The Sound of Work Leaving L.A.

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Jon Burlingame is a regular contributor to Calendar

Last month on the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox, 90 Los Angeles musicians were performing nearly flawlessly, after a single read-through, newly written music for a big summer movie. On this day, it happened to be Michael Kamen’s driving score for “X-Men.”

It is work that has kept some of these studio veterans busy for years, even decades: playing the music that propels the action and heightens the emotional stakes in all sorts of movies and, on rare occasions, even sells millions of records. It is also, many observers say, work that is increasingly going elsewhere as a result of long-standing union agreements that some producers find troublesome.

Scale wages for musicians performing on film scores in 1999 declined by more than 30% from the previous year, from $24.1 million to $16.3 million, according to officials of Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians. Numbers for the first five months of 2000 are running about 10% below 1999, the union says.


The slump may, in part, reflect a general reduction in orchestral scores, replaced by pop and rock songs, especially in films aimed at the huge teen audience. In part, it may also be a result of the cutbacks in studio production overall. But members of the Recording Musicians Assn., the arm of the American Federation of Musicians that represents studio players, say the downturn also indicates that production companies are increasingly heading to London, Seattle, Prague, even Moscow to record scores less expensively.

This year, for example, the scores for “Gladiator,” “Shanghai Noon,” “Chicken Run” and the forthcoming “Hollow Man” were recorded in London. The music for “Battlefield Earth” was recorded in Seattle, “I Dreamed of Africa” in Berlin. “Dinosaur,” “The Patriot,” “The Perfect Storm” and “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” were recorded in L.A.

Musicians say the trend is hurting their livelihoods and may have a long-term effect on the cultural life of the city by diminishing the talent pool that was initially attracted here by lucrative studio work. But producers contend that the union is inflexible, and increasingly out of step with a global marketplace in which competition is keen and producers aren’t saddled with back-end royalties that allow musicians to share, many months later, in the profits of successful movies.

The reasons for the choice of venue can be as solid as the numbers--or as capricious as a producer or director wanting to take a trip and charge it to the production. Lately, L.A. musicians have benefited from “crash” post-production schedules and imminent release dates that make scoring here a necessity, despite the greater cost.

With “X-Men,” producer Lauren Shuler-Donner says, “we had too tight of a post-schedule. It was compulsory that we do it here. There would be no time to go to London. We had to lock picture and score and edit, sometimes at the same time. In this case [traveling elsewhere] wasn’t an alternative.”

“X-Men’s” Kamen, who has recorded scores in cities including L.A., London, Seattle, Munich and Prague, says that the composer rarely makes the decision, “although I do often get called on to make a suggestion as to where we can do the score with the least amount of expenditure and with the most efficiency and musicality. I know that, generally speaking, it’s an expensive process no matter which way you slice it, and the studios that make the films are, fairly, looking to save money.”


The quality of music-making can also be an issue. Everyone seems to agree that L.A. and London are on a par for player excellence--L.A. because of the numbers of top musicians who gravitated here for the studio work, London because most of the players are drawn from five working symphonic ensembles, including the London Symphony and London Philharmonic orchestras.

In L.A., “we have people from virtually every major symphony orchestra in the world,” says Brian O’Connor, Recording Musicians Assn. president. “We have the former concertmaster of the Bolshoi Ballet, former members of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the London Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic, the L.A. Philharmonic. . . .”

Notes composer Alan Silvestri: “If you are going to have to take a film out of L.A., London is really the only place to take it and still have parity with the overall ability to produce the score. Not just players, but facilities as well.” Silvestri scored the just-opened “What Lies Beneath” in L.A. and did his previous two pictures, “Stuart Little” and “Reindeer Games,” here as well.

As for Seattle, “if it’s straight-ahead music, they’re very good musicians,” says one composers’ agent who asked for anonymity. “If it’s a complex score, it’s more iffy.”

Kamen recorded “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Die Hard With a Vengeance” in Seattle. In both cases, the producers “didn’t want to pay the back-end [royalties] for an L.A. orchestra,” he recalls. With “Die Hard,” Kamen says, “they needed to save money on a multimillion-dollar extravaganza” and so chose Seattle to record. That experience was “not so happy,” the composer says.

