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What does 'above the line' mean in movie production?

How Expenses Stack Up
Most of the time, about two-thirds of a film's budget goes to below-the-line production costs.
Most of the time, about two-thirds of a film's budget goes to below-the-line production costs.
David McNew/Getty Images News/Getty Images

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].

The Smoking Gun also provides interesting insight into the split between the two types of expenses on a couple of M. Night Shyamalan flicks, each of which had a budget of about $70 million. Out of the $73 million spent to make "Unbreakable" in 2000, about half went to above-the-line expenses, including cast paychecks and writer and director Shyamalan's cut. In 2002, a whopping $25 million of the $70 million budget for "Signs" went to star Mel Gibson. All in all, above-the-line expenses for the film accounted for about $45 million, while below-the-line production staff earned somewhere in the neighborhood of $1.2 million combined [source: The Smoking Gun].