Women in Film Launches Music Committee With Help From Rita Wilson, Melissa Etheridge

Linda Wallem, Melissa Etheridge and Rita Wilson - Getty - H 2016
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Linda Wallem, Melissa Etheridge and Rita Wilson - Getty - H 2016

The committee launched Saturday with a cocktail party, which drew around 100 composers, songwriters, agents, music supervisors and studio executives.

Women scored fewer than 2 percent of the top 500 films in 2015, a minuscule improvement from 1 percent in 2014. 

To help improve those dismal stats, advocacy group Women in Film has formed a new music committee, chaired by music supervisor Tracy McKnight. The committee launched Saturday with a Los Angeles event featuring Oscar winner Melissa Etheridge. 

The cocktail party, held at the private home of Disney executive Kaylin Frank and The Muppet Show composer Ed Mitchell, drew around 100 composers, songwriters, agents, music supervisors and studio executives.

"We're here to start building bridges of opportunity for this community where women are not in the conversation," McKnight told Billboard. The goal is to provide support for female composers and songwriters not just in film but in TV, gaming and all visual media. Joining McKnight on the committee are Frank, ASCAP's Loretta Munoz and Nettwerk's Christine Belden.

The first step is immediately expanding Women in Film's mentoring program to a dedicated mentoring circle for female composers and songwriters. Among those already signed on as mentors are Cheryl Tiano (Gorfaine Schwartz), Laura Engel (Kraft-Engel), Vasi Vangelos (First Artists), Peter Golub (Sundance Institute), Paul Broucek (Warner Brothers), Russell Ziecker (Lionsgate), Alicen Schneider (NBC Universal), Tony Scudellari (Sony TV), Brian Loucks (CAA) and Robert Messenger (Fortress Talent). The mentoring sessions will include everything from tips on how to break into the business to organizing meetings between composers and industry executives.

Other activities include showcases curated by the music committee to highlight existing talent and gain visibility throughout the film community for female composers and songwriters, as well as coordinate activities with existing organizations such as the Alliance of Female Composers, the Sundance Institute Film Music Program and the Guild of Music Supervisors. 

Etheridge spoke of her experiences trying to break into film music concurrently with her rise as a Grammy-winning artist. She played several songs she wrote for films, including "I Will Never Be the Same" for Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael, "I Take You With Me" for Boys on the Side and "I Need to Wake Up," her Oscar-winning best original song from the documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Yet, unlike other rockers — for instance, Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, Devo's Mark Mothersbaugh and Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood — she has not been able to break into scoring for film. "It's about people being brave enough to go, 'I'm going to change that,' " she told Billboard. "It takes the producers, those at the top level, to make that choice." 

Actress/producer/songwriter Rita Wilson added, "as a producer, I'm attracted to helping my fellow chicks out there." She called February's Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment, which pointed out the staggeringly low representation of women and people of color in films, "one of the most depressing things ever." Wilson, a producer for 2002's $250 million-grossing My Big Fat Greek Wedding, fought to have Nia Vardalos star in the film based on her one-woman play and said creating jobs for more female composers is a matter of similar conviction and awareness. With My Big Fat Greek Wedding, many studios told Wilson to recast Vardalos, despite her having created the character. "I thought to myself, 'Would they say that to Jerry Seinfeld or Ray Romano?' No. It's a matter of putting our foot down here and saying, 'I think we're good.' We have to be consciously aware of [the issue]. That's why events like this are so good."

Connections are crucial, as is getting composers in front of directors and producers. Gwendolyn Sanford, who scores Orange Is The New Black, told Billboard she caught the ear of show creator Jenji Kohan years ago when Kohan came to hear Sanford's children's act, Gwendolyn and the Good Time Gang. When Kohan was looking to make a composing switch after season one of her previous Showtime series, Weeds, she remembered Sanford. That meeting led to seven seasons for Sanford working as composer on Weeds and now four seasons on OITNB, along with Brandon Jay and Scott Doherty.

McKnight said there is no specific measuring stick to gauge the committee's success, but the goal is to help level the playing field. "All we can do is create the opportunities. The [composers and songwriters] have to provide the goods. But that means first being in the conversation," she said.

This article first appeared on Billboard.com.