#4 of 7 – Above-the-Line Budgeting (A Producer Favorite)

I was getting tired of having 7 articles that I had taken a lot of time to prepare sit languishing on Google Knol. So I started printing them here. Since then Google no longer will let my Google Know articles appear on Google searches. Shame. Oh, well, there’s always WordPress.

Above-the-Line budgeting (if you don’t know what Above-the-Line means look a little lower for the definition) is a very hot topic – as you can well imagine. It’s the favorite topic of most film producers who package a show in development. It’s probably more important to them than the script!

Pretty much anything you hear about on the internet, on entertainment shows and in magazines is about the Above-the-Line people. What actors, directors, writers and producers are earning, creating, developing, etc. That’s all Above-the-Line stuff.

ATL (as it’s often referred to) is where most of the money goes. Sometimes over ½ of a film budget is Above-the-Line. So, our employers, the Executive Producers, Bonding Companies, Major and Independent Studios, spend much of their time on that topic as well. It’s important that you know that language and can walk-the-talk when it comes to this ATL area.

Picture this – Steven Spielberg just called you into his office for an interview. He wants your point of view as the potential Film Director, Line Producer, Unit Production Manager, Director of Photography, Gaffer, Film Accountant, etc.

Would talking to him in the language of the pros about the Above-the-Line Budget make you tongue-tied? If not. Throw this article away. If you think it might be a problem, then let’s get carry on.

Above-the-Line Defined – ATL includes all costs associated with the Writer, Director, Producers, Cast and Stunts.   In keeping with the purpose of these Articles, I want to show the reader how to survive film budgets and costs — within the degree of control of the reader. Therefore, I am avoiding the costs of the Writer, Director, Producers and Stars.  All of those costs are driven by the financiers/Studios and they don’t need my help there.  It’s the everyday cast and stunts (normally called Daily/Weekly  Performers, ‘Bits’ and Stunt Performers) that you need to know about.

ATL Basics

There are five different kinds of cast costs.

1.Stars – this is the early stages of packaging the project and usually is not a factor in any cost control decisions during the production of a film.

2.Supporting Cast – as a film director, or producer, it’s up to you to plead your case from a script point of view. From a cost point of view, it’s up to how well you can sell your case. For the rest of us – ride it out.

3.Day Performers – this category refers to an actor who comes in for a day or week, or for upgrades of extras to a small speaking role. During the early days of creating the budget not a lot of time is spent on this category. Producers and accountants have a tendency to budget Day Players slightly higher than the minimum scale rates. There’s also a tendency to budget for at least 12 hours worked per Day Player.
The cost of each individual day player is not huge; however, if their hours worked as a whole are well controlled and brought in under 11 hours a day, you can save from $20-$40,000 on a studio feature production.

4.Stunt Performers – the unpredictable problems of stunts can make this cost a big over-budget item, or it can make for some big savings, too.  This line in the budget is a favorite place for producers to add some “fat”. It’s difficult to argue with the number of stuntmen needed or the stunt equipment needed, etc.  So, a prudent producer tosses everything possible into this category in a blind bid to cover unforeseen problems. If you can control the stunt within an inch and get it done fast, there’s a very good chance you’ll save a significant amount of money to use on other things you’d like to do.

5.Fringes (additional payments to Governments and Unions) – for every dollar you spend on cast/stunt wages, you pay an additional 32% in fringes. This is a significant figure, and one often overlooked. Save $40,000 on stuntmen and day players, do not pass go; get an additional $12,000 in saved fringes.

Those definitions had to be stated. Now – how can we make those categories of ATL budget work for us? What, exactly, can it do for our careers?

Before we can get into that with an example, let’s look a little closer at the term ‘Non-Discretionary Costs’.

Non-Discretionary Costs Defined:

Non-Discretionary costs are the costs that are mandatory to be able to shoot the film. Those costs include hiring the characters in the script, performing the stunts called for in the script, renting the appropriate camera equipment and vehicles in order to shoot the sequences called for in the script, buying film stock, etc.  These are the costs that are the last to get cut in any budget belt tightening.

In this section we’re talking about Cast, Stunt Performers, Dancers, etc. that are categorized as ‘Above-the-Line’.  We want to determine how to ‘direct’ the ‘Non-Discretionary’ costs to our favor.

‘Direct’ Non-Discretionary ATL Costs

Whether you’re the Director, Producer, Production Manager or Department Head, find the Non-Discretionary costs in your particular area. If you’re budgeting, pump them up. If you’re not budgeting, find a way to control those types of costs.

If you’re a Director, this is your big chance – don’t miss it. Get involved with this process. Ask to see the budget pages involving cast and stunts – plead, joke, cry, laugh, whatever it takes – just make sure you follow the advice below:

1.The Studio (or other financier) pushes back hard on costs that are considered to be discretionary.  If there are costs that are easier to defend as non-discretionary, such as cast and stunt costs, then overplay this hand as much as you like.  It’s irrefutable that the cast and stunt costs go directly into the film.  Also, the Studio Executives can’t refute the fact that you “…want the stunts to make the audience leap out of their seats”, or you want the Director to “…have enough time to work with the actors.”

2.If you end up with more than enough budgeted funds in the non-discretionary costs, you can apply that savings to apply to the discretionary cost areas. (“Yes, you can have the silk shirts. We’ll offset from our savings in the Stunt Budget”, says the Producer to the Costume Designer).

I know – you’re muttering ‘Machiavelli’ under your breath. Hey! It works!

Have a look at the chart below. (If you can’t see it well, click here for a clearer PDF page of Figure 13.1.


In the example, I calculated the cost of a 10-hour day for a group of stunt performers to shoot a typical heavy stunt – which I’ve called a “Bridge Sequence”.

Then I calculated what it would have cost for a 12-hour shoot day.

You can see that there is a difference of $26,824. That’s a sizeable sum.

It’s now up to you to suggest ways to apply that savings to other factors that will enhance the ‘look’ of the movie.

The $26,800 saved in the example above can be utilized in a Crane Shot, or for a spectacular eye-catching special effect – whatever you like.  It’s funding in the bank that has been created by YOU.

Don’t get too concerned about calculating the details above – that’s why there are Production Accountants.

In summary, here are the key points:

Ensure the budget for cast, background extras, stunt sequences, etc. has a comfortable number of man days and worked hours,

Then beat the budget with good planning, fewer worked hours and reduced man days.

Be aware of this process so that you can ask the accountant for estimated savings.

Then stakeout that savings for your own purposes to enhance the film.

Don’t forget about the 30% fringes on top of the gross payroll.  You can utilize that amount as well.

Does all of that seem like too much? Then, you’d better get a good book, that’s easy to read, that lays it out for you. As of July 27/08 both the University of Southern California Masters of Fine Arts (Peter Stark Program) and the University of Tampa Film Program have ordered my book, “Walk The Talk” as required reading for their students.

They’re available in my book – see my web site here “Walk The Talk”. All of them are simple but effective.


Visit my web site at www.talkfilm.biz.

John Gaskin’s Profile: http://www.linkedin.com/in/johngaskin

Email: johngaskin@talkfilm.biz


About filmproduction
I have worked in the film production industry since 1985, working on over 50 different productions of every size in 6 different countries. My self-published book, "Walk The Talk" is written in an easy to read manner for film students and working professionals who haven't had the chance to learn how to 'Direct the Money'.

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