Future of one of L.A.'s biggest stages in doubt

On a recent Wednesday morning, composer Alan Silvestri was conducting 102 of L.A.’s top musicians in the recording of his dark and powerful music for “Beowulf.” The setting was the 7,200-square-foot Todd-AO scoring stage on the CBS Radford lot in Studio City.

With Silvestri on the podium and director Robert Zemeckis giving notes via intercom from the booth, it was business as usual. But during breaks for the orchestra, the talk turned to the fate of Todd-AO, one of only three recording rooms left in L.A. that can accommodate this many players.

Todd-AO is scheduled to close at the end of the year, leaving only the Sony and Fox scoring stages for 100-plus-player orchestra dates. The Eastwood stage at Warner Bros. can comfortably fit around 85. Paramount’s smaller Stage M opens only occasionally, and Capitol in Hollywood, where “Lost” is scored, is considerably smaller.

It’s a potential crisis with major financial implications, and L.A.’s music community is mobilizing to try to avert it. “We could easily lose $4 million or $5 million per year in scoring alone,” says Dennis Dreith, administrator for the Film Musicians’ Secondary Markets Fund, which monitors all union scoring activity. The trickle-down effect of lost business at nearby venues such as restaurants, Dreith says, might bring the total nearer to $8 million.

Union recording in L.A. is at an all-time high, according to music contractors Sandy DeCrescent and Gina Zimmitti, who book most of the large orchestras for studio films. Last year, they booked more than 80 films into L.A. stages. This year, their combined total is expected to be near 100.

“Our busiest season is almost upon us,” says DeCrescent, “and even with Todd-AO open, we are scrambling to find stage space. It’s imperative that we, at the very least, provide adequate facilities.”

Adds Zimmitti: “If that stage closes down, a lot of people are going to think about going elsewhere.”

The Todd-AO stage is historic and, according to veteran music mixer Shawn Murphy (“Titanic”), the largest such facility in the U.S. Original owner Republic Pictures was awarded a special Oscar in 1945 for building “an outstanding musical scoring auditorium which provides optimum recording conditions.”

Goldsmith’s fave stage

Aaron Copland scored “The Red Pony” there in 1948; when CBS took it over in the mid-1960s, Bernard Herrmann conducted scores for “Rawhide” and “Cimarron Strip” there. Famed classical artists Jascha Heifetz and Artur Rubinstein often recorded there because of its concert-hall ambience.

After Todd-AO took over in 1990, adding state-of-the-art recording and mixing technology, it became a favorite venue for Jerry Goldsmith, who recorded “L.A. Confidential” and “Mulan” there.

Adds Walt Disney VP of music production Monica Zierhut: “Over the last 18 years, everything that we’ve won an Academy Award for in music — from ‘Little Mermaid’ to ‘The Lion King’ — has either been recorded or sweetened there.”

Composer James Horner records most of his U.S. films there, including Oscar winner “Titanic” and nominees “Braveheart” and “Apollo 13.” “The first thing I like about the stage are the acoustics,” he says. “They match most closely the acoustics that I am used to at EMI Abbey Road studios in London. The staff is absolutely creme de la creme.”

CBS, which owns the Radford lot in Studio City, declined to renew Todd-AO’s lease, which expires at the end of the year. Todd-AO officials would not speak for the record, and CBS execs did not respond to inquiries about the status of the stage. Rumors about its fate range from new offices to potential use as a shooting stage for reality series.

The irony for Horner is that, just a year ago, he recorded the new music package for the “CBS Evening News With Katie Couric” there, with CBS execs in attendance.

Demand may exceed supply

“There is too much work going on to facilitate it all in two scoring stages,” Horner says. “Thirty percent or more won’t have a home in Los Angeles to record when the producers need it,” he surmises.

The concern among union musicians is that the work will go elsewhere. Zierhut says she may have to consider Marin County’s Skywalker Sound in order to use union musicians from nearby San Francisco. Outside the U.S., London’s Abbey Road is a favorite among many composers.

Nonunion recording — of greatest concern to longtime unionized musicians — is possible in places like Seattle or Prague, although in both cases composers widely acknowledge the level of playing is inferior to that of L.A. or London. Still, they may become options for producers who are not signatories to the American Federation of Musicians agreements that lay the ground rules for union scores.

Oboist Phil Ayling, international president of the Recording Musicians Assn., which represents several hundred players, believes that “producers still have to go where there’s a high-quality infrastructure. I see people taking spots and times that are less comfortable within their post-production schedule.” But, he admits, “Having Todd close would put a degree of pressure on us that we haven’t experienced before.”

Music execs, contractors, composers and producers have mounted a letter-writing campaign. Behind-the-scenes efforts in the political arena, some involving the L.A. City Council, are also under way to try to save the scoring stage.

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