Between ogling Brad Pitt's sculpted build, guzzling down a watermelon Slurpee and enduring the artic-like chill of one's local movie theater, an outing to the movies doesn't typically lend itself to the appreciation of a film's carefully crafted score. It's no wonder the recognition of movie music has often been relegated to lowly cult status.
"The film score is an interesting artform," observes composer Mark Isham, whose credits include "A River Runs Though It," "The Majestic," "October Sky" and "Crash." "Almost by definition, it is accompaniment -- part of something larger. Sometimes you're scoring for a film that's really busy and has a lot of dialogue or action going on. One of the challenges is to make that music strong enough to stand on its own."
That's precisely what it does at XM Satellite Radio, courtesy of Cinemagic, a channel devoted exclusively to playing movie music.
And not just well-known themes such as "Star Wars," "Gone With the Wind" or "How the West Was Won." Cinemagic plays long excerpts from the full underscore -- 8, 10, 12 minutes at a time -- from films as diverse as "Silverado," "The Princess Bride," "The Shawshank Redemption," "King Kong," "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and "Black Hawk Down." Each is generally introduced and occasionally interrupted by snippets of dialogue from the movie to help set the scene in the listener's mind.
There are also programs devoted to specific genres of films and a weekly show called "Reel Time" featuring interviews with composers and directors.
The channel's origins date to November 2001, when XM's first group of employees was trying to decide how to program more than 100 channels. Movies instantly stuck out as "a major component in people's lives" that warranted air time, recalls Lee Abrams, XM's chief creative officer. "A movie station had never been done, and it just seemed obvious."
"All we knew was that people liked movies, from preteens who liked Disney movies to older people who respected the classics," Abrams said. "We wanted those people who are passionate about films to be able to experience that passion while they were in their car or just jogging."
Dave Ziemer, a self-described XM production guy who had been a film major in college, was soon chosen as the station programmer.
"We don't run the station like a terrestrial radio station, where we'll pick a hit from the score," Ziemer says. "We play as much of the score as possible, so listeners can make a connection to the music."
Most of the Cinemagic playlist comes from record labels, but Ziemer sometimes contacts composers directly to obtain scores that have not been commercially released, as he did with Tyler Bates to get music from "Dawn of the Dead."
Bates had never heard of the channel when he first spoke to Ziemer.
"When I checked it out, I thought it was really cool -- a format that would really show people that might not otherwise be exposed to film music what's going on behind the pictures," said Bates. "There aren't a series of composers grandstanding and talking about how great their work is on XM, so to have the chance to really hear that stuff and get the insight of a composer . . . you realize how music is affecting the picture."
"I think the idea is fabulous," Isham echoed. "It's pretty unique. Film scores don't have a tremendous outlet on the radio, so to have a platform that allows film music and excerpts air time helps to engage an audience into the whole art form of film."
Though they haven't tracked sales figures, the composers said the exposure on XM "definitely helps the fan base," as Isham puts it.
"I noticed hits to my website were increasing, and there were a number of people requesting copies of my stuff, saying they'd heard it on Cinemagic," Bates said.
Although exposure is the prime benefit, the composers are also paid a small royalty each time their music is played.
XM won't disclose the channel's listenership, but Ziemer says he gets "several e-mails a day from listeners saying they subscribe to XM because of Cinemagic, or that the channel was why they chose XM over Sirius."
He also gets requests. The scores from the "Star Wars" films and "Jaws" are among the most popular.
"I'll get a bunch of college students call in at 3 a.m., saying they want to hear something from 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' while cramming," Ziemer said with a laugh.
Ultimately, Ziemer said, he hopes Cinemagic helps listeners gain a larger appreciation for what he calls "the most visual form of music you can come across."
"Look at something like 'Jaws,' " said Ziemer. "That score is synonymous with anything with large teeth that swims in the water. I don't think people understand the power of music in movies. Our hope is that maybe by listening to the channel, they can begin to explore how much music really affects a motion picture. Without this music, movies couldn't be as successful as they are."