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Welcome to Heart Attack City

The Business of Composing for Coming Attractions John Beal

Five p.m. You get the call, "2 minutes of music, grab the audience -- help reinforce wall to wall expository dialogue, narration, ear-splitting sound effects and mind-numbing graphics. Make it sound just like someone elseís music but not plagiarized. Weíd like you to work for smaller and smaller budgets but make it sound bigger and bigger. Remember: Youíre working on the most important project in the history of the world, and if this movie doesnít open well, I - your client - may lose my job and Iím taking you down with me. Now go have fun . . . and have it on my desk by the morning."

This is the life of a composer on the anonymous thrill ride of writing for trailers. When asked to write this article, I was extremely flattered. How many people even knew I was in on the concept of regular original scoring of theatrical and television ads for film releases over twenty years ago? Thanks to my first job recommendation by Gary LeMel, itís been my thrill to work on campaigns for incredibly important films and fabulously famous flops. At times itís seemed like a life and death struggle between whatís appropriate for a film and what the test marketing done in shopping malls has decided. At other times, Iíve been given the opportunity to create from the heart. These are obviously the most pleasurable experiences and the responses have proven to me that an audience given the choice will nearly always respond better to something tailor-made and seamlessly integrated with the trailer than to the wallpaper approach of tracking. I compare the use of pre-existing scores to getting all dressed up in designer clothes for the Academy Awards, having that special hairdresser, spending all day with the cosmetic expert, wearing jewels from a special collection and arriving in a used car.

Here then, are some questions posed by new composers to the field. While answering for the most part in the first person, Iíve consulted with two of the other best known composers in this field, Randy Thornton and John Eric Alexander, to give a general overview of the process, the pleasures and the pitfalls of this area of composition.

Q   My agent says I should do trailers because itís a good way to build my demo reel.

A   Composing for trailers is as critical as composing for the film itself. When entrusted to contribute to the campaign of a $100 million dollar film, there is very little tolerance for the beginner. It is not a training ground. One of the common complaints of those I interviewed was that their clients were beginning to shy away from composers because theyíd recently been having bad experiences with composers not skilled in this specific area. It should be noted that even some of the most famous composers have written trailers for their own films, only to see them thrown out. The pacing and intent of marketing is very different from that of the film itself. This is not an area for the budding composer. It is not a place to practice for the "real thing." It IS the real thing. Bring all the skills and experience you possibly can to the table or you might be the meal.

Q   Who contacts you? Does your agent get you work?

A   Some of us have reps who make phone calls and do follow-ups for us, but this is not an area to which film and television agents can devote time, and our calls come most often directly from our clients. Our clients may be a trailer vendor [an advertising agency which specializes in trailers] or the studio marketing division itself. An agent is selling a different kind of artist to a different kind of client.

Q   Then how do they discover you?

A   CDís and DATís help. They also provide music for temping [weíll get to that]. Mostly, the work comes from referral by another satisfied client. That is, of course, the Catch-22 of this business. The first rule of employment in this town seems to be "I canít hire you until someone else has."

Q   How much time are you given to deliver, and how many changes?

A   The first part provided the widest ranging response, with some composers forced to work overnight and some getting up to two weeks to 'get it right' but getting hammered by their client in the process. The group was universal in responding that continual changes are required, right up to the dubbing mix, because marketing surveys keep coming in and the many corporate divisions all have legal and creative demands which cause continuous picture editing right up until deadline. This is not a lot different than doing a film, with the exception that there are so many picture elements to "hit" accurately and musically that most composers who work in this arena term it "Heart Attack City."

Q   What about demos?

A   We do not do free demos in the trailer business. It is important to not give away your product to people who are searching for ideas. You will, in most cases, be required to do full and complete mock-ups prior to proceeding. But that means you are working, and are entitled to payment. Your product has value, whether or not they end up using it.

Q   There are a lot of questions about bidding, pricing and budgeting, so here goes: Thereís no union for composers. How can you figure your personal charges?

A   No composer should charge less for their time than it would cost if they had an accident and were forced to have someone else come in and do the sequencing or orchestration, performance or conducting, and mixing and editing. These rates are published through the musicians union and give a good rule of thumb to keep you above "minimum wage" scales. Always advise your clients when you are working at "minimum wage" rates. Make it clear to your clients this does not pay your compositional fee, but you are at least covering REAL expenses. Donít forget to charge for rewrites after the initial delivery day. Again, use the unionís wage schedule as something concrete to show your client. Remember: Your clients pay their announcers to come back and re-record voiceovers, they pay their editors to re-edit and they pay their post houses to make changes. They also pay their lawyers to do re-writes to contracts. Donít submit bids on product you have not reviewed and discussed with a client. Anticipate disasters and build in contingencies. Donít sell yourself short. Donít kill off the industry by low-balling your competitor. Offer better service and better composition and better recording. Not cheaper pricing.

