From my perspective, the complexity of the issues of work in the film business require not just a look at the current situation, but also the trends that have gotten us to where we are and the likely result of these trends. The recording industry didn’t look ahead: where are they now?
We are in recessionary times. Belt tightening is occurring throughout the industry. Talk of a healthy low-budget film business is “happy talk” and looks backward to two years ago.
This year specialty film labels Warner Independent Pictures, Paramount Vantage and HBO Films have closed shop. New Line was folded into Time Warner. Think-Film and other independent companies sustained by hedge funds are in trouble or are folding.
There will be no growth in the specialty film area at all. Expect 20 to 30 percent fewer pictures to be produced this year. Those films that will be produced are going to keep a tighter rein on their bottom line. This means music budgets too.
Film companies are sweating bullets about Bit Torrent downloads and rampant computer piracy — they see what happened with the record industry.
Award-winning companies founded in New York City — the Weinstein Company and Focus Features among others — will not record union. Other companies have followed their lead and been rewarded with Oscar gold.
In other words, Prague is not our competition: the modern world is.
Technology is affecting all of us. The ability of a home project studio to replace a commercial studio completely on a major film or TV production — and for the entire production to be performed by one person — is a new reality.
The quickness of picture changes due to non-linear editing and the desire on the part of filmmakers to vet all music before the music is finalized make the project studio a necessity. The ability of a music producer to record remotely via satellite, the ability of work crews in different global cities interacting to get work done efficiently and in a timely manner means that the AFM’s concerns should not be dictated by one location: Los Angeles. On any given project, the copyist, orchestrator, musician and producer can be in different cities.
Producers don’t feel tied to one city or country. Composers often don’t feel those ties either. German, British, Argentinean, Italian and French composers rank as some of the busiest. Even American film composers’ loyalties do not reside exclusively with American musicians. The dean of American composers, John Williams, enjoys — if not prefers — working in London. James Horner, a notable American A-lister, studied at London’s Royal Academy of Music and enjoys recording in London.
The following should be obvious: No recording studios means no recording work. Fewer pension and health contributions means no union. No union means no special payments. It seems to me that the fight to keep special payments in the lower budget films is killing musicians in New York.
Sure we see a nice special payment check in July, but when no other work comes in during the next six months, what then?
Most of us like to work with our friends, in a community of artists and craftsmen. We’d rather do more jobs and keep the studios busy. Tiny indie film companies need simple contracts: they don’t have lawyers on staff or a room full of accountants on staff.
No more Broadway cast recordings, no more large dates, a shrinking pool of musicians, a shrinking pool of technical staff in the studios, poor quality rental instruments equals no more work! If you can live on your special payments check alone, more power to you.
Getting film work as a composer requires a reputation. Getting recording work in a community requires a reputation as well. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to defend our New York musicians and our union to producers, editors, assistant editors, DP’s and post-production supervisors, all of whom have little respect for what they see as a hostile union administration, intransigent workers and counterproductive work rules. A music supervisor in L.A. recently asked, “…but where do you record?” Nobody believes New York can do this job adequately: it’s not just about musicianship. London film recording sessions are often faster and more productive than New York sessions, wishful thinking to the contrary.
We have several world-class film schools at NYU and Columbia. The professors are often professionals in the industry. The students are doing their first work, and first impressions count. I suggest that we start them working under simple union contracts and keep them coming back. Restore the reputation of the New York recording community among those who are most likely to spread the word.
To stay competitive with the world, we’ll have to adapt to industry changes and economic reality. The simplicity of the London contract is one of its big lures to producers, in spite of the higher cost. Yes, the film companies would rather pay more for what they know will be solid music than pay a room full of lawyers and accountants to vet and follow up on contracts— can you blame them?
I propose a three-tiered system based on film budget.
- Above $25 million: contract stays as is.
- $14 million to $25 million: wages of $100 to $150 per hour and including a buyout for all project uses (DVD, documentary about film, CD soundtrack), based on man-hours, similar to the London contract.
- Under $14 million: wages of $100 per hour, also a buyout.
The package deals composers are offered for many films won’t go away. We composers would like to be able to record these films here. One colleague recently proposed an industry-friendly contract with a two-year sunset clause. This kind of a client-friendly contract makes sense. It would bring back work, restore some luster to our city and our union and would let the producers see what we can do.
Mark Suozzo is a Local 802 member and a composer of film scores. He recorded “American Splendor” and “The Notorious Bettie Page” in New York at Clinton and Legacy Studios; he scored “The Nanny Diaries” in London, at Abbey Road.