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From ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Game of Thrones,’ Film and TV Music in a Live Setting Is Thriving

Just a few years ago, “film music in concert” translated to short suites by big-name movie composers (Henry Mancini, John Williams) performed at summer pops concerts. Today, established American orchestras that once didn’t look at the merging of screen and music seriously, take heed of live-to-picture performances as very big business, with concert halls packing in audiences around the world.

That’s something of a surprise, considering how most classical musicians had traditionally looked down their collective noses at movie music. “Film music was a pejorative, and that was the end of it,” David Newman says. Now they see the attendance figures, and attitudes have changed considerably.

Indeed, just a month ago, the New York Philharmonic completed a three-week, four-film “Star Wars” series with Newman conducting John Williams’ scores for the original trilogy plus “The Force Awakens” to sold-out crowds at New York’s David Geffen Hall. “The orchestra absolutely killed it,” says Newman. “I don’t think it could be played any better.”

And the possibilities aren’t limited to films. TV shows including “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards” are placing music-and-montage center stage, offering variations on the live-to-pic presentation involving singers and dancers augmenting the film in real-time. A superstar composer such as Hans Zimmer, meanwhile, is drawing tens of thousands to his rock-concert-style performances.

“There is an ever-growing expansion of the marketplace,” says Jamie Richardson, producer for Film Concerts Live!, which presents other classic Williams scores including “E.T.,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Jurassic Park,” “Jaws” and the just-announced “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” Its 2017 bookings have already surpassed those from last year, “and that is with a lot more product in the marketplace” such as the “Harry Potter” films, offered by CineConcerts, the “Star Wars” films, controlled by Disney/Lucasfilm, and others.

Steve Linder, another producer with Film Concerts Live! and a veteran of film-music presentation dating back to the ’90s, points out that improvements in technology have made it easier for orchestras to take on a live-to-film presentation, which requires digital projection capabilities and sometimes click-track synchronization devices.

And, symphony planners are realizing, there is an ancillary benefit: “Orchestras have routinely reported to us that anywhere from 60% to 70%, sometimes 80%, of the people at our concerts, are hearing a symphony orchestra live for the first time,” says Richardson. “The hope is that some will come back and experience Beethoven and Mozart as well.”

There’s no doubt that it’s profitable. According to live entertainment trade Pollstar, box office grosses for Live Nation’s “Game of Thrones Live Concert Experience,” which played across North America earlier this year, often approached or exceeded $1 million per date in venues including New York’s 28,790-capacity Madison Square Garden and L.A.’s 17,500-seater the Forum. That rivals revenue of an A-list pop star’s sold-out stops.

A 2018 tour has just been announced, including Europe and the U.S., again with “Game of Thrones” composer Ramin Djawadi conducting.

“I decided to make this a hybrid,” Djawadi tells Variety. “Between the traditional orchestra concert and more contemporary things that you might see in a rock concert, pyro, snow … it embraces the audience more.”
And if fans are looking for clues to what’s coming next, they may find some in concert. It’s like “a two-hour trailer for the next season,” quips the composer. “You really get a breakdown of the characters and the plot.” For the new tour, “they will see a whole new show; we are completely redesigning the stage,” he says. In each city he conducts a 40-piece orchestra and 20-voice choir.

Producer Richard Kraft’s elaborate “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” show, based on the 1971 movie, played over the weekend at the Hollywood Bowl, complete with singers, dancers, projections and scratch and sniff tickets. He is attempting to take the next step in presenting film music to live audiences. Kraft, who earlier did versions of “The Little Mermaid,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “La La Land” with live performances accompanying the films, calls these “celebrations of the movie … an enhancement. They’re not traditional symphonic concerts, singing concerts, or theatrical stage presentations. My goal for the shows we’re doing is more resembling an evening at Disneyland than an evening at a concert hall.”

The most radical reinvention of the film-music concert is probably Zimmer’s recent world tour. Says the composer of “The Lion King,” “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “The Dark Knight” and “Inception”: “I wanted film music to break out of the pigeonhole of ‘film music.’ What would happen if you unleashed it onto an audience that was not filled with film music fans?”

Zimmer decided on two rules: No images from the films and no conductor. As his business partner and producer Steven Kofsky notes, “He didn’t want to be a guy with his back to the audience. He wanted it to be entertainment. No conductor, no music stands.”

So Zimmer’s concerts feature no film clips at all. Audiences figure out for themselves what he’s playing, and they have to guess whether it’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” or “Driving Miss Daisy.”

“If you’re looking at images, you’re not really committing to the experience of seeing the musicians play,” Zimmer says. “The music can stand on its own two feet.”

It’s worked. Zimmer’s concerts frequently passed the $1 million gross-per-venue mark, from New York’s Radio City Music Hall to London’s Wembley Arena, according to Pollstar data.

Coachella was the test, Zimmer recalls: “They had the courage to put us on the same stage as Kendrick Lamar and Lady Gaga.” The L.A. Times later referred to the booking as “a stroke of mad genius.”

Adds producer Kraft: “The term ‘film music concert’ can now mean anything.’”

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