The billing in a motion picture is a set of hotly negotiated and legally contracted formulae that dictate the size in points of a screened name relative to the size of the name of the film. The names of actors and technical personnel must appear on posters and all other advertising for the film and in the opening credits. Other considerations include the individuality of a credit—that is, whether the worker's name appears alone onscreen or along with others'—and the placement of the contributor's credit within the syntax of the credit sequence, relative to the name of the film. Writers' credits—awarded onscreen since 1941—are interesting in this regard. A film "Written by Joseph Jones and James Smith" is one in which the principal writing, the bulk of the writing, or the dominant writing was done by Mr. Jones; however, a film "Written by Joseph Jones & James Smith" is one in which the two writers equally shared in the creative process. Regardless of its point size—and this usually matches that of the principal stars—the director's screen credit has been mandated by the Directors Guild since its 1939 agreement with motion picture producers as the final credit to appear before the action begins. As of 1972, without a specific waiver from the Directors Guild, no film could credit more than one director. Sometimes a director wishes in the end to dissociate himself from a film; traditionally, the credit "Directed by Alan Smithee" has been used to signify this. Actors have also employed this credit.
Since the mid-1990s, directors and writers have been wrangling over what is known as the "possessory" screen credit, one frequently received by directors like Rob Reiner (b. 1947) and Ridley Scott (b. 1937): "a film by Rob Reiner"; "a Ridley Scott film." Screenwriters have argued that the director's possessory credit reinvigorates the notion of the auteur , in a production era in which no one person can reasonably take credit for all of what is onscreen. Stanley Kubrick's (1928–1999) credit in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as not only writer and director but also special effects designer caused some dissension in the film world. By the 1990s, however, four out of five films had some kind of possessory credit, even though fewer than a fifth of these were directed and written by the same person. On the other hand, some filmmakers are multi-talented and can reasonably take credit for more than direction. The director of Once Upon a Time in Mexico (2003) received a main credit that reads, "Shot, Chopped, and Scored by Robert Rodriguez." Rodriguez (b. 1968) also produced and designed the film, as well as designing its special effects.
A celebrated star with considerable box-office draw often negotiates for billing "above the title"—that is, an explicit reference to the position of the performer's name in print or poster advertising; in main titles, it signifies that the name is to precede the film title on the screen. The process of billing competition has been described by Danae Clark (1995) as labor fragmentation: above-the-title billing emphasizes not what screen actors have in common with one another but how they can be seen as different, thus isolating them in the bargaining process. Stars, for example, have large credit billings or names above the title, while character actors and extras emphatically do not. Credit billings are negotiated by the casting director in the producer's stead, and agents representing actors and technical personnel exercise considerable emotion and energy in securing advantageous ones—this because billing can be tied to future earning capacity. Occasionally, pressure may be mounted by technical personnel or actors themselves to lobby for a colleague's screen credit: in 49th Parallel (Michael Powell, 1941), for example, the British actor Eric Portman (1903–1969) was to receive second billing, but his screen partners—Leslie Howard (1893–1943), Raymond Massey (1896–1983), Laurence Olivier (1907–1989), and Anton Walbrook (1896–1967)—insisted that he share main title billing with them.