The Ugly Truth of How Movie Scores Are Made

Creating music in 21st-century Hollywood, as a composer for an Emmy-winning cable series put it, “feels like an underground, a real pimp situation.” He talked about long hours, low pay, and working under a martinet “lead composer”—his boss—who delegated the actual work of writing and recording. “One time he had a meltdown because the director was coming to hear what he had come up with and he didn’t have anything to play him,” the composer went on, “because my computer had all the music on it and it was on the fritz!” He laughed—c’est la guerre. But the irritation and dismay were palpable. Another Hollywood composer summed up the widespread feeling among the men and women who do the day-to-day work of bending melody, harmony, and rhythm to match pictures on a movie or television screen: “There’s no contract, there’s no union. You’re completely beholden to working with someone who’s completely unethical or not.”

“The ultimate perquisite of a composer’s life,” said Henry Mancini, “is being able to make a living doing what you truly love to do: create music.” Mancini, who scored such films as Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Pink Panther, and Victor/Victoria, winning four Oscars along the way, belongs to an all-time pantheon of film composers that includes Bernard Herrmann, John Williams, and, more recently, Hans Zimmer. We don’t talk about film composers much, but their work is essential to the cinematic experience. Try to imagine Psycho without Herrmann’s stabbing violins or Inception without Zimmer’s gut-rattling BRAAAM. As the director James Cameron once put it, “The score is the heart and soul of a film.”

Lately, in the streaming era, composers themselves are talking more and more about making a living. With an increasing share of their work moving to streaming, film composers are seeing their royalty earnings dwindle to “pennies on the dollar,” as more than three dozen of them put it last August in an open letter to ASCAP, BMI, and the other performance-royalty organizations, or PROs, that collect and distribute revenues to songwriters. “This raises serious concerns for the future financial outlook for all composers,” the letter declared.

Worse still, some streamers, most notably Netflix, are defaulting to work agreements that cut out royalties entirely. Such agreements are known as buyouts—work-for-hire deals that offer a lump payment and no back end—and they deprive the composer of any share in the ongoing success of a hit series or movie. In 2019, a group of award-winning composers—including Carter Burwell (who has written the score for nearly every Coen brothers movie), Joel Beckerman (CBS This Morning), John Powell (the Jason Bourne franchise), and Pinar Toprak (Captain Marvel)—launched Your Music, Your Future, an initiative aimed at raising awareness about buyouts. So far, nearly 19,000 people have signed on.

As these new financial pressures mount, they are exposing cracks in the system of film composing itself. There’s rising disenchantment with a system in which paying dues has come to resemble abasement, with aspiring composers working on the cheap without benefits, security, or the leverage of a composer’s union—if only one existed. (Once upon a time it did. The Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, founded in the 1950s, disbanded after a 1971 strike.)

Much of the resentment traces back to film composing’s biggest open secret: Many of its brightest stars do not, in fact, write the music they are celebrated and remunerated for. That work, or a good bit of it, is delegated to others. Sometimes those others are credited as “additional composers,” but often they are gig workers, effectively, who receive modest pay and no credit. Such shadow contributors are known as “ghost composers,” and the debate over how name-brand music directors get paid is haunted by their existence.

Last summer, Scarlett Johansson’s lawsuit against Disney for opening Black Widow simultaneously in theaters and on its streaming platform—a decision she claimed cost her millions in box office royalties—revealed widespread anxiety about compensation in rapidly digitizing Hollywood. (The suit was settled last September; terms were not disclosed.) Likewise, composers have been nervous as they see venerable ways of doing things change; the new economics of streaming are threatening what is essentially a quasi-feudal system. Composers might not all be happy about that system, but they worry it will be replaced with something more dire.

“There’s a secretiveness to it all that’s strange,” one composer told me on condition of anonymity. “There’s the world everyone sees—and then you look under the hood.”

Many of the people contacted for this story—composers, lawyers, music supervisors—requested anonymity, fearful that they might jeopardize career opportunities by speaking openly about how their business works. The vibe is “The first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club.” Which is perhaps why a series of tweets the veteran composer Joe Kraemer (Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation) posted last year ricocheted throughout the composing community. “I can count the number of mainstream Hollywood composers that I KNOW write all their music themselves on one hand, John Williams being the most famous example,” Kraemer wrote. “Everyone else is a team leader, a figurehead for a team of composers.”

Williams has described his methodology, which is not all that different from the way Brahms would have done it: “While composing, I’m scribbling with a pen and throwing pages all over the room.” He makes music with the most traditional of tools: a Steinway and staff paper. His orchestrations are, as he has said, “articulated down to the last harp.” Williams is the image of the composer as solitary artist that most of us hold in our heads. He is an industry paragon. It’s even said that directors sometimes work around his music rather than the other way around.

The Williams approach, as Kraemer noted, is exceedingly rare these days. As the Hollywood composer I spoke with put it, “The name brands have had people write their music for 20-plus years.” A veteran Hollywood music supervisor described how it works. “The composers have six or seven projects on the go at any point,” he said, referring to lead composers working in television. “The leader sets the ‘tonal palette’ to get them going. And then the minions do the actual writing.” Let’s say you’re one of these minions—an additional composer or a studio assistant who is allowed to write—and you’re working on the score of a tentpole movie with a major film-music studio. You’re assigned a number of “cues”: bits of the score that you will compose to accompany specific scenes. The lead composer—whose name will go on the final product—has worked up the overall direction. Zimmer calls it “the sketch.” As Devo founder turned film composer Mark Mothersbaugh (Rugrats, The Lego Movie, and four Wes Anderson films) once described it, “You give them themes, you do a rough mock-up, and then those people fine-tune it all.” In some ways, it’s a system that resembles the assembly-line studios of contemporary artists such as Mark Kostabi and Jeff Koons.

As a fine-tuner, you write the actual music for your assigned cues and submit demos to the lead composer’s studio. Then comes a process of feedback and approval, followed by the actual recording—which could mean an orchestra. To put film scoring into culinary terms, the cues you’ve written go into a soup (the score) created by many fellow sous chefs (additional composers) working under an executive chef (the lead composer). Part of the idiosyncratic beauty of a Hollywood film score, as the Hollywood composer I spoke to phrased it, is its “cool collaborative aspect, a handed-down-the-line feel.” When the team clicks, there is a shared sense of energy and enterprise. For many young composers, it’s what draws them to Hollywood as opposed to Carnegie Hall.

If their contributions end up being credited (usually as “additional composer”) and the pay is decent, the participants can be quite happy. They can pay the rent. They might someday rise to the level of lead composer, as did John Powell, Henry Gregson-Williams, and Lorne Balfe, brilliant film scorers all, coming out of Zimmer’s behemoth Remote Control studio in Santa Monica. (The minions there are sometimes referred to as “Zimlings.”)

And then there are the ghost composers. As much as ghost composing is virtually unknown among the moviegoing public, it enjoys a long tradition as an entry-level rite of passage. One of the gods of film scoring, Ennio Morricone, was a ghost composer before earning his first credit on a feature in 1961. “I’ve been a ghost myself (on really big movies),” Zimmer has noted. Occasionally, the issue of ghost composing pops up in the media, as when, in 2014, the deaf Japanese composer Mamoru Samuragochi, a so-called “digital-age Beethoven,” was found to have employed a ghost composer for 18 years. It was regarded as a scandal.

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