Variety’s Music for Screens Summit Tackles Diversity, Pay and Awards Contention

The inaugural event was held at Neuehouse Hollywood and also featured appearances by Trent Reznor and Annie Lennox.

H. Scott Salinas and Annie Lennox at Variety's Music for Screens Summit at NeueHouse Hollywood on October 30, 2018.Variety Music for Screens summit, Los Angeles, USA - 30 Oct 2018
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The film, television and gaming music communities got the confab they’ve long deserved Tuesday as Variety hosted the inaugural Music for Screens Summit. Guests including Annie Lennox (pictured above with H. Scott Salinas), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Linda Perry, Terence Blanchard and Ramin Djawadi came to Neuehouse in Hollywood for a day of interviews and panels celebrating the art, craft and business of composing and music supervision, capped by a preview screening of Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

The day kicked off with a panel sponsored by Pepsi on the use of music in commercial advertising and featuring five unique case studies. Linda Perry, representing her company We Are Hear, detailed how a Quickbooks spot featuring singer Willa Amai’s cover of Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” created an instant audience for the teen newcomer. Others represented on the panel included Portugal. The Man manager Rich Holtzman (Vitaminwater’s use of “Feel It Still”), Seventeenfifty/Capitol Music Group SVP Brian Nolan (Migos’ “Stir Fry” NBA spot), Good Ear Music supervisor Andrew Kahn (The Gap’s “Megamix” campaign) and Kobalt Music President Global Synch & Brand Partnerships Jeanette Perez (content strategy company Copilot’s “Take Me Home (Country Roads)” for the video game “Bethesda Fallout ’76”).

An ASCAP-sponsored session on increased diversity in scoring included Pinar Toprak, soon to score “Captain Marvel,” who represented inclusion not just by virtue of being a woman and a Turkish-American but by being involved as a composer for video games, too, a medium still sometimes left out of the conversation. “I had no idea how huge this game was going to become,” Toprak said, speaking of her music for the blockbuster Fortnite. “I had to go to Nashville to conduct it last year around this time. Anything I do, to my kids, is not that cool. Flash forward a year: I’m now the coolest mom on the planet, and have the respect of my nieces and nephews.” She wrote an hour’s worth of orchestral music originally, but the game expands online and is “living and breathing, so every few months there’s new music that needs to be written for it.”

Toprak had less to say about “Captain Marvel.” When moderator (and Variety contributor) Jon Burlingame asked if there was anything she could say about the nature of what she’ll be composing for the largely-top-secret superhero film or even when she’s doing it, he already knew what the cheerfully terse answer would be: “No.”

Tight lips weren’t otherwise a problem on the effusive and mostly hopeful diversity panel, which also included Djawadi (pictured below, at right, with Blanchard), who’s taken his “Game of Thrones” soundscapes on the road. “It’s always been a dream of mine to go on tour with my music,” he said. “Usually when we write our scores, we don’t see the reaction to the music. To see that response from an audience was a dream come true.”

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The nitty-gritty of composing came up for nuanced discussion. Marco Beltrami — who represented diversity on the panel, Burlingame joked, by being the sole New Yorker in sight — talked about the challenges posed by composing music for a thriller that nearly counts as a traditional silent movie, this year’s “A Quiet Place.” The audience would likely only intuit the subtlety, but “my first thought was, maybe since they haven’t had any music for a while, they sort of have to remember what it sounds like,” Beltrami said. “I thought of a piano that was slightly out of tune by then (after the monster apocalypse). So we detuned all the black notes on the piano by a quarter of a step.”

The music supervisors’ panel later in the afternoon offered a study in ironies: the profession doesn’t pay as well as it should or get the respect it deserves… yet everybody wants to get in on it.

“These are real music supervisors, ladies and gentlemen, and that title has been thrown around loosely these days,” said moderator P.J. Bloom, the senior VP of film & television music and soundtracks for Warner Bros. Records. He found plenty of agreement from panelist Thomas Golubić, who’s not only the music supervisor for “Better Call Saul” and, before that, “Breaking Bad” but also has some strong takes as the head of the Guild of Music Supervisors, which is fighting to make sure the right people get credit.

