one of whom would have ordinarily received top billing as an individual. The cast of the Harry Potter films includes many recognized stars who are billed alphabetically, but after the three principals.
If an actor is not an established star, he or she may not receive above-the-title billing, or even "star" billing; they may just be listed at the head of the cast. This is the way that Judy Garland was billed in the opening credits to The Wizard of Oz. F. Murray Abraham was billed in a similar fashion in Amadeus, which did not say "starring" after the title, but rather "with F. Murray Abraham".
In some cases, the position of a name in the credits roll can become a sticking point for both cast and crew. Such was the case on Gilligan's Island, where two of the stars were only mentioned by name in the closing credits. Bob Denver, who played Gilligan, was so upset with this treatment that he reportedly told the producers that since his contract stipulated that his name could appear anywhere in the credits that he wished, he wanted to be moved to the end credits with his co-stars. The studio capitulated, and moved Denver's co-stars to the opening credits of the show.