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Acad disqualification: ‘Dark’ day or fair play?

Another Batman score is shut out of Oscar race

Will last week’s disqualification of the “Dark Knight” score from Oscar consideration turn out to be as controversial as other music-branch rulings from earlier years?

The late-2007 ruling barring Jonny Greenwood’s “There Will Be Blood” music aroused outrage from many outsiders who hailed the Radiohead musician’s jarring, aggressive string sound for the P.T. Anderson film.

But Acad rules bar “scores diluted by the use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music,” and the film’s score used substantial portions of Brahms, Arvo Part and earlier concert music by Greenwood.

That wasn’t the issue with “The Dark Knight,” which marked the second collaboration between composers Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard. They had scored “Batman Begins” together in 2005.

“Batman Begins” was also disqualified, music-branch executive committee members recalled, because the music cue sheet — the official studio record of who wrote what, along with exact timings and music-ownership information for every piece of music in a film — listed other names beyond those of Zimmer and Howard.

That was also the case with “The Dark Knight,” whose cue sheet included (in addition to Zimmer and Howard) the film’s music editor, ambient music designer and another composer.

Both Zimmer and Howard, in interviews conducted prior to last week’s Acad ruling, spoke of the immense job of creating more than two hours of music for “Dark Knight” and said that they wanted key members of their music team to share in the financial success of the film. (ASCAP, BMI and other performing-rights societies distribute royalties based on cue sheet credits.)

Zimmer conceded that this use of a studio document is unorthodox. But he insisted that the “we’re not talking about musical secretaries here” and that he and Howard were fully responsible for the “Dark Knight” score.

All concerned signed affidavits affirming that, but their position apparently didn’t convince a majority of the music-branch committee. The fact that a small amount of thematic material originated in “Batman Begins” does not appear to have been a significant factor in the committee’s decision.

The Acad music branch is historically wary of collaborative scores, especially since the mid-1980s when two films in particular raised eyebrows: “The Color Purple” (1985), where Quincy Jones insisted on giving all his collaborators credit, resulting in 12 nominees for the same score; and “The Last Emperor” (1987), which actually won for its three composers: Ryuichi Sakamoto, David Byrne and Cong Su.

Since then, no dramatic-score nomination has contained more than one name and the rules now state that “partial contributors” (e.g., any writer not responsible for the overall design of the work) are ineligible, as are “scores assembled from the music of more than one composer.”

“Dark Knight” is the year’s top box office grosser. Nine of the past 20 of the year’s top moneymakers saw their scores Oscar-nominated. Three won, most recently “Return of the King” in 2003, which was not disqualified — as many sequels are — because of the amount of new material Howard Shore composed.

Zimmer and Howard still have a shot at the Golden Globe. Globe voters have often nominated songs and scores that, for one reason or another, didn’t make the final Acad cut.

Globe voters nominated Howard’s “King Kong,” for example, and Zimmer’s “Last Samurai” and “Pearl Harbor.” Howard Shore even won a Globe for his “Aviator” score in 2004 after it had been ruled ineligible by the Oscar music-branch committee (again, under the “scores diluted by the use of… pre-existing music” rule).

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