Composers, execs thrive on mutual respect


Like most Hollywood executives, Doug Frank, president of music operations at Warner Bros., spends a fair part of his day on the phone, busily handling the varied obstacles and multiple challenges that arise in the process of overseeing the scoring of the films his studio has in production. But, as valuable as his time is, when a call comes through from a composer not attached to any of the films under his purview, he's likely to take it.

"A lot of composers don't think a studio executive can be accessible, but I never know where the next great thing is coming from," says Frank. "It's always great to get a call from a successful composer who doesn't necessarily need a job, but calls to say, 'I have to do this film of yours. What do I have to do to get it?' That passion goes a long way."

Hollywood may sometimes be regarded as a brutal battleground where 'suits' and 'creatives' clash with the all-too-predictable regularity of natural born enemies. But in the realm of film music, relationships between studio music heads and composers are much more likely to be built on mutual trust and admiration, and long-term professional relationships are often balanced with genuine friendship.

"The music executives are people who really know the value and the worth of music, and on a daily basis they fight the good fight," says composer John Debney, whose score for "Meet Dave" was the most recent of many done for Robert Kraft, president of Fox Music. "They try hard to keep the music budgets within the realm of reality at a time when a lot of budgets are shrinking, and they're great advocates for guys like me on the front lines of writing film scores. Working with someone like Robert, or Chris Montan (president of Walt Disney Music), or Kathy Nelson (president of film music) at Universal, it's really an essential part of my job to make sure they're aware of how a score is taking shape, and to get their input at every point of the process."

Adds Kraft: "I've been an executive for a while but I've been a musician my entire life, so first and foremost I approach composers with an empathy level that's at about a 100% in terms of the time pressure, the economic pressure and the political maelstrom that they step into on every project. I try to be something between a traffic cop and a shrink. But mostly I'm coming to the job with a sense of awe for what composers do."

With budgets crunched and timelines tight by the time scoring begins, the input a music head offers a composer may range from guidance on the general tone of a project to specific notes in a melody. "I was working on 'Flicka' (2006) at Fox," recalls composer Aaron Zigman, "and the director and I were sitting at a meeting when Robert Kraft casually made the suggestion of using this little B-theme motif of mine in a different way, and it ended up being the main theme of the movie. Had he not been at that meeting and been that involved, things might have gone a different way, but that ended up being one of my favorite scores."

The degree to which a music head and composer work together on a project is dictated by the styles and personalities of each, and, perhaps most importantly, the scale of the film in question. "When I worked on 'Spider-man 3,' Lia Vollack (president of worldwide music at Sony) and I had direct dialogue frequently; she was definitely hands-on," recalls composer Christopher Young. "That was such an important movie for the studio that it was crucial for her to be tracking what I was doing, and I adored working with her. When I've worked with Randy Spendlove (formerly of Miramax and now head of music at Paramount) he was very hands-on, and it was also a dynamite experience. On the indie side, I did the 'Grudge' films for Ghost House Pictures, where the music executive was basically Sam Raimi -- and he just told me once over the phone what he was looking for. Sometimes I don't have as much dialogue as I'd like with executives, but it's also wonderful to know that you're trusted enough to come through for them."

Given the focused concentration and intense creativity required to compose a film score, perhaps it's not surprising that there is sometimes a kind of bonding-in-the-trenches vibe between music heads and composers, when professional trust and personal connections are forged in parallel. "There have been a lot of times when I felt I should charge whatever a therapist charges," says former New Line exec Paul Broucek, "because you do a lot of reassuring of composers and a lot of 'It's going to be OK.' But it's interesting that as much as you keep things focused on the work and the objective good of the film, you really do develop some incredible friendships. I would definitely say that some of my best friends are composers."

Of course, things don't always run smoothly on the way to the scoring stages, but even then, music heads and composers are served by looking past the occasional stumble to the rewards of the long-term relationship. "The worst position I'm ever in is having to let a composer go," says Universal's Kathy Nelson, an executive with over 20 years experience in film music. "It's painful, because when a composer is replaced it's rarely because they weren't a good composer. It's usually because the director makes a different movie than he thought he was making. So I spend an enormous amount of time making sure that the composer doesn't feel that it was their fault. I want to protect them as much as I can because the movies come and go -- and you want your movies to succeed -- but the relationships with these artists are what's really valuable."