It wasn’t until I started reading blogs online about Hollywood filmmaking, such as my blogger friend Hollywood Juicer that I came across the phrase above and below the line in filmmaking. Above and below the line is a term widely used within the film industry. However its exact meaning and its connotations can vary.
The line I am talking about is the imaginary line which separates those who have creative influence over a film and those who don’t. In a film crew people who are considered above the line are – the Director, the Screenwriter, the Producer and the Lead Actors. All other crew members are said to be below the line workers.
Why do we use this phrase in film?
The terms comes from the top sheet of a film budget plan used by production companies to determine how much a film would cost. Production companies would list the crew and cast on paper with how much their wages are. The above the line workers were considered essential to the film, the below the line workers were considered replaceable. Above the line workers wages are fixed costs. e.g. If a scene is cut in a film the screenwriter is still paid the same amount regardless.
An example of a Top sheet of a film’s budget breakdown can be seen here.
Issues with the term
Issues with the term above and below the line in filmmaking. Below the line workers are not paid as much as above the line workers. Often on low budget film sets below the line workers (because they are considered replaceable) are not paid very well or simply not paid at all. Imagine a pyramid – the lead actors, director, producer, screenwriter at the top. Next comes the Director of photography, all other heads of departments, assistants and at the bottom are the production Runners/PAs. Some people argue that the Director of Photography should be considered above the line. Traditionally the DOP is not but this is changing now that the DOPs job is more highly regarded these days and that they have more creative influence over a film.
Filmmaking seems to be all about climbing up a ladder. Working below the line in film is often talked about as being a daily grind. When people in film use the phrase below the line worker they will often be talking about how tough their job is, how long their work hours are, and maybe how they aspire to be working above the line one day.
The Line Producer
This is why a line producer is called a line producer because he sits on the line and supports both sides during the production. They are called Line Producers because they cannot start work until they know what the ‘line’ is between the ‘above-the-line’ costs and the ‘below-the-line’ costs. Line Producers are given the script when it is in development to assess ‘below-the-line’ cost of the production. They break down the screenplay into a timetable for the film shoot that shows how long it will take to shoot each scene.
So It's just an accountancy term right?
Yes, it all has to do with money, not ego, talent, skill, or anything else. The terms above-the-line and below-the-line existed before the film business, and both have different meanings in advertising. However I do feel it has a negative connotation to it, and especially online over the past few years where it has taken on a whole new meaning to express the toughness of working in the film industry.
If you think I am wrong then please let me know. What does the phrase above and below the line mean to you? Has this phrase changed meaning over time or is it just me reading into it too much?