Fall Film & TV Music: Penny serenade

Resourceful composers are adapting to shrinking music budgets, but the bleak economic reality is affecting everyone from engineers to musicians.

When Jan Kaczmarek was asked to score last year's indie release "Evening," he knew exactly what he wanted.

"It was a really complex story," he explains, "but it also had something in it which called for a very lush sound. That smoothness called for a large ensemble of strings with mute -- with the musicians on violins, cello and viola putting a small piece of rubber next to the bridge, which makes the sound less bright. The musical term in Italian is 'con sordino.' I needed this extremely smooth, extremely precise sound."

But to achieve that, he also needed to work with musicians who could pull it off -- and that meant recording in either London or Los Angeles, the two capitals of film music. The problem was, the movie could not afford it.

Kaczmarek had a choice: rework his score or record it somewhere else. He chose to record in Warsaw, Poland, with half the number of musicians he had originally wanted.

"I don't know how much it saved," he says, estimating that he shaved $50,000-$100,000 from his costs. "But it was the only way to do it."

Kaczmarek is one of innumerable composers, musicians and others toiling in the movie music arena who are being forced to find new solutions to an increasingly prevalent problem: a lack of money. From the biggest-budget studio ventures to the tiniest indies, the entire industry is dealing with an economic crunch that is making even the tight budgets of yore seem like a windfall.

"Budgets are shrinking as we speak," says John Debney, whose film scores include last year's "Evan Almighty" and 2005's "Sin City." "It's part of the climate in Hollywood right now -- the studios are tightening their belts. But there's budget tightening, and then there's sacrificing quality. When the (music) budget for a $100 million-plus picture has made it cost-prohibitive to do the right thing, it makes our job much tougher."

"Creative fees (aside), the hard costs for a big movie that needs 80 or above musicians, with four to five days of recording, is $700,000-$800,000," he says. That includes "studios, engineers, musicians, copying, orchestration. All of these are not negotiable -- they're union." So imagine Debney's dismay when, on one tentpole movie he recently scored, he was offered just $500,000 for the entire package.

While insiders say there has been downward pressure on budgets for at least five years, many note that the climate has worsened considerably as of late -- in part because executives know that composers can achieve more than before with sophisticated equipment, and in part because producers are being forced to work with less money and need to find ways to make ends meet.

But what surprises veterans is how little flexibility they are finding among these producers and executives.

"Music is always the last thing that goes into a film. They end up spending extra money doing everything else, and then they have to cut the music budget," says Seth Kaplan of Evolution Music Partners. The producers are able to get away with it because "they know they can get a new generation of composers willing to work for less money."

On an average studio picture with a $40 million budget, Kaplan notes, "you might have seen a $400,000-$500,000 fee for a composer. Now you are more likely to see $250,000. I was having a conversation with a composer yesterday -- not a client -- and congratulating him on a movie he did that reunited him with a director he'd worked with before. He said, 'We were so happy to get the same salary as eight years ago.' He got $250,000."

It's not just the composers who are suffering in the current market. There are many other professionals whose incomes depend on composers having room in the budget to hire them.

Notes Kaplan, "A copyist might get paid $25,000-$30,000; the whole orchestration job might be in the neighborhood of $60,000-$70,000. But now they're not getting the jobs."

That's not to mention the musicians who struggle to get by on $300 per recording session. With the number of sessions being cut, and composers being pressed to record twice the amount of music per three-hour session, many musicians can barely pay their bills.

"It used to be that composers would still get paid a fairly decent amount to work on an independent film," says Richard Kraft, co-owner of Kraft-Engel Management. "But now it's usual to argue just about paying for musicians."

Given this reality, many composers and producers are trying to find ways of being creative and cost-conscious at the same time.

Such was the case with Jonathan Demme's latest film, "Rachel Getting Married."

"Jenny Lumet's script had musical references in it," says producer Neda Armian. "The singing of the vows was in the script, and she had even chosen (songs) for it. Some of those songs, though, were quite expensive."

For the pivotal "I do" scene, the screenplay originally called for an AC/DC song, but, Demme says, "we discovered that to have someone do a cover version of that song, live in our movie, would cost more than our entire cast put together."

So he thought of another song, Neil Young's "Unknown Legend."

"You know, Neil's 'Unknown Legend' is the most romantic song I've ever heard," he says. "We were able to get a very, very favorable deal to have Tunde (Adebimpe) sing (that)."

Instead of negotiating for the rights to other music, he then "recruited an exquisite band of musicians whose job it was to make beautiful music in the moment. We never rehearsed a shot. We never planned a shot."

Jeff Beal had to likewise find ways to stretch a dollar when he was brought on to score Ed Harris' Western "Appaloosa" -- especially difficult given that Westerns traditionally have big, expansive scores with the sort of budget Beal didn't.

"We had a low-six-figure package," he says, "but if you've got a 50-piece or 100-piece orchestra for five days at Sony, with all the engineers and orchestration -- and you're responsible for all those costs -- it's very easy to have problems."

To avoid them, Beal did much of the recording himself, as he often has in recent years.

"It was an economic choice early in my career," he explains. "I engineered my own music, mixed my own music, and as I continued to do that I realized that it was an important part of my creative process. Now, on the 'Appaloosa' soundtrack, about 50% of the music I actually recorded in my studio."

For composer Alex Wurman, "less money means less tools." But, he argues, that "shouldn't be a thing that stops you. If all you have money for is a guitar, stick with a musician, no matter how many hours it takes, and if you get negative dollars, you put your own money into it."

That was his approach to Yari Film Group's "What Doesn't Kill You." "I immediately looked at the amount of music and the scope of it and the money that I would have, and I started coming up with solutions. The first thing I did was, I forked out a little cash to get some friends to do a quick demo to lay down the type of sound I wanted."

Positive thinking aside, composers remain highly concerned about the lack of money.

Kaczmarek won't go quite so far, but he admits to being worried. "I see a very dangerous tendency of cutting budgets," he says. "Of course, miracles can happen, and there are extraordinary cases of great scores made with limited budgets, but usually diminished budgets will lead to diminished music."

Worst of all, he says, composers are being forced to enter the filmmaking process later and later.

"The composer should be the director's partner in the process (right from the beginning). If there is no money, composing just becomes part of postproduction."

If that happens, creativity may suffer. And, to many experts, there are already signs of that happening. The concurrent shrinking of budgets and time frames for composing film scores leads to "a general panic- and fear-driven process -- much more than an artistic one," Kraft says. "We are in a seriously dark period of quality for film music."