“The musicians tried their very best, and we had some fun trying to make the music, but it wasn’t the same,” Kamen says. “It didn’t feel right.”



In an era when $100-million budgets aren’t uncommon, complaints about tens of thousands of dollars may seem trifling. Unfortunately for composers and the people who play their work, music comes at the end of the pipeline, during the post-production phase. By this time, the picture can be over budget, and producers are looking to trim costs wherever they can.

Music often takes the hit. And because Los Angeles musicians are the most expensive in the business--because of their capabilities as well as their union benefits--some producers look around for better buys, despite the importance of music to the end product.

Five days of recording with a 90-piece orchestra in Los Angeles costs about $290,000 in musicians’ salaries and benefits; that figure does not include additional costs such as cartage (transporting and setting up large instruments), use of the recording studio, a mixing engineer and related costs.

An A-list composer’s fee alone can run from $700,000 to $1 million. Then there are the costs of orchestrating, music copying and (if the composer doesn’t conduct) conducting the score. All told, a music budget for a major feature often exceeds $1.5 million and can go much higher depending on such things as the licensing of pop songs. By comparison, musicians’ costs in London (for the same size orchestra and the same five six-hour recording sessions) will run approximately 160,000 pounds, or around $250,000. In Seattle, the cost will be less than $200,000, because musicians are not recording under union contracts.


What rankles some filmmakers who record in L.A. are the so-called back-end payments, the royalties that accrue to studio musicians when a score is recorded under union auspices. A “new use” payment is made to players when a soundtrack is released, and a “special payments fund” commitment gives the musicians a tiny percentage of the producer’s profits when a film is sold into ancillary markets (such as cable TV, free TV or home video) a year or two down the line.

On the surface, it doesn’t sound like a big deal. The soundtrack payment, depending on the size of the orchestra and the amount of music used on the record, can be $40,000 to $70,000, according to most estimates. The special-payments royalty is an unknown because it depends entirely on the film’s success. Though there is no direct correlation to box-office performance, a hit will sell for more money to TV and therefore generate more income. American Federation of Musicians contracts call for a payment of 1% of the adjusted gross income from a sale. If, for example, a movie is sold to cable for $100,000, then the producer must write a $1,000 check to the fund, which is divided among the musicians who played on the score. (Guilds representing actors, writers, directors and other craftspeople also have residual agreements covering post-theatrical exhibition profits.)


Fund administrator Dennis Dreith estimates that this year the fund will collect about $51 million from 5,000 films in the marketplace, making the average per-film payment around $10,000. While Dreith declined to disclose specifics because of financial confidentiality agreements, other sources say that “True Lies,” for example, generated more than $290,000 in special-payments money, while “Scream” paid more than $330,000 into the fund.

Producers can avoid these payments by recording outside Los Angeles and are doing so in increasing numbers. Sandy DeCrescent, a contractor who assembles orchestras for such top composers as John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner, used to work on an average of 65 movies a year. This year, she is projecting a total of 40 to 45.

DeCrescent is chairwoman of the Recording Musicians Assn.’s newly formed education committee, whose aim is to “correct the misinformation” about union payments. But, she admits, it’s hard to fight the fact that musicians in other cities work under a “buyout understanding,” meaning that the original session fee for a musician includes all possible later uses for the music.

“You can go to London, record the score, and do anything with that finished product--put it on a CD, sell it to free TV or pay TV, anything,” she says. “It’s a buyout. [Producers] never have to do any bookkeeping, there are no future payments, nothing. How can we really compete with that?”

London contractor Isobel Griffiths agrees that the buyout clause is attractive. “A lot of independent companies, as opposed to major studios, quite like to have a buyout, because that suits the way they operate, whereas major studios are completely geared up for residuals and they’re used to that kind of payment structure,” Griffiths explains.

Seattle-area classical musicians, recognizing an opportunity for more work, seceded from the musicians’ federation in 1990 and formed their own labor group. There too it’s a buyout, and producers can avoid soundtrack payments and later royalties to musicians--one fee covers all.


According to union statistics, about 730 L.A. musicians qualify for health and welfare benefits by virtue of consistent employment. Less than half of those make more than $60,000 annually, officials estimate. Still fewer--maybe 150--”make a very good living doing strictly film work,” DeCrescent believes.

