Composers' pay comes with strings attached

During a press conference on the final day of the 36th annual Ghent International Film Festival, which wrapped Oct. 17, a playful exchange emerged between composers Marvin Hamlisch and Alexandre Desplat.

“As egotistical as I am,” stated Hamlisch, “it’s very rare that one zooms to the theater saying, ‘I’ve got to hear this Michel Legrand score.’ “

“I do,” interjected Desplat.

“You go because you’ve either heard the film was great or you heard about a performance,” asserted Hamlisch, undeterred. “You don’t go and say, ‘Who did the music?’ It doesn’t work like that.”

“I do,” repeated Desplat.

The veteran three-time Oscar winner and Frenchman, whom one observer described as “the flavor that everybody wants,” were enjoying their moment in the sun. “We are recording artists, we’re always locked locked in studios,” he said. “So, of course, being here sitting and having the opportunity to make jokes with fellow composers is a blessing.”

Their music, along with that of fellow panelist Marc Streitenfeld, would be performed later that evening at the World Soundtrack Awards, the grand finale of a festival best known for its celebration of movie music.

“The setting in Ghent is incredible,” says agent Robert Messinger. “They have amazing facilities and theaters, and the organization of the fest is extremely strong.”

Ghent’s movie music focus, entering its 10th year and concentrated in the last few days of the 12-day event, is becoming tough to ignore among those in the know.

Messinger, whose clients include Carter Burwell and Gustavo Santaolalla, has become a perennial attendee, while others who made the trek this year included Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi, whose deliriously romantic music for the likes of Wong Kar Wei and Zhang Yimou was performed by a 30-piece ensemble at Ghent’s Vooruit Arts Centre; Oscar winner A.R. Rahman (“Slumdog Millionaire”) and his agent Sam Schwartz; the two key members of the Desplat brian trust, agent Laura Engel and manager Robert Urband; ASCAP’s ubiquitous Nancy Knutsen, who helps assemble the fest’s music talent; and Doreen Ringer Ross, BMI’s VP film and TV relations in L.A..

The event’s five scheduled concerts were sold out, save for the eerily compelling “Divine Feminin” show by the Traffic Qunitet, led by Desplat’s wife Dominique Lemonnier; a second Umebayashi performance was organized due to popular demand; and the Bijloke Music Centre, where the WSAs took place, was bursting at capacity (1,100), with plans to move the show to a larger hall next year.

The fest attracted 125,000 visitors, a 10% bump over 2008. Its music profile has also been fortified by the London-based School of Sound — the home of 300 film music professionals — which will be moving their operations to Ghent beginning in March of 2011.

At a time when the Big Five symphony orchestras in the U.S. are warming to more movie music programs in their repertoires, and similar film score showcases are sprouting up in places like Ubeda, Spain, and Krakow, Poland, it would appear that film composers are finally getting their due.

Desplat and Umebayashi, surprisingly, were having their scores performed for the first time live, with an assist from the Brussells Philharmonic. That orchestra’s conductor, Dirk Brosse, has become increasingly in demand, having wielded the baton as part of the recent world tour of John Williams’ “Star Wars” fanfares.

And Clint Mansell, after premiering his film music live at last year’s Ghent and earlier this year at movie music showcase Tenerife in the Canary Islands, is now negotiating with Carnegie Hall to have his music performed their next year.

“That’s a direct result of these festivals being a launching pad for new opportunities,” says Messinger about his client.

But not all is sweetness and light. At a time when film budgets are shrinking, composers — whom Urband describes as largely “treated like the end of the food chain” — are especially feeling the pinch. It’s generally acknowledged that film scores comprise a mere 1% of a film’s budget, and are often commissioned so late in the game that deadlines can be brutal.

What’s more, studios and producers are more and more frequently resorting to package or “all in” deals for composers, which require that the talent pay for the production costs out of their own pocket, including the hiring of musicians, studio time, engineers, orchestration, music editing and mixing. “I think composers are taken advantage of in that respect,” says Messinger.

“Fees are dropping, and the idea of hiring people for a package rather than a creative fee, plus expenses, is proliferating,” adds Ringer Ross.

And while Ross observes that some classical organizations use film music to build a younger following “because their older constituents are literally dying off,” she’s skeptical about the outcome, unless it involves somebody like Williams, whose standing summer gig at the Hollywood Bowl, she says, appeals to the L.A. Philharmonic’s subscription base. “Even when Jerry Goldsmith was alive and he tried to do some concerts there it was a tough sell,” she says.

Meanwhile, a movement spearheaded by group of composers to form a union that would protect the interests (including guaranteed salaries) of composers and lyricists working in film, TV and video games — among the few creatives left without a collective bargaining agreement — is gaining ground.

“There has been a tremendous devaluation of music,” says former Society of Composers & Lyricists president James DiPasquale. “Respect for composers has diminished. Technology has marched forward, and our income has plummeted. At the rank-and-file level, it’s very hard for anyone to make a living.”

Desplat — who is enjoying a banner year with such films as “Julie and Julia,” “Coco Before Chanel” and “Fantastic Mr. Fox” under his belt and scores for Terrence Malick’s “Tree of Life” and Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost” in the works — might be sitting on top of the world, but acknowledgement of the composer’s contributions to a movie can be a sore point.

“Many directors don’t understand how precious our point of view can be for them” he said in Ghent. “And about how much of the music should be written or not written. “They’re holding the object they’ve made for so many years so (close) that they think they know everything (about it), but composers have (an objective) view that can really help.”

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