The Horrible Truth About How Film Scores Are Made

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Create music in 21st century Hollywood, as the composer of an Emmy-winning cable series put it, “looks like an underground, real pimp situation.” He spoke of long hours, low pay, and working under a martinet “lead composer”—his boss—who delegated the actual writing and recording work. “Once, it collapsed because the director came to listen to what he had imagined and he had nothing to play it, continues the composer, because my the computer had all the music on it and it was down! He laughed, it’s war. But the irritation and dismay were palpable. Another Hollywood composer summed up the widespread sentiment among men and women who do the daily work of bending melody, harmony and rhythm to match the images on a movie or television screen: “There is no there is no contract, there is no union. You are completely beholden to work with someone who is completely unethical or not.

“The ultimate benefit of a composer’s life,” said Henry Mancini, “is being able to make a living doing what you really love to do: creating music.” Mancini, who scored films such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, La Panthère Rose, and Victor/Victoria, winning four Oscars along the way, belongs to an all-time pantheon of film composers that includes Bernard Herrmann, John Williams and, most recently, Hans Zimmer. We don’t talk much about film composers, but their work is essential to the cinematic experience. Try to imagine psychology without the stabbing violins of Herrmann or Creation without the guts of Zimmer BRAAAM. As director James Cameron once said, “The score is the heart and soul of a film.”

Lately, in the age of streaming, songwriters themselves are increasingly talking about making a living. As a growing share of their work shifts to streaming, film composers are seeing their royalty income shrink to “dimes on the dollar,” as more than three dozen put it last August in an open letter to ASCAP, BMI and the other performance royalty organizations, or PROs, that collect and distribute revenue to songwriters. “This raises serious concerns about the future financial prospects of all composers,” the letter states.

Worse still, some streamers, including Netflix, are breaking working agreements that waive royalties entirely. Such deals are known as buyouts — work-for-hire deals that offer a lump sum payment and no back-end — and they deprive the composer of any part in the continued success of a series or event. a hit movie. In 2019, a group of award-winning composers, including Carter Burwell (who wrote the score for nearly every Coen Brothers film), Joel Beckerman (CBS this morning), John Powell (the Jason Bourne franchise) and Pinar Toprak (Captain Marvel)—launched Your Music, Your Future, an initiative to raise awareness about buyouts. So far, nearly 19,000 people have registered.

As these new financial pressures mount, they expose cracks in the film’s compositing system itself. There is growing disenchantment with a system in which paying dues feels like lowering, with aspiring composers working on the cheap without benefits, security or the influence of a composers’ union – if there was one. (Once upon a time. The Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, founded in the 1950s, disbanded after a strike in 1971.)

Much of the resentment goes back to filmmaking’s biggest open secret: Many of its brightest stars don’t, in fact, write the music for which they are celebrated and compensated. This work, or much of it, is delegated to others. Sometimes these others are credited as “additional songwriters,” but often they are gig workers, in fact, receiving modest pay and no credit. These phantom contributors are known as “ghost composers,” and the debate over how branded music directors get paid is haunted by their existence.

Last summer, Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney for opening Black Widow simultaneously in theaters and on her streaming platform — a move she says cost her millions in box office royalties — revealed widespread concern over pay for Hollywood’s rapid digitization. (The lawsuit was settled last September; terms were not disclosed.) Likewise, songwriters have been nervous to see the venerable ways of doing things change; the new streaming economy threatens what is essentially a quasi-feudal system. Composers may not all be happy with this system, but they fear it will be replaced by something more disastrous.

“There is a secret in all this that is strange,” a composer told me on condition of anonymity. “There’s the world everyone sees – and then you look under the hood.”

A large number of the people contacted for this story – composers, lawyers, music supervisors – requested anonymity, fearing they could jeopardize their career opportunities by speaking openly about how their businesses operate. The vibe is “The first rule of Fight Club is: You don’t talk about Fight Club.” Perhaps that’s why a series of tweets from veteran songwriter Joe Kraemer (Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation) posted last year has ricocheted throughout the songwriting community. “I can count how many mainstream Hollywood composers I KNOW who write all their music themselves on the one hand, John Williams being the most famous example,” Kraemer wrote. “Everyone is a team leader, a figurehead for a songwriting team.”

Williams described his methodology, which is not so different from how Brahms would have it: “As I compose, I scribble with a pen and throw pages all over the room.” He makes music with the most traditional tools: a Steinway and staff paper. His orchestrations are, as he said, “articulate to the last harp”. Williams is the image of the composer as a solitary artist that most of us have in our heads. He is an industry paragon. It is even said that directors sometimes work around his music rather than the other way around.

The Williams approach, as Kraemer noted, is extremely rare these days. As the Hollywood composer I spoke with said, “Big brands have had people writing their music for over 20 years.” A veteran Hollywood music supervisor described how it works. “Composers have six or seven projects going on at any given time,” he said, referring to major composers working in television. “The leader defines the ‘tonal palette’ to move them forward. And then the minions do the actual writing. Let’s say you’re one of those minions – an additional composer or licensed studio assistant – and you’re working on the score for a landmark film with a major film score studio. You are assigned a number of “cues”: pieces of the score that you will compose to accompany specific scenes. The main composer – whose name will appear on the final product – provided the general direction. Zimmer calls it “the sketch”. While Devo founder turned film composer Mark Mothersbaugh (Rugrats, The Lego Movie, and four Wes Anderson films) once described it: “You give them themes, you make a rough mockup, and then these people polish it all up.” In some ways, it’s a system that resembles the chain studios of contemporary artists like Mark Kostabi and Jeff Koons.

As the end-tuner, you write the actual music for your assigned cues and submit demos to the master composer’s studio. Next comes a feedback and approval process, followed by the actual recording, which could mean an orchestra. To put film music in culinary terms, the clues you wrote go into a soup (the score) created by many fellow sous chefs (additional composers) working under an executive chef (the main composer) . Part of the idiosyncratic beauty of Hollywood film music, as the Hollywood composer I spoke to put it, is its “cool, collaborative aspect, a feel of transmission.” When the team clicks, there’s a shared sense of energy and company. For many young composers, this is what draws them to Hollywood rather than Carnegie Hall.

If their contributions end up being credited (usually as “additional composer”) and the pay is decent, participants can be very happy. They can pay the rent. They could one day reach the level of principal composer, just like John Powell, Henry Gregson-Williams and Lorne Balfe, brilliant film composers, all from Zimmer’s remote control studio in Santa Monica. (Minions are sometimes called “Zimlings”.)

And then there are the ghost composers. As much as ghostwriting is virtually unknown to moviegoing audiences, it enjoys a long tradition as an entry-level rite of passage. One of the gods of film music, Ennio Morricone, was a ghost composer before getting his first feature film credit in 1961. “I’ve been a ghost myself (in some really big movies)” , noted Zimmer. Sometimes the issue of phantom composition pops up in the media, such as when, in 2014, deaf Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi, a so-called “Beethoven of the digital age”, was found to have employed a phantom composer for 18 years. It was considered a scandal.

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