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Last of the red-hot anthems

The 'Big Movie Song' seems to have been replaced by more subtle statements

When Celine Dion sang “My Heart Will Go On” on the 70th annual Academy Awards telecast, the “Titanic” theme was on its way to becoming the all-time bestselling single from a film. On the flip side, many insiders believe the hit tearjerker might have been the last of a dying breed: the sweeping pop ballad in films.

Gone it seems are those Big Movie Songs — musical moments that complement the story and allow filmgoers to relive the movie in their heads. They also resonate on their own, apart from the film. But in recent years, these musical statements can be counted on one hand.

A survey of this year’s crop of Oscar hopefuls suggests the trend continues. There are no big radio successes, few catchy ditties or memorable songs that evoke their cinematic sources, and fewer divas and rock stars interpreting the lyrics of established writers.

For decades, the best song category was owned by Disney. Each year, the studio’s animated features boasted songs that were penned and/or sung by some of the music industry’s top recording artists, and became the gold standard of Oscar worthiness.

In 1994, three of the five nominees for best song were supplied by Elton John and Tim Rice from their work on “The Lion King.” The duo won the Oscar for “Can You Feel the Love Tonight.” In addition to reflecting the film’s storyline, the tune was a paragon of pop song craft that became a radio staple.

Leading up to “Titanic,” works by Bruce Springsteen, Neil Young, Sting, Whitney Houston, Bryan Adams, Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand, and seemingly anything created by Diane Warren, graced the category and racked up record sales. And tunesmiths Howard Ashman and Alan Menken were perennial contenders.

Springsteen’s “Streets of Philadelphia” from the film “Philadelphia,” which nabbed an Oscar in 1993, or Warren’s “Because You Loved Me” from “Up Close and Personal,” which was sung by an emerging Dion, became seminal works. Both tracks stand the test of time as textbook examples of the perfect storytelling symmetry between movie and song.

But the successes also caused studios at times to abandon the story-complementary mission of end-title songs to pursue a pure profit motive. After all, soundtracks with a hit song rang cash registers. More than 10 million copies of “The Lion King” soundtrack were sold, generating around $100 million for the Walt Disney Co., a third of the film’s domestic box office gross. Sales of the “Titanic” soundtrack topped $170 million, nearly a third of the film’s $600 million domestic B.O. gross.

At the time, “My Heart Will Go On” was widely deemed the poster tune for Oscar consideration: Its lyrics resonated cinematically, and its chart success extended beyond the film, ultimately proving a dramatic finale in Dion’s sold-out concerts. Few were surprised by its Academy Award win for scribes Will Jennings and James Horner during the 1998 Oscar ceremony.

But in “Titanic’s” wake, and in the pursuit for the next big hit, insiders assert the slide into mediocrity began. Studios no longer struggled to find the trifecta of story-enhancing lyrics, a catchy melody and big-name performer, so they resorted to placing a less-than-relevant song into the end titles slot.

“The end-titles song became something utterly designed, rather than organically created,” says Robert Kraft, president of Fox Music. “People were hired specifically to design the pop ballad to go at the end of the movie. It became a commodity. We all killed the golden goose. It’s almost as if we all said let’s make 400 of these songs until the audience says, ‘Wait a minute, they don’t have any value anymore.’ ”

The seemingly requisite pop song was wearing thin on Academy voters, sparking a backlash.

“I think some of us were feeling pop-song fatigue, so we started looking at the smaller songs or tunes not written or sung by the usual suspects,” notes one voter in the Academy’s music branch who requested anonymity. “You began to look at songs by Aimee Mann or Eminem, or the song from ‘Motorcycle Diaries,’ ” he says. “Even if you didn’t understand Spanish, (Jorge Drexler’s) song from ‘Diaries’ just felt good and seemed to fit the film’s vibe nicely — and in an understated way.”

Studio and label execs aren’t necessarily saddened by the lack of hit movie songs. They note that fans aren’t clamoring for the latest movie soundtrack. And having a pop song in a film brings with it another set of headaches. Narrow radio playlists have made it all but impossible to get the song played on the radio, and shrinking studio budgets have made it more difficult to afford a big writer and a big artist — especially when there is no guarantee the song will be both a hit and an Oscar contender.

Ten years ago, a potentially big song could be written by a veteran writer like Warren and recorded by a pop star for less than $100,000. Today, that figure starts at $500,000.

Though production budgets are skyrocketing, budgets for film music have shrunk or remained flat. Music for a film is often an afterthought; it is what is paid for with whatever money is left. (Warren says she has agreed to reduce her fee numerous times for creatively challenging film projects, not unlike an actor who takes a pay cut for a prestige role).

As a result, film music chiefs like Kraft and Universal’s Kathy Nelson are now spending more time finding smaller songs rather than attempting to mine the next gold record.

“I think the industry is in a cycle that there’s a backlash against the huge, hit movie song,” says Nelson, president of music for NBC Universal. “I’m spending more time pursuing great music than before, but now it’s a different kind of search. Instead of developing only the big (end-titles) hit, I work with filmmakers who care a lot about music and want it to be truly relative to the dynamic of the film.

Nelson points to Ang Lee, director of “Brokeback Mountain,” as an example of today’s filmmaker who understands the minimalist role of music in film. “Ang wouldn’t allow one song whose lyrics didn’t support the film’s story,” says Nelson. “And he wanted quiet little songs that were just under the surface, and wouldn’t distract the audience from what was happening on the screen.”

Even big-name directors are being held to reasonable, even modest, music budgets that often don’t allow for the Big Movie Song.

“In our newly reorganized company, budgets today are more real than, say, 10-12 years ago,” observes Nelson. “It’s a constant struggle. The music budget is the last budget to be spent. People now have to take me seriously when I say this is the final budget.”

Both Nelson and Kraft, however, say they would be delighted if the huge movie ballad made a comeback.

“It needs to be reinvigorated, the whole nature of the Great Movie Song,” says Kraft. “It’s a joyful and valuable piece of work; the type of song that when you hear it, you also see the movie in your head.”

Kraft points to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” the Burt Bacharach/Hal David standard from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” as one of the industry’s best examples of an Oscar contender. The pair won in 1969.

“Would I like to write songs today for a picture that interests me? Sure. But nobody’s calling,” says Bacharach, who recently released the Columbia Records LP “At This Time,” in which he handles composing, lyrics and singing duties. “I guess they think of me as a performer, or as a songwriter, but they forget about ‘Butch Cassidy’ and ‘Casino Royale.’ Could I write something timely like that now? Sure.”

Best song category stalwart Warren believes that “it has to be just the right song” to revive interest. “Yes, it is cyclical. But at the end of the day audiences want to be moved, want to be touched by a great song. You need something compelling, and it has to tie in emotionally to the film.”

Kraft believes the pendulum will swing back. “The Big Movie Song turned Oscar contender isn’t dead; it’s just in sick bay.”

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