The Inside Story: Why 'Birdman's' Drum Score Isn't Eligible for an Oscar and Why an Appeal Was Rejected

Birdman Film Still - H 2014

Birdman Film Still - H 2014

Another Oscar season, another controversy with the Academy's music branch. Last season, the music-related issue that had everyone talking was the questionable nomination and subsequent disqualification of the original song "Alone Yet Not Alone." This season, it is the eligibility of Antonio Sanchez's drum-centric score for one of the year's most acclaimed films, Alejandro G. Inarritu's Birdman, which is being distributed by Fox Searchlight.

The branch disqualified the movie for best score consideration because its soundtrack includes pieces of classical music in addition to Sanchez's score. That, in turn, led to a highly contentious behind-the-scenes debate about whether or not to overturn the decision — a debate involving Sanchez, Inarritu, Fox Music and the chair of the Academy's music branch executive committee, the details of which have not been previously reported.

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On Dec. 11, when the Golden Globe nominations were announced, Birdman topped the list, with seven nominations, including one for best original score. Later that day, Dave Hanson, the Academy's awards manager, passed along a note from Charles Fox, the chair of the Academy's music branch executive committee, to Sanchez, through his manager, notifying the composer that his score was ineligible and would not appear on the Academy's longlist for the best original score Oscar consideration. (That list was announced the following day and contained 114 other titles from which the five nominees will ultimately be chosen.)

Fox wrote, "The [music branch] committee viewed the film, reviewed the cue sheets and discussed the score at length, particularly with regard to Rule 15, Section II-E of our Awards Rules, which state, 'Scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other preexisting music, diminished in impact by the predominant use of songs or assembled from the music of more than one composer shall not be eligible.' It was felt that the drum score is highly effective in the places in the film where it is used. However, the fact that the film also contains over a half an hour of non-original (mostly classical) music cues that are featured very prominently in numerous pivotal moments in the film made it difficult for the committee to accept your submission as an eligible score in light of the above-quoted rule. Therefore, I regretfully must inform you that [your score] will not be Oscar eligible in the Original Score category."

Sanchez — who had been touted by some as a strong bet to become the first Mexican composer to win an Oscar — was devastated and, in consultation with Inarritu and Ray Costa of Costa Communications, who is serving as his awards consultant, decided to formally appeal the decision.

On Dec. 17, Sanchez, Inarritu and Danielle Diego, executive vp of Fox Music, all sent separate letters to Fox, petitioning him and the music branch executive committee to reconsider their decision based on a number of different points. Sanchez, who identified himself as "a drummer for the past 38 years of my life and a composer for over 20" who plays "over 250 concerts a year," emphasized his involvement with the film throughout every step of the production ("BEFORE, DURING and AFTER the film was shot") and the purpose his music was designed to serve ("At all times the main goal was for the original music to … embody the emotional aspects of the film in a very accurate way").

Inarritu echoed all of that, stating that the score served as the film's "spine and the element [that] helped me find the intensity of the characters, the tone and the internal rhythm of each scene." Because of the movie's very long takes, he said, the score was "the only way to help define the flow and the beat of the movie." Inarritu then got to the heart of the dispute when he wrote, "I understand there is a misunderstanding about the amount of time that the score plays against the source music. The numbers are clearly in favor of Antonio. The music score he composed accounts for 29 minutes and 30 seconds against 17 minutes and some seconds of classical music. On top of that, I would say that the classical music that appears in the film is clearly music that is being played during the theatrical play in the film … music that the character Riggan Thompson [Michael Keaton] has chosen in his ambitious play."

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The director elaborated, "The drums are the score and any other music throughout the whole film is coming from the context of the film. When Leslie [Naomi Watts] enters Riggan's dressing room after his nervous breakdown, the music is clearly coming from his radio that he hears before coming in, which then grows in volume once he does. The Rachmaninoff piano concert he hears when he flies is clearly music in his head, which is stopped out and loud and in a funny way by the doorman in the theater. I love those classical music pieces but, honestly, each of those pieces could have been any other piece and the film would have worked more or less the same. What would never be the same and would make the film absolutely different would be if Antonio's drums were not in it. … Nobody will remember or define the film by the classical pieces. … [Please reconsider your initial decision in order to] avoid an injustice to one of the greatest musicians and drummers of our time."

