Walk the Line – part I

19 11 2013

(note: because this is one of the most important concepts in the cultural anthropology of Hollywood, the topic gets a two-parter.  This is part one).

Outside of the entertainment industry, people use a number of divisions when they talk about Hollywood: A-list and B-list, movies vs. TV, broadcast vs. cable.  But when you’re working in the industry, the most important division may be Above the Line and Below the Line.

What does it mean?  The term originated with a literal line on the paper of studio budget projections; in general, above the line were fixed costs (i.e. people who got paid no matter if the movie ever finished production) and below the line were flexible costs (i.e. if you stopped filming at some point, you didn’t need these people).  But that’s the origin, not really what the terms mean today.

The problem is, this is one of those situations where the distinction is both generally agreed upon and maddeningly vague.  What that means is that if you name a specific position on a film or TV production, it’s generally agreed upon whether that person is Above or Below the line.  For example, a writer?  Above the line.  Gaffer?  Below the line.  The fuzziness enters the picture because it’s far less clear what, in a cultural sense, the distinction means.  Is it a class difference?  A creative one?  A difference in the power structure?


Neither of these are the line that we are talking about.

Before we get into all that, and for those unfamiliar with the specifics, here’s a partial list of where certain members of a production fit:

Above the Line:                      Below the line:

Producer                                Director of Photography

Director                                  Gaffer

Writer                                     Key Grip

Actor                                      Costume Designer

                                              Production Designer


So who belongs in each group is fairly well-established, generally speaking.*  But as anthropologists, it’s important to look a little deeper: what, in a cultural sense, does the distinction actually mean?

You hear a lot of different ideas about this from people involved in different parts of the industry.  Probably the most generally accepted distinction is that above the line is “creative” staff and below the line is “technical” staff.  But there are a lot of holes in that: directors (good ones, anyway), have a strong grasp of the technical aspects of the production process.  And a lot of below the line positions – production designers, for example – are creative people who can have a lot of impact on the final product.  And rightly or wrongly, not many people think of a producer as creative.

Another perspective that is sometimes heard is exemplified in J.R. Helton’s book Below the Line**: the line is “the demarcation where the real money and power starts and stops.”  This too is pretty simplistic, though – some of the people who are above the line don’t really seem to have a ton of power (ask a writer), and some who are below can wield considerable influence over a production.

Other distinctions that I’ve heard include: 1) Above is “creative” people, or who have financial control of the project, 2) Above is people who get residuals, 3) Below is production and postproduction crew, 4) Below is people who physically produce the project, 5) Above the line is decision-makers, 6) Above is people you hire before shooting, Below is people you hire during or after.  All of these seem to have elements of truth in them, but none of them really captures the entirety of the cultural reality.


Unbeknownst to most people, “the Line” referenced in the terms Above and Below the Line is this particular line in the street at La Cienega and Wilshire Blvd. (not really, of course).

One of the more interesting observations is has to do with labor relations (and how often do you hear that sentence, really?); specifically, the organization of unions for the workers involved.  The distinction is this: above-the-line positions almost all have their own unions – actors have SAG, writers the WGA, directors the DGA.  But below the line workers are, in a general sense, bundled together with one larger union: the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, or IATSE.  Now, the IATSE has specific divisions for each position (like Local 839 for Animators, and Local 44 for props craftpeople, etc.), but still, it says something about the divisions that abovers each get their own union, while belowers have to share.***

There’s much more to discuss, but we’ve reached the end of what I consider an acceptable length for a blog posting, so in part two we’ll see a more anthropological perspective, what people have worked both above and below the line have to say about it.  Also, how the economic needs of below the line workers bring together the LA Mayor and Hellboy Ron Perlman.

— Scott Frank

*Nowadays, one of the current problems is that there are some relatively new positions that aren’t yet clearly in one place or the other, or it hasn’t been determined yet – like if you’ve got a social media manager, are they above or below?

** This mention is not to in any way endorse Helton’s book, which is supposedly a “tell-all” but really seems more a chance for him to vent some bitterness over perceived slights from years of working below the line.

*** Not all below the line employees are in IATSE.  There are some who are members of the Teamsters Local 399.  But in keeping with the main thrust of the argument, they are still members of a larger union, they do not (unlike above the line folks) have one of their own.



