What does ‘above the line’ mean in movie production?
The average blockbuster typically has a steepprice tag these days, with budgets topping $200 million for many of the biggest box office hits. Have you ever wondered how Hollywood manages to spend that much money on a movie and exactly where all those millions go? When you hear about the high cost of making a movie, you rarely hear about extravagant craft services or the key grip who earned millions for his work. Instead, when it comes to movie costs, what makes headlines is the high cost of talent — the multimillion-dollar paychecks for the stars, the exorbitant director’s fee and of course, the producer’s cut.
Curious as to what these people have in common? In addition to their immense wealth, in most cases, these individuals represent above-the-line expenses for the studios.
Before computers and fancy accountingsoftware, Hollywood studios presented budgets on paper, with a thick black line used to separate certain types of expenses from others [source: Medoff and Fink]. While most budgets are done on computers these days, the idea of grouping expenses above and below the line has stuck. From the smallest film budget to the biggest blockbuster, producers continue to group expenses in the same way, making it easier for accountants and investors to understand how the costs associated with a given movie stack up.
Above-the-line costs typically include just a few line items, but they’re big ones, and account for a significant portion of the film’s budget. So what typically falls above the famous line? Cast salaries, for starters, including those $20 million paychecks earned by the most sought after A-listers, but also the cost of hiring less recognized actors to fill major roles. Also included above the line is money paid to producers and directors, which can be substantial, depending on the film. Finally, above-the-line costs usually include the cost of the story itself, including payment for screenwriters and securing the rights to make the story into a film. All production costs not included in these categories, such as crew salaries, lighting, travel, props, sets and craft services, fall below the line.
On an average film, producers might shoot to keep above-the-line expenses limited to one-third of the total budget, with the remaining two-thirds going to below-the-line costs, namely those designed to maximize production quality. Of course, as every movie is different, the split between these two categories of expenses can vary tremendously from film to film. In general, the lower the overall budget for a particular project, the greater the proportion of the budget devoted to below-the-line expenses [source: Goodell]. On a Hollywood blockbuster with a budget of $200 million or more, however, you may find above-the-line expenses far in excess of one-third of the budget, thanks to the high cost of talent.
As an example, let’s look at the fourth movie in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, “On Stranger Tides.” Released in 2011, the film cost a staggering $410 million, ranking it among the most expensive films of all time. While the exact budget is a closely guarded secret, Johnny Depp reportedly earned a solid $55 million for his role as Captain Jack Sparrow. The 895 production staff (who fell below the line) earned somewhere around $18 million combined [source: Sylt]. When producers grew concerned with the high cost of filming and the quickly ballooning budget, they decided to cut costs by going after below-the-line costs like filming locations and special effects, completely ignoring the above-the-line, $55 million elephant in the room [source: Eller and Chmielewski].