Above-the-line and Below-the-Line: Who's Who on the Set

Some movie-goers leave their seats the moment “The End” fades in. Others—and we like to think the readers of John Wayne Speaks are among them--clutch their theater-seat armrests until the bitter end. Who was that handsome actor playing the role of Man in Grocery Store? What about the second-unit director and the person in charge of continuity? Those secrets and more are revealed during the end credits, that scrolling list of who-did-what at the tail end of almost every movie ever made since the silent era. We here at John Wayne Speaks make it a habit of not just sitting through all the end credits, but by tradition standing up and applauding the Best Boy and Key Grip, if only because they (and their little-known colleagues) don’t get the same kind of love as the principal players, directors, screenwriters, and the like.

This topic is not an idle thought. John Wayne himself got his foot in the door of the movies as a crew member—specifically, as a property assistant. No, that has nothing to do with real estate or lawn maintenance, as we’ll learn next week. There are innumerable jobs on movie sets (and in post-production, after filming is complete) that are largely unrecognized by even the most ardent film-lovers.

So, for the next several weeks, we’re going to devote every Tuesday to a different role in the movie-making process. Today, in an effort to provide an overview, we’ll consider the terms above-the-line and below-the-line.

Movies, like much of daily life, are all based on budgets. Whether it’s a student film with a $20,000 budget or a major release budgeted at $100 million, somebody needs to figure out how that budget will be divvied up. First things first, the senior creative people on a film need to be accounted for, including at the very least, the producer, director, lead actors, and screenwriter. Other key participants can also be included in this group, which is usually referred to as above-the-line. Other above-the-line budget items, before shooting even starts, might include the rights to the original source material (a novel, for instance), assistants for the key people, and more.

Where it gets really interesting to down-and-dirty film lovers is the below-the-line budget. This will include the “crew” (lighting, sound, camera operators, electricians), catering, drivers, hair and makeup, and others who are often paid on an hourly basis, as opposed to the above-the-line personnel who are paid set fees and/or percentages of net or gross earnings.

Keep an eye out every Tuesday for the foreseeable future when we’ll take a deep dive into one or another of these movie roles, without which the Hollywood of our dreams might be just a little less smooth-running, less realistic, and less professional than the finished products we’ve grown used to.

Next Tuesday: What Was John Wayne Doing in the Property Department at Fox?

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