Runaway productions sound discordant note

Hollywood studio musicians are worried. Some are saying they are doing much less work than they once did, and some are blaming a growing number of overseas recordings for American films as an inexpensive alternative to doing it the good, old-fashioned way — scoring locally with union musicians who are experienced in the business of performing for movies and TV.

Union officials respond by blaming the economic downturn, the fewer movies being produced, emerging technology and changing trends in scoring that require fewer hours of recording. Studio execs and composers say they prefer to score in L.A. but find their hands are often tied by production-company mandates that lead to non-union dates in Seattle, Prague and Bratislava, Slovakia.

Concrete numbers to prove anybody’s point are difficult to come by.

L.A. Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians declined to provide wage data, but one official says that work for the first six months of 2010 was “almost identical” to the comparable period in 2009.

In addition, Film Musicians Secondary Market Fund statistics show that, among wide-release (600-plus screens) films over the past four years, the portion scored with AFM musicians has remained relatively stable: 47% in 2007, 44% in 2008 and almost 50% in 2009.

Yet many musicians insist there is less work to go around than there once was. Oboist Tom Boyd estimates that about 130 musicians are working regularly in L.A. but that another “200 fantastic musicians are sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. I’m not saying there is a quick fix, but I think we need to address the hemorrhaging.”

A violinist (who asked for anonymity for this story) agreed that dates are down, partly because the nature of the work itself is changing, with smaller orchestras and fewer recording sessions these days. She thought the “economic downturn” explanation was “a fake reason … an excuse.”

Even those who leave town regularly concede that L.A. and London are the two recording hubs that boast the world’s finest musicians — and cost about the same, when you figure in travel expenses.

The difference is that London musicians offer a “buyout” — pay them more and you can own the music, thus avoiding future repayments for soundtrack album releases or backend residuals (which can generate “special payments” to U.S. musicians under AFM contracts when a film is sold to TV or homevideo).

Union musicians are reluctant to consider a buyout clause, feeling that musicians — like actors, writers and directors, who also get residuals — should share in the profits of a successful film. They have lowered their hourly rates on low-budget films as a concession.

Yet, says one studio exec who asked for anonymity, a buyout is “the only incentive you could offer that would change the landscape in a significant way” in favor of L.A. musicians.

It’s the cheaper, non-union venues that worry L.A. musicians.

Comparisons are difficult because of the many variables associated with recording orchestral music, but one source compared a four-hour session with 82 musicians in L.A. as costing about $49,000 vs. $24,000 in Seattle and $11,000 in Bratislava.

Prague is also becoming popular, although contractor James Fitzpatrick says that American films “only account for 10%-15% of our total work.” (“Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Expendables” were scored there.) And some composers are using new technology that permits them to stay at home but monitor overseas recording sessions via the Internet.

Fitzpatrick thinks the reduction in L.A. work may be because “music budgets have been slashed so much that many American producers are forcing their composers to use ever-increasing amounts of sampled orchestra … hundreds of tracks of samples with a much lesser percentage of live musicians.”

Regardless, some powerful composers insist on remaining in L.A. James Newton Howard recently used 92 players on “The Tourist” and more than 100 on “The Green Hornet.”

Pete Anthony, who conducted both those scores and is president of the L.A. chapter of the Recording Musicians Assn. (RMA), says that “being able to deliver on time, on schedule, under budget constraints, is sometimes more important than saving a few dollars on a scoring session.

“Given crazy post-production schedules, that’s definitely an argument in favor,” he says. “In L.A. we can turn anything around overnight, and it doesn’t involve international travel, data transfer, dealing with lost drives or broken parts on a recording console. The more a production is concerned with quality, the stronger the pull to keep it here.”

On “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” composer John Powell faced a dilemma: “I was told that I had to record it in Bratislava,” he recalls. “So I asked for 2 1/2 weeks of recording. That’s how long it was going to take to get it right.” Given the increased time demand, the production company relented and Powell recorded the entire score in L.A. in 4 1/2 days.

Phil Ayling, president of the International RMA, contends that “L.A. is doing almost as much as every other place in the world combined,” but that other factors are contributing to the overall decline. He cited the huge drop in recording for TV in recent years, since few series use orchestral music and the TV movie (once a mainstay for many studio musicians) is pretty much dead.

One studio exec points out that “as a result of increasing tax incentives to film elsewhere, including overseas, the number of non-union pictures seems to be steady or increasing.” Tax credits within the U.S. may play a growing role, as Louisiana officials were recently in L.A. attempting to woo composers to New Orleans with rates that were lower than Seattle’s.

Another high-placed studio exec concedes that the situation is complex, with no easy answers, but offers this: “I walk onto an L.A. scoring stage, I see a lot of familiar faces in those chairs and I think, ‘We are in good hands, because they are the best players in the world.’ “

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