Q   Okay, so what are typical budgets for trailers?

A   There are many hours involved in hand holding and rewriting. This must always be taken into consideration. The consensus of opinions for full-length trailers is as follows:

  • $10,000 - $20,000 for sampled orchestras or samples plus a medium live group.
  • $20,000 - $40,000 for a live orchestra. Size of group varies if union or non-union

Q   What about television spots for film advertising?

A   Itís not the lucrative field that jingle writing is. Especially with the problems weíre having on the licensing and royalty issues, but the rates seem to work out like this:

  • $10,000-$20,000 for completed spots of 30-60 seconds for medium live group and samples.
  • $5,000 - $10,000 for completed spots of 30-60 seconds with samples.
  • $1,500 - $3,500 for inserts, bridges, beginnings or endings only, using samples.

Q   How often do you work entirely with a live orchestra vs. samples, vs. mixed?

A   Most of us - especially those who work within the union are forced to use a large amount of samples and sweeten with live orchestras. For television, itís almost always samples due to the time factor. Every now and then weíll find a client who understands the value of a real, live fire-breathing orchestra and lets us go at it. There are others who are fortunate enough to work in non-union "right-to-work states" or who record out of the country and can afford large orchestras all the time. Thatís an issue for a different type of column.

Q   What scale rate applies? Jingle or Film/TV?

A   The union has been graciously allowing us to use whichever is appropriate for the work involved. If youíre doing a session that can be completed in an hour, use the Jingle rates. But if youíre doing a complicated piece of one of those 2-3 minute cues based on temps of the ďgreatest action licks ever written by Goldsmith, Williams, Horner, Silvestri, Goldenthal and Elfman, youíd be wise to book a three hour film/tv session.

Q   Temp tracks and rewrites. Liabilities or Assets?

A   When you only have literally seconds to decide what youíre going to write and how youíre going to approach a score, the temp track can be a lifesaver. But, when the client comes back complaining you changed an oboe note under one of the explosions, you can be driven down the path to serious legal exposure as well as creative aggravation. Most studios include a paragraph in their contract where you declare you wrote an original composition, not derived from any other work, AND you agree to indemnify them if someone complains. Just TRY and get that removed from your agreement. Rewrites occur constantly. Usually because the market tests keep coming back suggesting that removal of two frames here or there will make the big difference. Sometimes itís because your client wants you to get closer to the temp track. This is dangerous.

Q   But what about the "eight-note rule?"

A   There is no eight-note rule effectively used in practice. Studios donít want to go to court or be deposed, so they settle out of court even when you are willing to bet your first born that your piece does not constitute plagiarism. I can show you scores where only ONE note was the same as the original, but the orchestration technique was identical and we were advised to use the following rule: If it would appear to be the same music to a jury of people who know nothing about music, and rarely listen to it, you could be held liable. You are allowed by law, however to imitate the style of another composer or artist. This has been documented in the NARAS Journal. It becomes a frighteningly gray area of decision making.

Q   Libraries are killing my business. What about licensing cues Iíve already written?

A   Letís face it. Our clients no longer have time to wait for a composer. More and more, theyíre reaching for the closest CD on their shelf and inserting the first piece of music that even loosely fits. It has become necessary for us to consider offering libraries of our work as a part of our income generation as composers.

Q   What kind of fees are being charged for existing scoring cues that are licensed?

A   There is a wonderful series of articles on license fees written by Jeff and Todd Brabec that appears on the ASCAP website home page called "ASCAP Licensing."

Q   What about royalties?

A   Ask the studio and youíll probably get the response: What about them? For years, many major and minor studios have required certificates of authorship or - what is preferred - a standard film composer agreement with royalty attachments. The problem is this: Most studios failed to register copyrights, register the works with performing rights organizations and failed to submit proper cue sheets. These cue sheets MUST include the first line spoken or sung in the cue, AND the ISCI code if itís used for broadcast. Some studios have a policy against filing this information, either because they are ignorant of the potential income generated, or because they donít feel itís worth the effort. It is strongly recommended that you have NO employee for hire contract with the studio, but license your cue to them to be attached for all advertising of that picture in perpetuity ONLY if they provide you with information regarding any and all usage. Publish your own work. File your own copyrights, your own registrations and your own cue sheets. Insist on a "product reel" at the end of a filmís marketing campaign, which includes all the trailers and television spots created. Take advantage of the new EZQ system from ASCAP that immediately notifies all PROs of your ownership and royalty share. Donít forget to include usage on the Internet. If you begin to develop a large catalogue, consider a joint publishing agreement for administration by a company that has the capability of monitoring your work around the world, and possibly even through sub-publishing agreements.

Q   My client insists they own the music, even though we have no contract. Theyíre even licensing my music out to other trailers.

