December 26, 2014

Above the line or below the line

Above the Line: In a film budget, departments whose key members are traditionally recruited before the film’s financing is in place and before the budget is written.  These include development (costs and investment recoupment), story and screenplay, direction, production, cast, and any associated fringes. – Ptara’s guidebook.

Michael Wohl may the the world’s foremost expert on Final Cut Pro, but when it comes to film accounting, the guy gives out false information.

As you can guess, I’m a fan of Wohl’s, but I’m disappointed in what he said is the difference between “above the line” and “below the line.”  His blunder prompted me to write this, because if someone of Wohl’s calibre can get it wrong, so can thousands of others.

Michael Wohl, in his film on film production, defined above the line as “craftspersons essential for making a movie.”  He included in this editors, composers, cinematographers, and production designers.  While I concur that these craftspeople are essential for most films, as essential as any above the line talent, I have no idea where he got the idea that they are above the line.  Most of the “craftspersons essential for making a movie” are in fact BELOW the line.

Below the line does not mean beneath the line.  The line does not differential people by creativity, pay scale, importance, level of talent, or break people into any other kind of value judgement.  Above the line is basically a section of a spreadsheet, nothing more.

Yes, the imaginary line existed in the days of accounting books before spreadsheets, but the difference was just as arbitrary.  The line exists not for moviegoers or moviemakers, it is there simply for accountants and others who deal in film budgets and film finance.

So, why are most craftspeople below this line?  Is it because accountants only like actors, directors, producers and writers?  No, it’s simply because it’s simpler to write a budget if you break it down into pieces.

If you watch the credits to a feature film, you can see hundreds of names of people.  While on Dara Says we only tended to have five people on set most days (and two or three on some days), on most feature films or even music videos you’d be hard pressed to see a set with fewer than twenty people on it.

When the principal photography is complete, a lot of other people are involved.  Michael Bay has five editing assistants in his editing room, and they hold video conferences with another team at ILM who do the CGI, and then there is a huge team who deal with the music.

Then there’s all the equipment, from computers and software to cameras and lenses to batteries and storage devices to real and virtual instruments, headphones and microphones and recording boxes, not even mentioning all the costumes and makeup and props.  Most of these devices and materials don\’t even show up in the credits.  But, all of it costs money, and all costs need to be accounted for.

It’s easier to deal with massive amounts of information if you can summarise it.  So, accountants will separate the information into departments.  These departments are broken down so that there are fewer than 50 numbers to deal with on a top sheet, this way the budget can be easily presented to people who are not accountants.

In the script department, you’ll have the screenwriter’s pay for the screenplay, but you’ll also have any costs involved in copying and distributing the screenplay.  (This may include print-outs, photocopies, and even a runner who goes between the screenwriter and the director.)  If the screenwriter has a typist, that will be here too.

In the editing department, the editor may have an assistant, a runner, and some money put aside for editing equipment and a room to work in.

The camera department will include not only the people who handle the camera (and the cinematographer and/or director of photography), but also the equipment including cameras, lenses, and perhaps storage drives.

Now, even with all the small numbers being compiled into these departments, the budget is simplified further still into sections.  (There are also sections within departments, but there’s a lot involved in writing a budget.)  Some departments are called “post production” because their jobs can’t really start until the first scene has been shot.  An editor could start editing stock-footage before the first day of principal photography, and will usually start work before photography is completed, but will tend to start work at least a day later than a cinematographer.

A cinematographer can start testing out cameras and locations before a line of dialogue is written, but normally won’t start work until the screenplay is done.

If you’re seeing a trend emerge, you might be on to it.  Look at a film budget, and you’ll see it generally broken down into when people become involved in a project.

Above the line talent are those who tend to be involved from start to finish.  The actor or director may be called upon to give interviews on talk shows to promote a film, and that’s likely to be part of their contract.  The writer might write what they say in those interviews.  The producer will be there from start to finish, buying the rights to the story and finally making sure the finished film gets sold on cable TV five years later.

Below the line tends to be separated into three main sections, those involved mainly in principal photography, and those involved primarily in post production, as well as a third section which involves expenses that are indirectly involved but still essential (like insurance and legal fees).

Above the line tend to be involved before the money is in place, and stay involved after the money is all gone.  Their personal lives are more likely to be in the tabloids, and they’ll be able to sell a film even if they don’t have talent (in the case especially of models or sports stars turned stars.)

Foreign markets might buy the rights to a film that hasn’t even been made yet because there are name brands in the above the line talent.  They may also avoid the film because there are scandals involving those people.  Therefore, you might say that above the line tend to be more famous, but not all are (some of my favourite writers are people who no one has heard of.)

Tax credit awarding governments and academics sometimes determine the nationality of a film based upon its above-the-line talent.  If the crew and editors of a film are all Eastern European, but the cast, director, writer and producer are British, it may count as a British film.  Anyone who was actually involved in film production might find this silly, but that’s just how the money people (and some academics and critics) see things.

These differences are more important to the money people than those making the film.  I think it’s essential to have the best below-the-line people you can get, and I sometimes don’t like the term below-the-line because of the connotations it sends out.

Above the line is before the deal.  Before the studio gives the green light to a project, they want a great leads, a great director, a good screenplay in place, and it will all be packaged by a producer.  This is your before-the-deal team, some of whom may be retained with deposits like options or pay-or-play deals.  And, while below the line talent may occasionally be involved, it’s usually the above the line team that brings in the money.

It’s important to note that the entire department of an “above the line” role will occur above the line in a budget.  So, the producer’s and director’s assistants, though they might not become involved in a production until the heads of other departments have already begun work, will still be “above the line.”  The line exists for simplicity sake.

So, it all has to do with money, not importance, 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 other industries.  However, if you look at the meanings in business and advertising, their film meanings might start making more sense.  Above the line in marketing is the big-media advertisements, and marketing below the line is the grunt-work like the door-to-door sales reps.