Why Danny Elfman Wants to Make Just $1 for a Score

"I would say that I own the rights to maybe 5 percent of what I've written," says the composer, who has been taking on smaller films for a low fee in exchange for ownership rights.
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Danny Elfman

Danny Elfman is known for working on larger-than-life characters like Batman and Spider-Man, but now he's going much, much smaller.

With the help of indi.com, Elfman has launched a short film competition in conjunction with the 2017 L.A. Film Festival. All six movements from Elfman's 2008 "Rabbit and Rogue" ballet are available for filmmakers to use in their short films — with no licensing fees or red tape. 

Elfman is giving away his “Rabbit and Rogue” intellectual property, so it's a little ironic that he must license his own music from the studios whenever he performs live.

"The majority of the big studio stuff, my collaborations with Tim [Burton], it’s all owned by them. I would say that I own the rights to maybe 5 percent of what I've written," says Elfman, who has been spending more time working on low budget films, for which he collects just a $1 fee.

"Every year, I try to do at least one $1 film. On those films, I do own the publishing. Obviously, if they’re only paying me a dollar I gotta get something," he says with a laugh.

For this contest, Elfman has enlisted a number of filmmaking friends to judge, including Paul Haggis, McG, Sam Taylor-Johnson, Gus Van Sant and Suzanne Todd. The contest’s winners will be announced on Thursday, with the winning filmmakers getting to meet with the judges and see their short films screened at the L.A. Film Festival.

Director McG, who worked with Elfman on 2009's Terminator: Salvation, says he's a lifelong fan.

"Believe me, I'd love to work with Danny on everything I do. We gingers have to stick together, we're in short supply," McG says. "It’s just really difficult to catch him in between projects. He stays so busy."

The demand for Elfman was not always so high. Before he was established, Elfman and several of his musician friends would spend long days performing on the street for tips. When asked to compare a good day on the street with a not-so-great day, Elfman is blunt.

"When you’re a street musician, it’s real simple. A good day on the street means you come home with a full hat and you eat," Elfman says. "A bad day is when you come home and you’re splitting up loose change between eight people, and you’re not gonna eat."

Despite a lifetime of performing, Elfman never acclimated to the spotlight. Last year at a sold-out concert in London, he sang Jack Skeleton's songs from A Nightmare Before Christmas. As he recalls, it was quite the challenge.

"I was dealing with a huge bout of stage fright … I hadn't sung live for almost 18 years. I just found myself froze backstage. I couldn't move my feet and I was due onstage," Elfman says. "Helena Bonham Carter helped give me a little shove, by reminding me to say, “F— it.”  And it was a good thing, because it was [an] amazing night. It was actually one of the most amazing nights I've ever had."

The Rabbit and Rogue contest was produced by Richard Kraft and Laura Engel. You can view the submitted films and learn more information about Elfman's competition by visiting its website

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