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I Walk the Line


There’s an old expression that states: all rumors are true… eventually.
What came to mind was some scuttlebutt that swept the floors of the IA convention back in 1982. Someone heard that Steven Spielberg had given a piece of the profits of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial to his crew. That news had jazzed delegates and they wanted to know a lot of things including what sort of net profit deal it was, who benefited and who did not, and how the deal was orchestrated.
It turned out this was one rumor that wasn’t true. It was possible (though unlikely) that some crew worked on deferrals and, at that moment, the film was expected to be a big hit after only a few weeks in theaters. No one saw it becoming the top all-time grosser to that point.
Two decades plus on, there’s yet to be a major release where the below-the-liners shared in the profits. There may have been instances where a cameraman or production designer received a bit extra because a director or producer gave them part of his profit participation but, if so, everyone involved has kept the secret.
The obvious question is that if filmmaking is a collaborative medium, why do some of the artists and craftspeople share in the financial success while others don’t? The industry truism that you can’t make a good movie from a bad script doesn’t mean that in practice writers get gross points… unless they happen to be hyphenates. Yet some actors, directors and producers see additional money from first dollar or once the box office reaches a specified gross level.
Now there’s an argument to be made that by dint of position certain people make a more significant contribution to the shape of a finished film. It’s not something that can be measured by a yardstick nor assessed using the sort of point system employed for Olympic events. You can’t even say it’s assessed once a film is delivered. How the pie is sliced—assuming there’s something to be carved up—is determined prior to filming by agents and executives with the muscle to demand more than a flat fee. A generous perspective would be to say it’s based on past performance.
The hiring of creative keys is also invariably based on résumés of completed work and often because a director or producer has a history with a particular craftsman. The look, pace or ambiance of a movie is generally deemed vital, not incidental. So shouldn’t those essential contributors in charge of one of the artistic units; the people that receive front of picture, single-card credit, at least get a modest number of net points?
The difference between what is fair and what is standard operating procedure probably does more to create an “us and them” environment on film sets than any other factor. There are easy excuses for exclusion that include deciding who will share on a picture-by-picture basis, what that share should be and such cautionary considerations as it’s never been done and once you open that flood gate there’s no turning back.
Somehow the fact that the gate’s already been opened to some has escaped the consciousness of those with the key to the lock. In an increasing number of instances the fees paid producers, directors and above-the-title performers mean that art departments, for instance, have smaller budgets and have to work harder, longer and with fewer people to get the job done for salaries that haven’t kept up with the cost-of-living index. The bonus for sterling work is simply being employed, and that effort of making a film better goes directly into the pockets of those already receiving the most handsome remuneration. Should one be surprised by rancor, murmuring or some likening film work to the master-slave relationship of a bygone plantation?
Thus far the studios have been able to retain the majority of revenues from ancillary areas including DVD and pay-cable sales but the Directors Guild and others have gone on record that a more equitable formula has to be found or they will strike. It’s also true more than ever that the representatives of unions and guilds that comprise below-the-line have to take a very hard line about being part of the sharing process. It’s fair, it’s right and if it’s not done, the resentment between the haves and have nots will have a devastating effect on the film industry.

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