One response

11 01 2015
JR Helton

Not that I need your site to endorse or denigrate my writing Scott Frank, but to be clear: one of my books you put down here as simplistic, my memoir Below the Line was my yes, indeed somewhat negative take on the harsh realities of working construction in the hot Texas sun on many a film crew, on real movies and television productions, with both large and small budgets but it was also an accurate snapshot of the changing film business as more and more productions have indeed moved from California to states like Texas in my book and you could easily write a Below the Line from Louisiana now or New Mexico as well. That book was mostly my own personal story of my reluctant journey from a fan of films before the screens to facing the reality of the process that created the product itself on screens as more americans than ever now sit on their collective asses and passively watch so many screens and their stories or just the gratuitous sex and violence that plays out on them on their smart phones or in their homes. Below the Line was my personal disillusionment as a young man still as a film lover who saw behind the curtain on over 25 films, a college grad student still and published writer first who by chance, by accident and some hustling and connections above the line, found myself working in the film business as a scenic artist/set painter, a job I never really wanted. Below the Line was in no way a “tell all” celebrity gossip memoir then as you classify it here. I had/have many more salacious stories i could have told of celebrity drug use, sexual affairs, the standard tell all Hollywood memoir bullshit. I never pretended to know any of the actors on any of the films I worked on though, nor did I care to know them except to notice some were insecure, egomaniac actors and others were nice enough people who showed up on set and just did their jobs like the rest of us. I was criticizing our celebrity worship culture then in telling my story Scott, NOT trying to celebrate nor certainly extort it for my own personal gain. Though I surely could have done the latter. I had a number of powerful literary agents interested in the first edition of Below the Line in 1996 and also the second edition by Last Gasp Books with the cover by my friend Robert Crumb in 2001 with the intro by film director Terry Zwigoff. I can assure you, had I compromised all I believed in as a writer, several corporate media giant publishers were more than willing to run with the book and promote it if I would just take out the “negative” or “downbeat” tone which was, unfortunately as to commerce, simply the truth which I wasn’t willing to sacrifice, ever. In fact, had I indeed been willing to fill Below the Line with more celebrity gossip and hyperbole, AND make it more “upbeat” (that is lie and make it shallow and generic), I would have secured publishing deals that I instead turned down, unwilling to change those realistic aspects of the book that were just as humorous as they were bitter or grim. For the record, as I write this in Jan. 2015, I still have many friends also in the film business at the highest levels— so much for your bitter, “sour grapes” theory then as to why I wrote it. Frank, I actually had to TURN DOWN job offers on films AFTER both editions of Below the Line were released. Furthermore, I worked on a number of major big budget films that are not even mentioned in the memoir Below the Line after its publication. I was in fact THE go to lead scenic artist in Texas when I first self-published Below the Line with some friends in Austin in its first edition in order to force myself to no longer take on any more movies as the money was too hard to turn down and they left me little time to work on my writing as a published author already, nor to pursue my studies in academia which, once I left films, I finally completed with an advanced terminal degree and where I am now a professor who has been teaching writing for 15 years. I have just published my sixth book in French and English, The Jugheads from Seven Stories Press in Manhattan with distribution by Random House as well and I’ll take that any day of the week, both accomplishments over painting yet another phony western town movie set saloon hall front or another Styrofoam tombstone for yet another forgettable commercial television movie of the week. In short, I not only resent your implication but am taking the time, just once here, to tell you that you are wrong in implying that Below the Line was some sort of “sour grapes” book as, again, NOBODY ran me out of the film business, I worked on films both above the line as a writer and below as a scenic AFTER I wrote it and I voluntarily left the business at the easily verifiable TOP of my game as a lead scenic, making 3 grand a week in 1996 on major feature films where the production designer called me when he or she came into town, to Texas, and I no longer had to call them for a job on a film. Also, please know that I purposefully changed many people’s names or left people OUT of the book Below the Line entirely, people like my first wife who is a successful producer now or her, by all accounts, friendly and highly competent husband who is a very successful below the line First A.D. I left out (and in) those who were either friends, enemies, or just old colleagues whose career I was being especially cautious not to hurt in any way (including some of those poor powerless above the line writers you mention who not only still agree with my memoir, but would certainly not trade their produced script written in Final Draft for a job in craft services ever, so give me a break please on the poor powerless screenwriter; I’ve been one already also). Nor did I actually hurt anyone’s film career in the publication of Below the Line because most all of those crew members I named in the book remained in the business and often prospered, rose up the ranks, which was fine with me as I didn’t want to hurt anyone’s career ever anyway. I can assure you, if I had wanted to, I could have torpedoed or just embarrassed a lot of people. But that wasn’t the purpose of Below the Line at all, it was the corporate soul sucking film business itself that I was criticizing…and the loss of my own naivete as to the silver screen. In the end, like all of my writing, it was also just another extremely personal story of me going though experiences in my life and creating a non fiction narrative. Below the Line was an attempt to find some meaning in that life, all those years spent physically busting my ass on set and toiling at this job or that, to try to find some meaning, some truth in my life and some semblance of sincerity and authenticity, the general truth itself, in the wider world beyond. So, next time you shit on an author’s book Scott Frank, you might want to do a little more digging and exercise some critical thinking skills, do some actual science or journalism and get your facts straight and find out just who the hell you are talking about. In this case, it was me, the author and you don’t know what you are talking about. Again, many of my friends are STILL in the film business in New York, Austin, and LA working on some of the biggest shows around and they could also easily back up the fact that I was just telling the truth as I saw it in Below the Line, one that many especially lowly working crew members experience in a profit driven and often ruthless corporate industry. My metaphor for being above or below the line then was also meant to be an indictment of the 1 % vs. the 99% years before that meme emerged but one easily evidenced by the operations of the business itself still today, the film business the perfect example of what is wrong with all corporate hierarchical structures in the corporate owned capitalistic driven society we live in today in America. You might want to dig a little deeper then with your archaeological endeavors next time but hey, seriously, I do wish you luck.Though myself, I’d lose that Chevy ad on your website, your corporate sponsored page here unless you want this to be anything other than pseudo scholarship. JR Helton http://www.jrhelton.com

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