Music for Screens: Winter 2013

Is there a crisis for L.A. studio musicians? Is work leaving in droves because of union contracts that production companies won’t sign? Or is it a haves and have-nots situation where union execs are not doing enough for their members desperate for work?

Depending upon whom you talk to, it’s all or none of the above.

Over the past two months, a movement aimed at bringing more film and videogame scoring to L.A. has emerged, and the American Federation of Musicians (and its contracts with producers) has been a primary target of criticism.

Union officials, on the other hand, contend work is not drying up as their detractors contend. They say fewer movies are being made and point out that L.A. musicians are actually making more money.

Richard Kraft, an agent whose client list includes Danny Elfman and Alexandre Desplat, believes there is a big problem. He recently launched the “Bring More Recording to Los Angeles” website and cites statistics indicating union recording of film scores is only about half of what it was five years ago.

Many production companies, unhappy with AFM contract provisions, are choosing instead to go to London, Prague or even Bratislava, Slovakia. “Hundreds of movies are made every year that do not use AFM musicians,” Kraft says. “There is a perception that we are not competitive.”

Composer John Debney says “more and more often, part of the negotiation is this demand that we go non-AFM,” often because production companies balk at agreeing to residuals that must be paid later when films are sold to TV and DVD.

Increasingly, critics say, producers are opting for non-union. In London, for example, production companies can pay a higher price for the musicians at the time of recording (called a buyout) and avoid any future payments. AFM contracts do not include a buyout option, and critics of the status quo think they should.

Routinely, films shot in the U.S. are scored in L.A. But Lionsgate is not a signatory to AFM agreements and recorded James Newton Howard’s score for “The Hunger Games” in London. Marvel isn’t a signatory either and recorded Alan Silvestri’s score for “The Avengers” there. (Lionsgate and Marvel reps were unavailable for comment.)

According to Kraft’s website, only 50 of the 282 films eligible for this season’s best pic Oscar were scored under AFM auspices.

Statistics from the Film Music Secondary Markets Fund, which administers the residual payments for musicians, show a steady decline in AFM films over the past five years, from 120 in 2007 to 85 in 2011 (2012 stats are still incomplete).

Yet the collection of residuals for musicians in 2011 was the second-highest ever at $84 million. The Fund’s statistics also show that far more of the annual 100 highest-grossing films are actually scored in Hollywood (in 2011, 61 in L.A. vs. 18 in London).

John Acosta, VP of AFM Local 47, points out that 2011 saw an increase in total wages for recording films, TV and other music, to $50 million (up from $48 million in 2010).

Where the haves and have-nots issue comes into play is the actual numbers of musicians who get to play on these scores. With work shrinking, the most in-demand players continue to get the calls — and the sometimes hefty residual checks for playing on successful films — leaving more out in the cold.

Composer Christopher Lennertz thinks the AFM “is choosing to cling to the shrinking amount of remaining work rather than consider making concessions to have a greater amount of work for a greater number of its members.”

But concessions are not on the minds of union execs, who are in negotiations with the AMPTP for a new contract (the current one expires in February). “What guarantees do we have?” asks Acosta. “If we go ahead and slash away at things everyone else in the industry gets, what do we do if all this employment they’re saying we’re not getting doesn’t happen?”

Acosta refers to the residuals, those backend payments that are common throughout the industry. In a deal negotiated with producers nearly 50 years ago, AFM gets 1% of the distributor’s gross receipts when a film is sold into ancillary markets such as TV and DVDs, and that money is distributed to the musicians who played on those scores.

It’s no different than the residuals that WGA, DGA, SAG/AFTRA and IATSE members get, except the amount is much less.

But not everyone belongs to the AMPTP, and unlike the era when studios made most movies, nowadays many are made by independent production companies.

Recording Musicians Assn. Intl. president Marc Sazer thinks the complaints are misplaced. “Work is absolutely not leaving in greater numbers,” he says. “There are fewer movies being made.”

What irritates him are the production companies that take “literally hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers” in subsidies to make their films in the U.S. and then, because there is no way of stopping them, pay musicians in London, Prague or Bratislava to record their scores. “When our tax dollars are used to co-produce a film or TV project, the music should be done here at home,” Sazer says.

Some musicians are quietly supporting the loosening of AFM provisions but will not go public, fearing possible blacklisting by the pro-union contractors who hire them. “I don’t want to make waves because of the possibility of losing what I have,” says one. “If only there was more work, more opportunity here in L.A …”

Adds Lennertz: “The AFM must come to terms with its place in the global marketplace and make an honest assessment of its bargaining power with the industry as a whole, not just the few major studios it’s been dealing with for decades.”

Smaller companies could be convinced to go union, he argues, “by showing them it’s a smart business decision in terms of money, ease and efficiency as well as a public relations coup” by bringing production back Stateside.”

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