At a small community park in Santa Monica, a group of Los Angeles-area musicians wearing dark blue and orange T-shirts with the slogan “Listen Up!” gathered around a flatbed truck as union leaders, a minister and a local city councilman fired up the crowd.
“Make no mistake, music that we produce is a critical component in the artistic and financial success of any film that’s produced here,” said Neil Samples, a violinist. “We say to Lionsgate: Abandon the low road, stop offshoring jobs, do the right thing and bring the music home.”
After his speech, a zydeco band took the stage, and Samples and his colleagues huddled into a van and drove a few blocks to the headquarters of Lionsgate, the independent studio behind the hit “Hunger Games” movies. They parked outside the studio and used a dolly to deliver four boxes containing a petition signed by 12,000 supporters urging Lionsgate to “stop sending musicians’ jobs overseas.”
The unrest this month is the latest sign of disharmony between local musicians and their employers. The American Federation of Musicians has previously organized rallies against Marvel Studios for hiring London musicians to work on such movies as “The Avengers” and “Iron Man 3" even though those films were shot in the United States.
Now, with the backing of the AFL-CIO, the union has singled out Lionsgate. It says the studio is hiring foreign musicians to play music on movies that filmed in the U.S. with the support of taxpayer subsidies.
It has cited such Lionsgate releases as “The Hunger Games” and “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn,” which were scored in London, and the recently released “Draft Day.” The Kevin Costner movie about the NFL draft was filmed in Ohio, where the production received tax benefits, but was scored in Macedonia.
“Draft Day — what could be more American than that?” said Rafael Rishik, a violinist with the New Hollywood String Quartet who recently worked on “The Amazing Spider-Man 2" and Disney’s “Frozen.” “To say with a straight face that the only way we could do this without going broke is to score this in Macedonia — it’s hard for us to swallow.”
A spokesman for Santa Monica-based Lionsgate declined to comment.
Producers and studio executives have long complained that California does not do enough to keep the movie business close to home. The state’s tax credit, for example, excludes large-budget studio films. Musicians and other entertainment unions are backing legislation that would expand the credit.
The unrest comes at a time of growing anxiety in the local music industry, where film and television work have been a key source of income for hundreds of local violinists, cellists, trombonists and other professional musicians. Many use the entertainment work to supplement what they earn from working in local symphonies, chamber groups and the L.A. Opera.
A large movie can employ more than 100 musicians.
For that reason, Hollywood has long been a major draw for some of world’s top musicians. But as more work in film and TV production has moved overseas, local musicians are having a tougher time making a living.
On any given day, about 2,000 members of AFM Local 47 will work on a film or TV show. But their earnings have fallen substantially in recent years. In 2007, union members collectively made $30 million in wages. Now, they earn about $15 million a year, according to Local 47, which represents 7,400 musicians, arrangers and copyists.
If the trend continues, L.A.'s cultural community could suffer as musicians leave to work elsewhere, veteran musicians say.
“One of the fantastic things about being a musician in L.A. is that you’re surrounded by just an astonishing level of players,” said Marc Sazer, a violinist for the Pasadena Symphony who has worked in the recording industry since the 1980s. “We have the stars from the whole world gather in the L.A. musical community. As more work goes off to London, Bratislava and Prague, that’s going to disappear, and the whole region will be impoverished.”
The American Federation of Musicians might be facing an uphill battle.
Musicians traditionally could count on film work being done in L.A. even when a movie was filmed elsewhere, because of the high level of talent here.
But more production is leaving the state as studios take advantage of tax benefits and rebates that aren’t available in California.
The number of movie scoring jobs has declined at least 50% in the last five years, according the union.
Much of the business has gone to Britain, which has long been a big draw for composers given the country’s rich musical heritage. Generous film incentives also have drawn a growing number of big-budget movies, such as the upcoming “Star Wars” and “Avengers” films.
Orchestras in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Macedonia also are attracting more Hollywood business.
The trend has been further accelerated by the advent of low-cost technology that has made it easier to open high-quality recording studios anywhere.
“Every orchestra in the world would love to be doing Hollywood movies, and they’ve been very aggressive in trying to market themselves,” said John Acosta, vice president of AFM Local 47.
There’s also growing pressure from studios to save money by hiring lower-cost musicians in Europe, where producers don’t have to pay residuals and where hourly rates are a fraction of what they are locally.
For example, musicians in Macedonia might get paid only $10 to $15 an hour and not receive any contributions to health and pension plans, compared with $75 an hour plus those benefits in L.A.
“There’s been a downward pressure on music fees, and everyone is looking to save money,” Acosta acknowledged. “Composers want to save as much money as they can upfront.”
To be sure, several other large Hollywood studios also do scoring work overseas.
But unlike other studios, Lionsgate does not have an overall agreement with the union that would require it to score music in the U.S. if it shoots the movie or TV show domestically. Although Lionsgate does score some productions in the U.S., including the AMC hit “Mad Men,” the studio has resisted efforts to strike a broader deal with the union, Acosta said.
“They are highly profitable, and they can afford to meet the industry standards,” he said.