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Pictured from left: P.J. Bloom, Alexandra Patsavas, Season Kent, Maggie Phillips, Morgan Rhodes and Thomas Golubic

“It’s like when I used to DJ and you had to explain what DJ-ing was, and then everybody got it,” said Golubić. “Now, music supervision is like that — it’s kind of a sexy job. But it’s not an easy job. People don’t know what we do and the complexity of it, and that’s on us.” He applauded the Emmys and Grammys for adding music supervision awards but cautioned that the credits don’t always reflect the pros doing the job. “The onus can’t be put on the Television Academy, because they’re going to take what is submitted to them,” he said. “We have to make sure our standards are clear about what excellence in this category is.”

How popularity — or its opposite — comes into play in placing songs in films and TV made for lively discussion in the supervisors’ panel. Filmmakers and showrunners often want a name; music supervisors want a discovery. “The most exciting thing is to watch the streams go up on an unknown artist after the airing. That’s when we’re satisfied,” said Alexandra Patsavas (“Grey’s Anatomy”). Added Morgan Rhodes (“Dear White People”): “If you have a whole bunch of YouTube views, I’ll pass. I’m looking for someone no one has heard of before,” she said. “I will look on crazy blogs no one’s looking at. If you’re popular or an ‘influencer,’ I’ll pass. Because afterward when you see those numbers rise, that’s the joy.”

Reznor and scoring partner Atticus Ross sat for the keynote interview with moderator Elvis Mitchell. “As films have become more of a product and streamlined, just like pop music largely has as well, it’s become a thing that’s predigested,” lamented Reznor. “There are lot of programs now that you push one button and it does the thing (that directors want), to the point where I’m not sure why they even hire film composers. Compare that to watching something from the ‘70s like ‘Sorcerer’ or ‘Klute.’ So many things have changed. I’m not necessarily saying all the film music from that era is better, but it sure feels more like art, and it sure feels more like there weren’t so many expectations that music would only do this certain thing.

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From left: Trent Reznor, Elvis Mitchell and Atticus Ross

“We attempt, having some choices,” Reznor continued, “to try to find films that are still approaching music as something that can be unexpected, less cookie cutter, less functional and more interesting. That comes down to who the filmmaker is and what the intent is. There’s no real interest on our part in getting into quantity and ‘Let’s do as many as we can and do one that sounds like that.’ “ Of course, as members of the band Nine Inch Nails, they realize they have a luxury to be choosy other composers might not: “Fortunately, we can survive by doing shows, if we choose to.”

On the other hand, Annie Lennox has completely given up touring, saying that playing old songs for an appreciative audience is an honorable pursuit but not one she’s interested in anymore. Not that she’s actively pursuing doing movie songs, either, even though her theme for one of the “Lord of the Rings” movies won an Oscar in 2003

She was dragged back in after a long layoff, she told Variety conrributor James Patrick Herman, because of the topicality and specificity of the new film “A Private War” (opening Nov. 16). The film tells the story of journalist Marie Colvin, who was killed while covering the war in Syria in 2012. Lennox met the journalist before her death while doing work for The Circle, a non-government organization she founded to achieve equality for women and girls around the world.

Lennox’s original song wrote for the film is called “Requiem for A Private War.” “It was a situation where I had a picture in my head of Marie and what happened at the end of her life. It was so powerful, this image, and I had to express it,” she said of writing the song. This was the first time Lennox had been asked to write a song in eight years. “It was a beautiful thing. It could have easily not happened. But it did,” she said.

Added composer H. Scott Salinas: “The part that she’s leaving out is that this is in a little bedroom in an Air BnB. We’re sitting on the bed, and Annie’s like, ‘I’ve got a few ideas’ — and it’s all written out. And she said, ‘Well, if it’s okay I’m gonna play it for you guys,’ and Matt [Heineman] and I are next to her literally crying. We left singing the song.”

Variety executive editor and Music for Screens Summit programmer Shirley Halperin moderated a conversation with the team behind Netflix’s upcoming docu-series “Westside” (premiering Nov. 9), which tells the story of nine struggling musicians trying to make it big in Los Angeles.

