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The Sound of Work Leaving L.A.

The process of recording film scores here is costly--so the industry is going elsewhere.

July 23, 2000|JON BURLINGAME | Jon Burlingame is a regular contributor to Calendar

Last month on the Newman Scoring Stage at 20th Century Fox, 90 Los Angeles musicians were performing nearly flawlessly, after a single read-through, newly written music for a big summer movie. On this day, it happened to be Michael Kamen's driving score for "X-Men."

It is work that has kept some of these studio veterans busy for years, even decades: playing the music that propels the action and heightens the emotional stakes in all sorts of movies and, on rare occasions, even sells millions of records. It is also, many observers say, work that is increasingly going elsewhere as a result of long-standing union agreements that some producers find troublesome.

Scale wages for musicians performing on film scores in 1999 declined by more than 30% from the previous year, from $24.1 million to $16.3 million, according to officials of Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians. Numbers for the first five months of 2000 are running about 10% below 1999, the union says.

The slump may, in part, reflect a general reduction in orchestral scores, replaced by pop and rock songs, especially in films aimed at the huge teen audience. In part, it may also be a result of the cutbacks in studio production overall. But members of the Recording Musicians Assn., the arm of the American Federation of Musicians that represents studio players, say the downturn also indicates that production companies are increasingly heading to London, Seattle, Prague, even Moscow to record scores less expensively.

This year, for example, the scores for "Gladiator," "Shanghai Noon," "Chicken Run" and the forthcoming "Hollow Man" were recorded in London. The music for "Battlefield Earth" was recorded in Seattle, "I Dreamed of Africa" in Berlin. "Dinosaur," "The Patriot," "The Perfect Storm" and "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" were recorded in L.A.

Musicians say the trend is hurting their livelihoods and may have a long-term effect on the cultural life of the city by diminishing the talent pool that was initially attracted here by lucrative studio work. But producers contend that the union is inflexible, and increasingly out of step with a global marketplace in which competition is keen and producers aren't saddled with back-end royalties that allow musicians to share, many months later, in the profits of successful movies.

The reasons for the choice of venue can be as solid as the numbers--or as capricious as a producer or director wanting to take a trip and charge it to the production. Lately, L.A. musicians have benefited from "crash" post-production schedules and imminent release dates that make scoring here a necessity, despite the greater cost.

With "X-Men," producer Lauren Shuler-Donner says, "we had too tight of a post-schedule. It was compulsory that we do it here. There would be no time to go to London. We had to lock picture and score and edit, sometimes at the same time. In this case [traveling elsewhere] wasn't an alternative."

"X-Men's" Kamen, who has recorded scores in cities including L.A., London, Seattle, Munich and Prague, says that the composer rarely makes the decision, "although I do often get called on to make a suggestion as to where we can do the score with the least amount of expenditure and with the most efficiency and musicality. I know that, generally speaking, it's an expensive process no matter which way you slice it, and the studios that make the films are, fairly, looking to save money."

The quality of music-making can also be an issue. Everyone seems to agree that L.A. and London are on a par for player excellence--L.A. because of the numbers of top musicians who gravitated here for the studio work, London because most of the players are drawn from five working symphonic ensembles, including the London Symphony and London Philharmonic orchestras.

In L.A., "we have people from virtually every major symphony orchestra in the world," says Brian O'Connor, Recording Musicians Assn. president. "We have the former concertmaster of the Bolshoi Ballet, former members of the Berlin Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam, the London Symphony, the Israel Philharmonic, the L.A. Philharmonic. . . ."

Notes composer Alan Silvestri: "If you are going to have to take a film out of L.A., London is really the only place to take it and still have parity with the overall ability to produce the score. Not just players, but facilities as well." Silvestri scored the just-opened "What Lies Beneath" in L.A. and did his previous two pictures, "Stuart Little" and "Reindeer Games," here as well.

As for Seattle, "if it's straight-ahead music, they're very good musicians," says one composers' agent who asked for anonymity. "If it's a complex score, it's more iffy."

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