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

Steven Spielberg has been working in the film industry for decades and has definitely earned his above-the-line salary.
Steven Spielberg has been working in the film industry for decades and has definitely earned his above-the-line salary.
Steve Sands/GC Images/Getty Images

The average blockbuster typically has a steep price 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.

While just a handful of people's salaries fall above the line, the cost of securing these individuals for any given production often exceeds the cost of paying for every other person working on the film combined, including extras, crew and anyone whose name rolls in small print somewhere near the end of the credits. Wondering just how movie budgets work? Read on to learn more about how Hollywood accounts for above- and below-the-line expenses.

Star Salaries and the Director's Cut

Jennifer Lawrence, seen here as Mystique in "X-Men: First Class," was one of the world's highest-paid actresses in 2014.
Jennifer Lawrence, seen here as Mystique in "X-Men: First Class," was one of the world's highest-paid actresses in 2014.
Murray Close/Moviepix/Getty Images

Before computers and fancy accounting software, 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.

Other than the nature of the expenses involved, above-the-line costs share some other commonalities. Primarily, they set the tone for the film's budget; you can't make a $20 million film if your biggest stars want $10 million each just to show up. Above-the-line costs also vary from movie to movie based on who's involved, while below-the-line costs are more stable -- a lighting rig is going to cost about the same on every set. These costs are likely to cover pre-production, while below-the-line costs typically cover expenses incurred once filming actually begins.

Finally, and most importantly, above-the-line costs are fixed. Once you sign a certain star or director, you're stuck with the cost of that person for the duration of the picture. While below-the-line costs tend to be more flexible -- you can save money by changing where you shoot a certain scene or cutting the scene entirely -- above-the-line expenses are pretty much set in stone.

Curious how Hollywood budgets work in the real world? Read on to discover some real-life examples of above-the-line expenses at work.

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].

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Sources

  • Eller, Claudia and Dawn C. Chmielewski. "Not Even Bruckheimer Movies Can Escape Budget Cuts." L.A. Times. May 3, 2010. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://articles.latimes.com/2010/may/03/business/la-fi-ct-bruckheimer-20100427
  • Goodell, Gregory. "Independent Feature Film Production: A Complete Guide From Concept Through Distribution." Macmillan. Dec. 31, 2003.
  • Medoff, Norman and Edward J. Fink. "Portable Video: ENG & EFP." Taylor and Francis. 2012. http://books.google.com/books?id=HNkjB2AMb28C&dq=below+the+line+costs+film&source=gbs_navlinks_s
  • Simon, Deke. "Film and Video Budgets." Michael Weise Productions. 2006. http://books.google.com/books?id=WPEWwZM_m6MC&dq=movie+budget+%22above+the+line%22+percentage&source=gbs_navlinks_s
  • The Smoking Gun. "Hollywood by the Numbers." Feb. 27, 2006. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.thesmokinggun.com/documents/celebrity/hollywood-numbers
  • Sylt, Christian. "Fourth Pirates of the Caribbean Is the Most Expensive Movie Ever With Costs of $410 Million." Forbes. July 22, 2014. (Aug. 22, 2014) http://www.forbes.com/sites/csylt/2014/07/22/fourth-pirates-of-the-caribbean-is-most-expensive-movie-ever-with-costs-of-410-million/