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Music Supervisors’ Drive to Join Academy Music Branch Gains Momentum

An Oscar category of their own may be too lofty a dream, but representation matters, they say.

Music Supervisors Oscar Race Awards Season
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Oscar balloting for the final five nominees in the song and score categories begins March 5. But none of the music supervisors that worked on those movies will get to vote. That’s because the Academy music branch, which chooses the nominees, bars music supervisors — the people who advise and collaborate with filmmakers on songs and other musical matters — from membership.

It’s been a longstanding rule for the branch, which consists of approximately 375 composers, songwriters and music editors. Their argument has always been that membership is limited to those who actually create the musical material that goes into a movie.

“The sense that we don’t contribute creatively to telling stories with music is not an argument that holds water,” says Joel C. High, president of the 500-member Guild of Music Supervisors. “We want to be sitting at the table with our music peers.”

This issue has rankled the music-supervision community for years. Maureen Crowe, the Guild’s first president (who will be honored with the Legacy Award at the Guild of Music Supervisors Awards on April 11), publicly pressed the Academy a decade ago without success. Filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, she says, rely heavily on songs as part of their storytelling process, making music supervisors key contributors to meaningful soundscapes.

Many composers see music supervisors as administrators who choose and clear songs but, since they don’t actually write songs or compose scores, aren’t entitled to judge the work of those who do. Plus supervisors often hire composers, which can be awkward for both.

“They don’t want to acknowledge musical design,” says Crowe. “It’s like saying David Hockney is not an artist because he uses photographs in his work. That same faction has been controlling the music branch since the 1960s. It’s very limiting in terms of people who can represent how music is being used in cinematic storytelling.”

There are 18 people with “music supervision” credits in the Academy. Most, including Crowe (whose high-profile credits range from “The Bodyguard” to “Chicago”), are relegated to its catch-all members-at-large branch.

A few, who have graduated to the ranks of studio execs, are in the executives branch. Others include such notables as Joel Sill (“Forrest Gump”), Randall Poster (“Joker”), Mary Ramos (“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”), Julianne Jordan (“A Star Is Born”) and Bonnie Greenberg (“The Life Ahead”). Because they’re not in the music branch, they can’t vote for the shortlists or the nominations, only the final choices just like every Academy member.

High, music supervisor on many Tyler Perry films, starting with “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” in 2005, says since music supervisors are on the same team as composers and songwriters, they deserve to be part of the awards process. “We already work day to day with the people who are in the music branch,” he notes.

Adds Guild VP Madonna Wade-Reed (“Smallville,” “One Tree Hill”): “Just look at original songs. The nucleus, the beginning of that idea, is usually born out of a conversation between a music supervisor and a director. It’s the supervisor that goes out and makes it happen. Who are the best voices? Who are the best songwriters? We make that contribution.”

They aren’t alone in their thinking. Robert Kraft, an Oscar-nominated songwriter who headed the 20th Century-Fox music department for 18 years, agrees. “Music supervisors have become increasingly important in the filmmaking process, often determining the sound of a film as much as the composer’s original score,” he says.

“There is no question about the creativity involved. Like a set designer or a costumer or a casting director, a music supervisor’s style, knowledge and taste impacts the sound and the narrative of the movie experience. They are too often unacknowledged for their contributions,” he adds.

One quirk that the supervisors may have in their favor is that music editors are in the branch, and while many are trained musicians, their role tends to be more technical.

“The person I’m locked in a room with at 2 o’clock in the morning is the music editor,” Wade-Reed says. “We’re making creative choices, or they are enacting a choice that I want to make. They are also the link between ourselves and the composers.”

Supervisors have gained in prominence in recent years, and successfully lobbied to join the music peer group of the Television Academy despite opposition from a composer faction there as well. The TV Academy instituted a music supervision Emmy in 2017.

Some want a music supervision Oscar, too, but that is a battle most aren’t prepared to wage just yet.

And some can’t even get into the Academy even when nominated to the at-large branch. Multiple sources have told Variety that two top music supervisors, Alexandra Patsavas (the “Twilight” movies) and Steven Gizicki (“La La Land”), were denied membership last year.

The reasons aren’t clear. Patsavas may have additional clout now that she is head of music at Netfix. Gizicki, a Grammy winner for the “La La Land” album, is currently working on two high-profile Lin-Manuel Miranda projects (“In the Heights” and “tick, tick … Boom!”) and could theoretically apply again.

Some supervisors suspect that the at-large vetting executives may not even realize that supervisors aren’t permitted in the music branch. Howard Paar, recently supervisor of “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” who gained membership in 2017, says then-Academy president John Bailey didn’t know about the exclusion.

The Guild executives say they’re friendly with the current Academy music governors and that informal talks on this subject have begun. “We’re taking it one step at a time,” High says.

While Academy executives declined to comment for this story, one prominent music-branch member indicated that the issue “will be addressed in our meeting this spring.”

Crowe thinks the addition of music supervisors to the branch would be a positive move. “It’s just healthier,” she says. “It sends a signal to the rest of the world that music is valuable, inclusiveness is important, and we want to celebrate music design in all its forms.”