The last outposts of film’s golden age, scoring stages preserve history, jobs

Kirsten Smith used to take the somewhat seasonal nature of the scoring stage business for granted. As manager of the Todd-AO scoring stage in Studio City, she had learned to expect heavy booking periods during the summer and Christmas seasons and relatively less activity during the first two or three months of the year when the movie business generally slows down.

But thanks to a buoyant economy and ramped-up production, 1997 has proven to be a year of virtually ceaseless activity at Todd-AO, a spacious facility where film and television composers bring their 100-member (or more) orchestras to record soundtrack music.

“Since (the music for) ‘Dante’s Peak’ (was recorded here) at the beginning of the year, it’s been nonstop,” Smith marvels. “I can’t remember when it’s been this crazy and with this many scheduling conflicts.”Business is indeed booming at all three of Los Angeles’ major scoring stages. The Paramount, Sony and Todd-AO stages all are booked up for months to come as composers and producers try to wedge their way into their favorite recording facility.

Not long ago, some Hollywood scoring stage operators were wondering whether these huge, high-maintenance studios were wise investments.

In 1989, the Paramount scoring stage temporarily shut down after the Record Plant — which had been leasing the facility from Paramount — was purchased by Chrysalis, which had decided it didn’t want to be in the scoring stage business. According to Stephanie Murray, director of scoring at Paramount, there was talk at the studio of turning the structure into a dubbing stage. Instead, the scoring stage was renovated and reopened in 1992.

“I called Earl Lestz almost weekly,” Murray says. “He’s the president of Paramount Studio Group. It was his decision. I think he knew the importance of having a scoring stage here at Paramount. It’s a great stage. It was just important to keep the scoring in Los Angeles. There still aren’t enough scoring stages.”

Today, booking gridlock can force film composers to record their music in other cities in North America or overseas. But the talent pool is deepest in Los Angeles, which has the reputation for housing the best and largest array of studio musicians in the world.

This scoring stage availability problem should be alleviated to a large degree when 20th Century Fox reopens its remodeled stage this September. When Robert Kraft arrived at Fox as the studio’s executive VP of music in the fall of 1994, the venerable stage was in danger of being converted into office space.

“With a number of supporters at Fox, (I) asked for permission to at least present some proposals (to the company) for ways to refurbish the stage,” Kraft recalls. “I think they were convinced by the fact that stage space is limited in Los Angeles and that it’s a historic asset.” In 1994, the scoring stage at Warner Bros. also came within an eyelash of closing down. At the behest of some Los Angeles studio musicians, Clint Eastwood intervened, convincing studio management to keep the facility open. The scoring stage business is an expensive one. When the number of recording sessions slows down at these facilities, their owners and managers can get apprehensive.

“Running a scoring stage isn’t exactly looked upon as a profit center for a company,” observes Michael Knobloch, director of film music production at 20th Century Fox. “It’s very expensive to keep a stage up and running. It takes a long time to recover from your initial investment. The maintenance alone (is very costly).”

Knobloch says the new Fox scoring stage will be a state-of-the-art facility that retains the ambiance and acoustics of the original stage, which was built in the 1920s as a soundstage. It was in this room where Alfred Newman, Fox’s first head of music, scored music for such unforgettable films as “Laura” and “The King and I.”

Alfred’s brother, Lionel Newman, eventually took over the top spot in the studio’s music department. Lionel renovated the scoring stage in 1974 in part by building a control room into the side of the stage. This room has now been removed and a new one placed in an adjacent area, thus restoring the scoring stage to its original, 7,500-square-foot size.

The Sony scoring stage in Culver City and the Warner Bros. scoring stage in Burbank also have long and rich histories. Many of the classic MGM musicals are connected to the Sony facility. The Oscar-winning music for “Doctor Zhivago” was recorded on that stage. More recently, the room was used to record the orchestral soundtrack for Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin.”

For supporters like Knobloch, Eastwood and studio violinist David Ewart, saving scoring stages such as the ones at Fox and Warner Bros. is also about preserving movie history.

“Clint was not only sympathetic to the effect closing (the Warner scoring stage) would have on (local) musicians but (what it meant) to the history of Warner Bros.,” recalls Ewart, who was one of the musicians who approached Eastwood about saving the scoring stage. “Warner Bros. has played a leading role in musicals. It’s like a museum when you stop to think of everything that’s happened there.”

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