Most of these musicians count on their annual special-payments fund checks for as much as half of their income, the result of having played on hundreds of movie scores over many years. Violinist Julie Gigante, who augments her studio work by playing in the L.A. Chamber Orchestra and other classical ensembles, says that the impact of the decline in work is already being felt. “People whose families rely on only their studio income are struggling. It’s very unsettling for them,” she says.

Recording Musicians Assn. President O’Connor says that in recent years, the union has made a number of concessions designed to keep more work in L.A.: reducing the soundtrack payment by 50%, which has resulted in an increase in the number of orchestral album releases; making a “low-budget film” agreement that amounts to a 37% reduction in musicians’ scale wages on films budgeted for less than $15 million; and dropping the premium-pay demand for Saturday and Sunday sessions.

Citing the caliber of musicianship in the studio orchestras, Gigante adds: “If they’re not hired here, they can go almost anywhere else and get a job. If that happens . . . then all of L.A. will suffer. Not only do they do studio music, they also do symphonies, chamber music, teaching.”


“I hate it when people say, ‘Can’t we do this out of town?’ ” says Fox Music President Robert Kraft, who is also a composer and, not incidentally, a member of the musicians’ federation. “It’s hurtful, because I say, ‘You’re going to get less quality.’ They say, ‘Yeah, but that $250,000 can be put into another day of shooting.’ ”

Kraft also oversees the Newman music stage, where Alfred Newman conducted some of the greatest scores in Hollywood history during his 20-year tenure as Fox’s music director. “The overriding rubric is, anything I can score on the Fox stage is unquestionably my first choice. Los Angeles musicians are the absolute world’s best for film scoring,” Kraft says. “But the most expensive way to score a film is on the Fox stage with union musicians. Every other combination is, in some way, money-saving.”


London is an increasingly popular option. Oscar winner Hans Zimmer (“The Lion King”) was a session musician in England back in the ‘80s, and he recently scored “Gladiator” there. “Partly it was a creative decision,” he says. “I could have had less players and done it here, but there was a certain sound I wanted, which I knew I could get really easily in London.”

London scoring isn’t always the answer, financially speaking. Zimmer, who scored “The Thin Red Line” over several weeks in L.A., says, “Dollar for dollar, I think it might be the same price.” Adds Fox’s Kraft: “The fantasy is, let’s go

to London and save $150,000. Then somebody does the math on eight people flying first-class and staying in the Dorchester for a week, and it comes to $149,900.”

James Newton Howard, who recorded his last six scores in L.A., including “Dinosaur,” “Snow Falling on Cedars” and “The Sixth Sense,” says he far prefers working with Los Angeles musicians. “Considering the pressures and the time constraints put on all of us, their ability to get the job done and to accurately realize the emotional context of a piece of music is unsurpassed. I feel an intense sense of loyalty to the people here.”

Elliot Goldenthal did two “Batman” movies here but scored the recent “Titus” in London for what he calls “purely economic reasons.” Back-end payments are “not only a factor, they are a huge consideration for a producer” in deciding where to record, he says.

There’s little agreement about what can be done to keep the scoring work in L.A. Musicians and their union representatives are loath to give up hard-won financial bonuses. Composers, who are often trying to realize an effective orchestral score in the face of mounting pressure to save costs, are caught in the middle. Producers want the biggest bang for their buck.


“‘Frankly, I think there needs to be a combination of things,” says Shuler-Donner. “California government has to do something to give tax benefits so that it makes it worthwhile to both film and score in Los Angeles, along with the union taking a hard look at their prices.”

Says Dreith, a composer and former Recording Musicians Assn. president: “I think the decisions readily come down to how you weigh business and art. Can you get an orchestra in London that can sound convincing quoting Brahms one minute and Duke Ellington the next? No. Can you do that in Los Angeles? You bet.”

Silvestri is philosophical about the future of scoring in L.A. “‘It really is a question of the marketplace,” he says. “There are two things the L.A. musicians can do. One is, they are the quality establishment; they must not lose that. They must continue to populate the scoring stages with their best.

“The other aspect is, they have to be dispassionately discerning about the real condition of their business. Sometimes it means holding firm on how you price your product and being willing to sell fewer units at this price, and at some point it may involve a reconsidering of the price, if their interest is to sell more units. It’s just a marketplace.”