What makes the show unique, said Kevin Bartel, the series’ executive music producer, is that the music was written specifically for each episode based on the personal struggles of each cast member. The eight-episode series also includes 20 full-length music videos.“When you watch it and see what our cast goes through, it’s some heavy shit. As far as the music goes, none of the songs existed before the episodes existed,” Bartel said.

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From left: Kevin Bartel, Johan Carlsson, Tom Corson, James Diener, Michael Flutie and Jenn Levy 

“You never know who’s gonna be the breakout star,” said Warner Bros. Records co-chairman and COO Tom Corson, who partnered with Netflix to help shoulder the musical undertaking of the show. Corson said the label has already begun working on individual tracks with the cast members.

With “Bohemian Rhapsody” gaining buzz and music documentaries reaching a larger audience than ever, thanks to streaming services like Netflix, Apple Music and Amazon Prime, the In the Zeitgeist: Music Documentaries and Biopics” panel, moderated by Variety Senior Music Editor Jem Aswad, was one of the more eagerly anticipated of the day. Panelists included The Doors and Janis Joplin estate manager Jeff Jampol, music supervisor/director Jonathan McHugh, “Bohemian Rhapsody” editor John Ottman, music and sample clearance exec Deborah Mannis-Gardner and Live Nation President of Film and TV Heather Parry.

Jampol, whose client list also includes The Ramones and Otis Redding, was the first to define the terms of discussion insisting, “What we’re dealing with is art, not content, and we don’t use the word ‘exploit,’ either,” while suggesting how best to serve that legacy, whether it’s a documentary, a biopic, a book, a Broadway show or a museum exhibition. “It’s all about authenticity and credibility,” he added.

Live Nation’s Parry explained how she convinced Bradley Cooper to let the concert promotion company use its marketing clout as a producer on “A Star Is Born.” “We ran the trailer at our music festivals and promoted the movie at all the venues,” she said.

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From left: Jem Aswad, Jeff Jampol, Deborah Mannis-Gardner, Jonathan McHugh, Heather Parry and John Ottman 

McHugh told of his experiences making a documentary about The Alarm’s Mike Peters and his struggle with cancer and ended up managing him. “The beauty of documentaries is how you start out one place and end up somewhere else.”

John Ottman addressed how “Bohemian Rhapsody” managed to capture the dark side of Freddie Mercury while still trying to capture a mainstream audience, while Deborah Mannis-Gardner was intent that her songwriting clients were compensated for their work on any film. “If you can pay for a bottle of water, you can pay for a song,” she said. “Music is essential for these projects.”

The success of soundtracks for “A Star Is Born,” “The Greatest Showman” and “Black Panther” proves the form is far from dead, as a panel moderated by Variety editor Andrew Barker made very clear.

Atlantic Records West Coast President Kevin Weaver was particularly bullish on the evolution of Broadway original cast recordings, launching such best-sellers as “Hamilton” and “Dear Evan Hanson,” while turning “The Greatest Showman” — soon to have its own “reimagined” collection of songs — into its own cottage industry. “We’re living in a world of IP, attaching music to these properties,” said Weaver.

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From left: Spring Aspers, Kevin Weaver and Paula Wagner 

Sony Motion Pictures Group Head of Music Spring Aspers referred to the most effective soundtracks as offering “an emotional journey in which music tells a story,” while veteran producer Paula Wagner – whose experience with soundtracks goes back to the very first “Mission: Impossible album which featured U2’s Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton – touted her soundtrack to the Broadway musical of “Pretty Woman,” with new songs created by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.  “The soundtrack helps bring back that experience,” she said.

Kobalt Music Publishing GM Creative and Acquisitions Sue Drew noted that “soundtracks are now a growth industry,” while pointing to the use of Spotify playlists – like the one director Edgar Wright created for “Baby Driver” – as another innovative way to promote a film, TV or theater property. Added Aspers: “People want something that is curated for them, that they can experience.”

Atlantic’s Weaver noted that, at the Warner Music Group label, the goal is to find hit songs. “The music sells the movie and the movie sells the music,” he said. “We market these soundtracks just as we do individual artist projects from Bruno Mars, Janelle Monae or Ed Sheeran.”

Additional reporting by Margeaux Sippell and Roy Trakin