On Dec. 19, Fox responded to Sanchez and Inarritu: "Out of our great respect for you both and the wonderful film you've created, we convened a special meeting of the music branch executive committee to discuss the issues you've raised. All the points that were addressed in Alejandro's letter were taken up individually and discussed thoroughly." He emphasized, "I'd like you to know that the members of the committee have great respect for the drum score by Antonio and its effectiveness in the film. … We think it was superb."

"However," Fox went on, "the committee does feel that the tracked classical music was also used as scoring, and equally contributes to the effectiveness of the film and that both the drum score and the tracked score together create the musical identity of the film." He concluded, "We have a rule that we've applied many times in the past ineligibilizing scores pertaining to the dilution of scores by the use of tracked or preexisting music. We feel overwhelmingly that this film score falls into that category, which also includes 'scores that are assembled from the music of more than one composer.' Therefore, I have to tell you that the committee, after much discussion and thought, reaffirms its original decision to ineligibilize the score."

I spoke with Sanchez after his appeal was rejected and he told me: "I think their decision is questionable," noting that he is "disappointed" but "had a feeling something like this could happen." He emphasized his belief that "the score is 100 percent original," despite the fact that, "as in every other movie, there's licensed music, [which] was used primarily during the theater play being portrayed in the film." As he put it, "Nobody walks out of this movie raving about the classical music in it. Everybody is talking about the drum score, so to me it's obvious that the score is not diluted at all by any of the other music." And, he wryly noted, "The fact that it got disqualified from the Oscars the same day it was nominated for the Golden Globes was very ironic. Who knows if it would have gotten nominated [for the Oscar], but I think it deserved at least a chance."

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Costa, Sanchez's awards consultant, has represented dozens of previous song and score Oscar hopefuls — including "Alone Yet Not Alone" composer Bruce Broughton last season — and he shared Sanchez's sentiments, telling THR, "There are people in the music branch who envision a score being only one kind of thing and it's hard to get them to see things differently." He continued, "It does exactly what a score is supposed to do — and Antonio worked with the director more closely than most composers work with directors." He called the music branch executive committee's verdict "completely unjustified." 

There is a fairly widespread sense that the music branch — which is comprised of 244 members, many of whom are quite elderly and some of whom haven't written a note of music in decades — is a bit narrow-minded, perhaps a tad out of touch and doesn't always adjudicate disputes in a consistent manner. For instance, as one industry insider pointed out to me, it did not disqualify the scores for 2010's The King's Speech, which draws heavily on music by Ludwig van Beethoven; 2006's Babel, which takes many cues from Hitoshi Sakimoto's work; or last year's Saving Mr. Banks, which heavily sampled Richard Sherman and Robert Sherman's original songs from Mary Poppins. But it did disqualify the score for last year's Frozen because it was apparently considered too song-heavy. And though it did disqualify Johnny Greenwood's score for 2007's There Will Be Blood, citing the same reasons that it has used for disqualifying Birdman, it subsequently long-listed his score for 2012's The Master, which does the same thing. 

Fox Searchlight has dealt with this sort of thing before — the scores for 2009's Crazy Heart, which had been honored as the year's best by the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, and 2010's Black Swan, which had been nominated for a Critics' Choice Award, were also deemed Oscar-ineligible. But Searchlight can't be happy about it happening again. Nancy Utley, the president of the company, is now a member of the Academy's Board of Governors, and I imagine that she might have something to say about it behind closed doors. But, by all indications, it is already too late to help Sanchez's Birdman score. Sanchez told me that if he could change one thing about the music branch, it would be "their mentality towards innovation and originality," explaining, "Their motto is 'we champion the power of human imagination.' Not so this time around."

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg