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Hot spot for U.S. movie scores

Hollywood outsources work to a Bulgarian recording company.

May 06, 2008|Veselin Toshkov | Associated Press

SOFIA, Bulgaria -- Victor and Borislav Chouchkov were satisfied. Co-owners of a family recording company in Sofia, the brothers had completed -- in just 48 hours -- recording a score for a movie starring Ethan Hawke.

For the Chouchkovs, James DeMonaco's latest movie, "Staten Island," was just another in a string of successful projects.

As the U.S. film industry tries to cut costs, orchestras in Prague, Czech Republic; Budapest, Hungary; and Sofia are increasingly credited for Hollywood scores or those of French and Italian blockbusters. And Bulgaria, a Balkan country known for its skilled musicians and low labor costs, has become an attractive spot for outsourcing film scores.

The Chouchkov brothers were the first in Bulgaria to sense the potential. The company was set up in 1992, when Italian composer Enio Morricone came to Bulgaria to record music for the Italian TV series "La Piovra" (The Octopus).

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Family business

The company, called SIF309, was founded by the brothers' father, Bulgarian composer and pianist Victor Chouchkov. It is run now by the sons -- Victor Jr., 36, and Borislav, 32. Their mother, Elena, is in charge of the 70-member symphony orchestra.

But success required more than just a studio and an orchestra; it required an understanding of filmmaking that the Chouchkov brothers possess. Both studied at the Sofia film academy. Victor Jr. is a director; Borislav is an actor and producer.

That turned out to be a tough way to make a living.

"In the 1990s, Bulgaria's film industry was in dire straits," Victor Jr. said. "There was not enough money for filmmaking, and many colleagues looked for other opportunities to survive. That is how we dived into the music business."

"Now we do film scores for some 50 features and documentaries per year," he said. "We hold over 90% of the market in Bulgaria."

The company's timing was perfect. In the early 1990s, western filmmakers began shifting the recording of film scores to studios in Eastern Europe -- Prague, Budapest, Moscow, Belgrade, Bratislava, Sofia -- mostly for financial reasons.

"Compared to the United States or even Western Europe, our prices are five times lower," said Borislav Chouchkov.

The recordings are done in a studio at Bulgarian National Radio, which Borislav Chouchkov said is thought to be unique in the Balkans because of its acoustics and equipment.

"Most of the filmmakers are quite satisfied with the quality of performing and recording we have to offer," he said.

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Renowned orchestra

Borislav Chouchkov said his company's best asset was its orchestra, also called SIF309. Its original film scores include Armand Amar's music to "Days Of Glory"; the music of Bruno Coulais to "Les Choristes," a 2005 Oscar nominee in the music category; Andrea Guerra's music for "Hotel Rwanda" -- Golden Globe Award nominee for best original song in 2005; and Pino Donaggio's score for "Up at the Villa," directed by Philip Haas and starring Sean Penn.

Kyle Batter, a Los Angeles-based composer who edited the score last year for the TV miniseries "The Starter Wife," says the SIF309 orchestra produces "a phenomenal, full-bodied sound."

The composer, working now on the score for the New Line Cinema TV movie "Secret Society," said in a telephone interview that if another chance to record in Sofia came along, he would "absolutely" take it.

Borislav Chouchkov said the company did get one complaint, about five years ago -- from an Italian musicians union.

"They demanded that we adjust the prices to their level, which, we answered, was impossible due to the overall level of prices in our country," he said.

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