Above the Line Film Roles
There are seemingly countless roles on a film shoot and they are divided into two basic (and I mean basic) categories: “above the line” and “below the line.” However, where is “the line”?
The line is on the top page of a feature film budget on which certain “above the line” positions and “below the line” positions add up to equal total costs for specific roles divided into those categories. The “line” literally divides roles often considered part of the development and execution of the creative aspect of filmmaking from the roles typically responsible for the craft of filmmaking. “Above the line” items show who and what is necessary before principal photography begins. However, whether above the line or below the line, positions on a film should not be necessarily considered more important than others. I’ve worked with Production Assistants who helped accomplish tasks on a film more effectively than some Producers. So, the division of “above the line” and “below the line” is budgetary.
An Executive Producer (EP) is an individual who traditionally brings approximately 25% of the budget to the table when developing a DGA studio feature film. However, that is a guideline and not necessarily a rigid rule and there may be several Executive Producers responsible for various contributions in addition to money. EPs may also bring Hollywood clout, star talent, and name recognition to a production. For example, recently on the feature film Vox Lux, stars Natalie Portman and Jude Law also served as EPs along with Sia, who wrote songs for the film. EPs are typically top of the food chain on films and they should understand almost everything about the filmmaking process. Sadly, many of them are brought on to the film for financial support while they know very little about the nuts-and-bolts of filmmaking. That’s OK if they populate their team with able-bodied and skilled filmmakers who actually know how to make movies.
Producers on a film can labor over a myriad of functions and while they may bring money to the production, they usually fill more hands-on roles on a film shoot, including searching for and weeding through potential film scripts (often called “properties”), securing the rights to a script, lining up various forms of funding, hiring Screenwriters if the concept is based on a true story and the screenplay doesn’t exist yet, hiring the creative team including the Director, Casting Director, and department heads, overseeing casting, partnering with the Line Producer in order to manage the budget, managing the film office along with the Production Manager and Production Coordinator, and overseeing the daily pre-production, production, and post-production of the film.
According to The Director’s Guild of America, a Director “directs the production of motion pictures and whatever is seen & heard in the finished product. He (or she) also directs all related functions & activities required for translating & transferring the script, premise, idea and/or concept to the audiovisual images.” A great Director loves movies and has seen a lot of them. He or she is the visual voice and captain of the entire shoot. A Director will read the script several times, develop a creative vision and style for the film, work closely with the Director of Photography, the Storyboard Artist, the Art Director, the Costume Designer, the Editor, and the Composer to essentially invent and execute the visual and audible style of the film.
A Director’s work is possibly the most important on a film and a great Director is motivational, aspirational, skilled, and a lover of all things art, and has a clear, concise, and provocative vision for the final film. He or she is versed in the art of acting and works closely with Actors on character backstories, the delivery of dialogue, the emotional core of scenes, and the blocking of Actors on set. A Director not only directs cast, but also directs camera and understands the emotional impact compositions and camera movement have on an audience. A talented Director is a guru of pacing and never says “we’ll fix it in post.” He or she does everything within his or her power to capture the best performances, sequences, choreography, stunts, and effects on camera for the most impact on screen. He or she will be brought on early in pre-production and typically, depending on the contract will stay on until picture lock.
I may be listing Screenwriters as 4th on this list of “above the line” positions, but “Story Rights/Acquisitions” and “Story” typically appear as the first line items on a feature film budget. That’s because it all starts with the story – whether it be book rights acquired for script development, a story concept that has yet to be written, or a fully written screenplay, money goes to a Writer or a group of Writers responsible for writing the initial property (aka screenplay, story concept, treatment, outline, logline, comic book, novel, or any other form of material that will become the script used to make a movie.) The Screenwriter knows screenplay structure well and will be on board for the initial screenplay and, if he or she is lucky, will also be on the payroll for subsequent drafts. It all depends on the contract. A contract drafted in the favor of the Screenwriter will usually have the writer on for multiple drafts. However, a Producer, production company, or studio may simply buy the screenplay outright, pay the Writer a single fee, and then have the script re-written or revised based on the notes of studio execs, Executive Producers, Producers, and the Director. That’s why screenplay writers must contract a strong Entertainment Lawyer to negotiate the deal.
Principal Cast (Actors)
Simply put, principal cast is comprised of the Actors who you may find on the movie poster and in all of the promotional material put out by a studio, production company, or distribution company, including trailers, promos, behind-the-scenes web content, and radio promotions. They are the face and voice of a feature and they appear in most of it. Whereas supporting cast, featured Extras, and background Extras will appear “below the line” on a budget, principal cast appears “above the line.” They are typically paid the most and are a huge selling point for a film. What would the latest Mission Impossible franchise be without Tom Cruise? He is a Hollywood heavyweight and it’s his face and role as Ethan Hunt that gives the film series a consistent and reliable place among film fans — that’s why Cruise’s lead character is always above the line.
Hopefully, this helps you understand the basics of “Above The Line” film roles. It all relates to the delineation on a feature film budget and the best way to really understand them is to see an actual budget created by the folks at Studio Binder, which you can see here.
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