Before screening his upcoming pic “The Royal Tenenbaums” for the press at the New York Film Festival, helmer Wes Anderson warned the audience to take the musical selections with a grain of salt. Some, he explained, hadn’t been cleared with the copyright holders.
A pound of salt may be more appropriate. Clearances for the “Tenenbaums” soundtrack, riddled with rock staples as the Beatles’ “Hey Jude” and the Rolling Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday,” could cost a fortune — provided the artists are even willing to sign off.
According to label and publishing execs with experience in film licensing, a marquee track like “Jude” could cost as much as $500,000 to clear, including master recording and publishing rights.
That expense can be a hefty challenge for the makers of music-themed features, including “Tenenbaums” and the upcoming New Line drama “I Am Sam.” In percentage terms, music costs are more burdensome on these mid-budget dramas than for a big-budget actioner or comedy.
For “Sam,” whose plot is tightly intertwined with several famous Beatles songs, clearances could run several million dollars.
The licensing process can be particularly tough on first-time directors, who optimistically stock their films with No. 1 hits, only to find that actually using them would break the bank.
“You have a lot of indie-minded directors who don’t get it, who will tell their music supervisors: ‘Oh, can you just go get me that Sting track — for $3,000?’ ” says one veteran music exec.
But even with years of experience and a blank check from their backers, many filmmakers run hurdles when dealing with artists hypersensitive about the context in which their songs are played.
When clearing tunes for “Moulin Rouge,” for example, director Baz Luhrmann hit a brick wall with Yusuf Islam (formerly singer-songwriter Cat Stevens), who wouldn’t release his famous track “Father and Son” because of his religious beliefs.
New Line would not comment on music plans for “I Am Sam.” But several industryites say the company hopes to secure cover versions of songs, which would require only publishing approval. That’s often a workable compromise, says one source familiar with publishing clearances.
“From a publisher’s point of view, we usually love covers,” the source says. “They can rejuvenate older copyrights for a new audience.”
For many films, however, there ain’t nothin’ like the real thing. Consider “The Graduate,” a famously successful blending of sight and sound. After director Mike Nichols screened it for a studio exec, he was asked if he had permission to use all of the Simon & Garfunkel tunes.
Nichols’ now-quaint reply: “Do you really think I need them?”