Studio music chiefs forced to do more for less

It’s hard out there for a studio music chief. Budgets for music in films are shrinking, and execs are being forced to get creative by using unknown artists, eschewing soundtrack deals and eliminating music supervisors.

“We’re being squeezed from all sides,” says Robert Kraft, president of Fox Music. “The studio wants us to do more with less, and the agents want money for their clients. I used to say, ‘This is the offer,’ and they’d respond, ‘Oh, you can do better.’ Now, more and more I’m saying, ‘This is all I have.’¬†“

Veteran studio execs note that music budgets are typically around 1.5% of a film’s overall budget, down from 2.5% just a few years ago.

Currently, an average music budget for a mainstream film would be $800,000 to $1 million; a franchise film would get $1.8¬†million to $2.5 million; and a film at a studio’s specialty arm, such as Paramount Vantage or Fox Searchlight, typically puts aside $250,000 to $400,000 for music.

The decline in funding for music can be blamed on a number of factors, insiders suggest, including the overall ambivalence toward the record industry, the lack of interest by the record labels to create soundtracks, and an unwillingness by the studios to shoulder collateral expenses that often come with soundtrack pacts, such as artist videos.

Plus, getting an A-list artist’s expensive song into a film to help spur awareness is no longer a top priority (for the most part) for either the labels or the studios.

“The days of the big end-title song as a marketing tool — from the film studio perspective — are gone,” observes Kathy Nelson, president of film music at NBC Universal. “Sometimes you have to call in a lot of favors and be very creative because the budget just isn’t there. It’s ironic, because the one thing that more often stays in the mind of moviegoers after they’ve left the theater is the music.”

Nelson notes that she also saves money by sometimes not hiring music supervisors — the foot soldiers on a film — and handling internally a film’s music needs.

Partially in response to the smaller budgets, big-name composers who typically earn more than $1 million for their efforts on a film are also working for less.

James Horner recently agreed to a high six-figure payday for his work on Miramax’s Holocaust tale “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Similarly, Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman lowered their usual seven-figure fees to six for “Frost-Nixon” and “Hell Boy,” respectively, according to insiders. (The composers’ reps did not respond to phone calls.)

“A-players want to keep their creative juices flowing, so they’ll take on a project they believe in for less money,” says Mitchell Leib, president of music and soundtracks for Disney, who declines to comment on fees.

“Fortunately, they’re at a place in their career where they are not driven solely by finances.”

Even newcomers are feeling it. “I never felt restricted, but even though this is my first film, I knew I had limited resources for music,” says singer-songwriter Sondre Lerche, who wrote and performed the music in the film “Dan in Real Life.”

“It helped that I did a lot of recording in my bedroom.”

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