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Film Composers Bask in Fest Spotlight

Ghent's World Soundtrack Awards has inspired clones throughout Europe

With the exception of a few top-tier names, most composers toil away in the shadow of A-list movie stars and directors. The exception comes with six European film music festivals, where they — and their scores — shine brightly in the spotlight.

At this year’s second Intl. Festival of Film Music in Cordoba, Spain, autograph signings by composers “went on for three hours,” recalls ASCAP’s senior director of film, TV music and new media Mike Todd. “They’re rock stars there.”

BMI vice president of film/TV relations Doreen Ringer Ross recalls composer Christopher Lennertz walking across the room for a bathroom break at one festival only to get “a standing ovation.”

The granddaddy of these composer showcases remains the Flanders Intl. Film Festival (also known as Film Fest Ghent) in Ghent, Belgium, which culminates with assorted live music events by invited film maestros, a highlight that dates back to 1985, and the World Soundtrack Awards, which launched in 2001. The film festival turns 40 this October and will be celebrated by 40 one-minute compositions by 40 different composers that will be performed live. Among those contributing are Oscar winners Mychael Danna, Dario Marianelli, Rachel Portman, Gustavo Santaolalla and Gabriel Yared.

The second-oldest is the Cordoba festival, which moved last year after seven years in Ubeda. Fimucite, held in Tenerife, Canary Islands, celebrated its seventh edition in July. The Krakow Film Music Festival turns six with this September’s event (moved from its previous May home in order to take better advantage of grant funding). The Transatlantyk Festival held its third annual conclave in Poznan, Poland, in August. And the newest, the Festival of Music and Images, will hold its second outing in October in Paris.

Most of the conferences share several elements, including workshops, Q&As, competitions and live performances of film music, usually by the local orchestra, that are open to the public.

For performing-rights organizations, attending the conferences is a way to support their composer clients, as well as network. “At ASCAP, we have to be mindful of our foreign composers who license through us in the U.S. We want to make sure we’re visible,” says Todd.

Many of the soundtrack record labels — including Varese Sarabande (whose 35th anniversary was heralded in concert at Transatlantyk and Tenerife), La-La Land Records and MovieScore Media — often attend the festivals, though Varese Sarabande VP and producer Robert Townson says his label sees no obvious sales bump from its participation. “It’s just about spreading the word,” he says, “taking music I feel passionately about and sharing that with the audience. We’re so grateful to have that experience and see in their eyes what (the music) means to them.”

For the composers, invaluable connections can be made. After presenting his music at Ghent’s World Soundtrack Awards concert, Howard Shore picked the festival’s house orchestra, the Brussels Philharmonic, to record his score for Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator.” Elliot Goldenthal returned to Poland to record his ballet “Othello” at Alvernia Studios near Krakow, after being honored at the festival.

Plus, the festivals provide composers with excellent promotional opportunities that can lead to more gigs. “I’ve been fortunate to have been (at Ghent) with my clients to premiere several scores,” says First Artists Management agent Robert Messinger. “ ‘Brokeback Mountain’ with Gustavo Santaolalla, ‘The Kite Runner’ with Alberto Iglesias, and ‘The Ice Storm’ with Mychael Danna, as well as Clint Mansell’s first film music concert.” Mansell, best known for scoring Darren Aronofsky’s movies, then went on to perform his film music concert at Tenerife and at stand-alone events in London, Los Angeles and New York, notes Messinger.

However, like Townson, some composers say the festivals are wonderful events but the professional benefits are marginal. “Look, it’s nice to get out of our hovels, out of our studios, out of the dark and meet other people,” says Marco Beltrami, who attended Cordoba, Tenerife and Transatlantyk this year. “It feels good to do that, but, professionally, it’s not like I’m going to get a job.”

As the festivals continue to proliferate, the competition to attract composers becomes tougher. But most see the overall growth as a very good sign. “Competition is healthy and can be stimulating but overcrowding can also be a nuisance,” says Ghent artistic director Patrick Duynslaegher. “The proliferation of film festivals is a reality and proves that there’s an eager audience for film music concerts everywhere in the world.”

“I would clearly bet that we have the lowest budget of all the festivals,” says Cordoba director David Doncel Barthe. That can make competing for the bigger names difficult, although Ubeda/Cordoba has brought in everyone from Blake Neely to Mark Isham and Bear McCreary. “The budget limit forces us to be more creative with both our programming and our guests,” he says.

Each festival offers its own personality. Ghent draws praise for its high production values and level of professionalism. “They really set the bar in terms of hospitality and treating composers as the stars of the film festival,” Messinger says.

Krakow is the only festival that performs entire scores live to picture. (This year, Don Davis will conduct “The Matrix” score live). Cordoba’s Doncel says his festival’s strong points are its “friendly atmosphere and proximity between guests and attendants,” a feeling echoed by both Todd and Ringer Ross.

Transatlantyk, like Ghent, combines the film music festival with a film festival proper (including a flight of films presented by Sundance), and earns high marks for its overall inclusiveness. “The amount of civic participation by local companies really gives it quite a prominence,” Beltrami says.

Unlike the other festivals, Transatlanytk incorporates a social and environmental slant, going so far as to open with a drum circle protesting GMOs. “This is a festival of ideas,” says Oscar-winning Polish composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, who launched Transatlantyk, in 2011. “We use the power of film and music to create an emotional context.”

While the festivals compete for composers, they are also open to sharing talent. For example, Kaczmarek will be one of 10 composers who take part in a concert at Krakow in September. Composer Diego Navarro, who runs Fimucite, has conducted the orchestra at Krakow before and will do so again this year. His festival honored composer Beltrami in July; Transatlantyk feted him in August.

With film music still a niche market, Navarro says a “cooperation mentality” is a must for the greater good. “I seriously consider we have to work and fight together in order to show the general audience how great this art is,” he says. “The music we write as composers is not the property of a specific festival once it has been performed there.”

Krakow’s artistic director, Robert Piaskowski, would like to see the festivals work even closer together: “I’m thinking about establishing a kind of syndicate of film music festivals that would support fair play in the industry, help legally obtain scores and footage clips, use the composer’s image rightfully, and invest the festivals’ means to create the entertainment at the highest possible level.”

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