Why a Film’s Opening Title Sequence Matters

'Catch Me If You Can'Credit: DreamWorks Pictures
The opening credit sequences is a niche cinematic art that is dying out, and we need to protect it.

We all have our favorite opening title sequences. Mine include the jazzy mod opening sequence to Catch Me if You Can and the head-trippy and flashy sequence in Enter the Void. There are so many great title sequences out there in the film world, but I’ve noticed a strange trend—the cinematic art of the title sequence is dying. 

Many modern movies are opting out of using an opening credit sequence in order to get to the story faster. While there is nothing wrong with taking out the opening credits, disregarding the art form entirely has taken away something from watching movies. This trend of favoring the "title-only" or cold open is pulling us further away from the cinematic expression of film into a story-watching-only experience. 

Patrick (H) Willems tells us why preserving the cinematic art form is needed in his video below.

A Brief History of Title Sequences 

The first title sequences appeared in 1897 when Thomas Edison put a credit at the start of one of his films to prevent piracy. Then, in the 1908 film, Bronco Billy, G. M. Anderson became the first actor to be credited on screen. This recognization started the tradition of giving credit to a film’s stars. 

As feature-length films became popular, the rise of the Hollywood film industry and the increasing influence of unions for cast and crew, a standard format for opening credits was set and started to appear before all movies. 

Most opening credits looked fairly similar up until the early 1950s. They ran under a minute long and would have several names clustered upon a series of title cards that appeared on a static background. The aesthetics of the title cards would change to fit the style of the story, but the general format was the same. 

Opening title sequences were boring, to say the least, and they were made to be ignored. As the lights dimmed, the projector would begin to play the opening credits over the curtain as the screen slowly rose. The opening credits in the classical era acted as a transitional moment and didn’t demand the audience watch them because the credits didn’t add to the film’s narrative. While there are some interesting opening title sequences, they are generally viewed as an inessential part of the film. 

Everything changed in 1954 when Otto Preminger brought on graphic designer Saul Bass to design the opening for Preminger’s film Carmen Jones

Preminger and Bass collaborated again on The Man with the Golden Arm. This time, they sent a letter to theater owners that required them to raise the curtain in front of the screen before the titles. This is when opening credits became an essential part of the film. 

Bass revolutionized the idea of what opening sequences could be. Instead of being insignificant, the opening credits could tell the overarching theme of the film or reveal the tone before an actor walked onto the silver screen. Throughout the 1950s until the 70s, a variety of styles took over the opening credits and established them as cinematic art forms. Realism and naturalism came into style, so cinema responded by pushing back against the stylistic excess of the 60s, movi elaborate opening credits away from the public’s view.

The opening credits of 'The Graduate'Credit: Embassy Pictures

By the mid-70s, unions began negotiating with studios for more of the crew to get credited in their respective films. As opening credits expanded and became too long, the bulk of the credits were moved to the end of the film (a thing that hadn’t existed in film at the time). As more and more films pushed most of the cast and crew to the back of the film, the opening credits started to become shorter, declining in their artistic popularity. 

While there are still plenty of notable opening sequences, the title sequence has largely gone out of style. 

The New Style 

In the 90s, Steven Spielberg reportedly conducted surveys and found that moviegoers generally disliked opening credits. They found it to prolong the story and tried to get through it as fast as they could. 

As a response, a minimalistic approach to opening titles in the 21st century can be found in many modern-day movies. Christopher Nolan’s movies largely set the trend of skipping the titles altogether. It is an ultra-minimalist approach that allows the audience to submerge themselves into the film immediately without feeling as if they are wasting time watching names appear on the screen for a minute or more. 

The style looks like this: the film opens to the first scene with no opening text at the start, and then the movie ends with the title of the film appearing in white on a black screen followed by the credits. The common approach to modern blockbusters is to have been minimal titles upfront that stays up for about 10 seconds, then having an elaborate animated title sequence at the end of the film. 

The truth is: audiences don’t care about title sequences. All they care about is the plot of the film, and nothing else. Why sit and watch a minute of names that cross the screen before the first scene? 

Cold Opening to 'The Dark Knight'Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures

Why Does the Opening Title Matter?

Bass held the belief that the opening titles can set the mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story in a metaphorical way. The title was a way of conditioning the audience to be in a specific emotional state before the first scene.

The opening title is like a film’s hype man. It establishes the tone and elements of the films to come. They can also act as a recap of the previous film’s story like in Spider-Man 2, or to tell alternate history like in Zach Snyder’s Watchmen. 

They are purely an art form that celebrates the film and those who made the film possible. Those who don’t find the title sequence interesting are those who are not concerned with aesthetics, style, tone, or theme. Instead, those people are the ones who want to be distracted. Both the overture (which is another dying cinematic art form) and title sequence act as a bridge from the real world to the story. In a culture that can’t handle boredom, that bridge makes people restless, and they have an immediate negative reaction to not being entertained. To please the audience—mostly the box office—these moments that are “boring” are sacrificed for the sake of the plot. 

Opening title sequences also lead to amazing and memorable scores. It sounds bonkers, I know, but with a minute-long title sequence comes a score to allude to the rest of the movie. Composers spend time crafting a piece that encapsulates the entire movie in a single theme song. Why put all of the work into a credit sequence and put it at the end of the movie where people are not paying any attention? There is no reason to not put that sequence at the front except for the fear of making some members of the audience a little bored before the movie. 

I mean, why would you want to miss out on this: 

If you are going to the theaters, then you have probably already reserved two and half hours to go and watch the movie. The open sequence allows you as an audience member to appreciate the thoughtful design created to express themes and tones of the movie you are about to watch and celebrate the director, editor, and members of the cast and crew who made the movie you are about to watch possible. 

The need for constant entertainment is the disease that has plagued the digital age, and boredom is something everyone fears to experience. We fear that moment when we are allowed to think about what is happening around us. It is okay to take a step back from the constant entertainment and just enjoy a title sequence that may have everything or nothing to do with the story you are about to enter. Just chew on some popcorn, lean back, and appreciate the subjective art that is preparing you for two and half hours of constant entertainment. 

What is your favorite title sequence? Let us know in the comments below!      

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