‘Unstoppable’ and the Politics of Movie Credits

Denzel Washington and Chris Pine in "Unstoppable"

A query from a reader asks an interesting question: why does established, A-list star Denzel Washington have to share above-the-title credit with relative newbie Chris Pine on the new thriller Unstoppable? Does it have anything to do with race? Do the producers not think that Washington can carry a movie all by himself, without having to share top billing with a white star of lesser stature? If Washington were white, wouldn’t he get the marquee all to himself?

The short answer is that credits are determined not entirely by marketing needs but also by more complicated negotiations involving union rules and whatever deal a star’s agent can negotiate. Chris Pine clearly has a very good agent, one who helped him land major roles in Star Trek and now this. It’s a big enough part that it merits mention alongside Washington’s, although Washington is a bigger star and no doubt had his agent make sure he was mentioned first.

And the marketers, I’m sure, went along with that placement because Washington can carry a movie by himself. He did so earlier this year with The Book of Eli, where he didn’t have to share top billing with anyone. He’s a consistently bankable star, beloved by fans across the spectra of race, age, and sex. But he’s also 55 (Pine is 30), so Pine’s prominent placement could also be some bet-hedging on behalf of marketers trying to ensure a younger audience.

I don’t think race is a factor here. Look also at the current film Morning Glory, where young Rachel McAdams gets top billing over Hollywood icons Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton. She gets first billing because she has the starring role, even though she’s not the household name that Ford and Keaton are. Then again, how many hit movies have either of these sixtysomethings enjoyed lately? Two decades ago, Ford got top billing over Melanie Griffith in a similar movie, Working Girl, even though hers was the starring role, because he was the bigger box office draw then (and no doubt had a more powerful agent). So color doesn’t seem to be a factor in whether established stars have to jockey for marquee space with younger co-stars — unless that color is green.

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