A   This misconception is rampant throughout the industry. You are the sole owner of your material as the author unless, and until you sign away all rights to ownership of copyright. Even then, you are entitled to your writerís share of royalties, license fees and other monies collected by the new owner of music. Copyright your material. Register your material. Consult an entertainment attorney. Right away.

Consider the following language in the terms of your invoice: "All compositions and masters remain property of the composer in the absence of completed composer agreements, including royalty attachments, and the proper registration and logging of cue sheets with the composerís performance rights organization which include first line spoken and ISCI codes for all broadcast usage."

Q   Where is the trailer music business headed stylistically?

A   We go in cycles. Right now weíre back into what some call the "five year song cycle" where an incredible number of songs are being used to hype the movies. Of course our demographics are young, and less inclined to relate to orchestral music except for epic films, but as long as composers grow along with the record industryís new talents, weíll be able to provide scoring which reaches across demographics and serves the film campaign as well. Itís one of the fun parts of the industry to try and figure out how to make the style of Raekwon or the Chemical Brothers work as a scoring tool in the same trailer as one more knock off of an Enya tune, segueing into yet another Alien-style chase montage.

Q   Any last thoughts?

A   I am blessed to have had a steady career for two decades, and even more blessed to have the opportunity to work with and study the music of the greatest talents in the field of film scoring. I hope that the composers whose work I am hired to emulate will always understand my assignment and feel that I have treated their original inspiration with dignity and respect.

Q   Anything else?

A   While Iím not yet tired of trailers using the theme from "American President," "Dragonheart" or "Empire of the Sun," I refuse to knock off "Come See the Paradise" ever again.

Iíd like to thank Randy Thornton of Non-Stop Productions in Utah and John Alexander of JEA Music in New York for their gracious assistance with this article.

John Beal, President and Senior Composer of Reeltime Music Inc. started out as a drummer/arranger and conductor for musical acts such as Olivia Newton-John and Johnny Mathis, He has scored numerous films and episodic television shows. Specializing exclusively in composition for theatrical marketing for twenty years, Johnís trailer music has been heard by more moviegoers than most feature film composers and he is trusted by virtually every major director and studio to write original scores to help sell their films. His list of credits includes campaigns for such hit films as JFK, Hunt for Red October, True Lies, In The Line of Fire, Forrest Gump, Patriot Games, Aladdin, Mask of Zorro, Black Rain, Ghost, Being John Malkovich, The Matrix, and hundreds more. The success of films to which he has contributed marketing music is literally measured in billions of dollars. Website is

Randy Thornton, President and Co-founder of Non-Stop Productions with Bryan Hofheins, is an accomplished conductor, composer, producer, pianist and trombonist. In his 20 year career, the two-time Emmy-award winner [with Bryan] for ABC's "Up Close and Personal" at the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics and for production of ABC's Monday Night Football theme with Hank Williams Jr., has worked in virtually every aspect of the music industry from the symphony orchestra to film score production. Randy has provided music for many major campaigns for such films as Man In The Iron Mask, Face/Off, Air Force One, Antz, Armageddon, Home Alone 3, Event Horizon and Fifth Element. In addition to managing the day-to-day business of Non-Stop, Randy enjoys conducting orchestras or playing the keyboard on film and television movie scores recorded at Non-Stop's LA East studios.  Website is

John Eric Alexander, John Eric Alexander, President of John Eric Alexander Music, Inc., lives and works in the New York City area. Since 1986, this Clio Award-winning composer has scored marketing campaigns for over 200 films including Broken Arrow, Seven, Die Hard 1,2 & 3, Lethal Weapon 1,2,3 & 4, and Extreme Measures. Alexander has also placed music in recent campaigns for such films as The Green Mile, US Marshalls, Hard Rain, and Kiss the Girls. Mr. Alexander continues to score numerous themes and promos for CNBC, A&E Network, and The History Channel.  Website is

Only a few years ago, approximately 250 films were being released each year, most at least distributed by the major studios. Half of those had original scores for their trailer campaign. This year, as is apparent to us all, there has been a glut of films in the theaters. So many, in fact, that even the good movies get bumped to make room. This increase comes from the independent films, with low budgets and low marketing expenses. There were nearly 400 released this past year, while the majors dropped to somewhere around 150. Less than 20% of the films used original music scores for their campaigns. The studios and theater owners are rethinking their approach for next year. It will be an interesting process to observe.

The original practice was to involve a composer in the early stages, discuss what kind of music the client thought appropriate and show up at the scoring stage. Then demos became necessary, and easier, because of synths and samplers. Then temp tracks became a requirement, as the creative people were forced out of the studios and market analysts began the process of endless market research. Now, with the digital editing capabilities of devices like the AVID, trailer creators are often given "dailies" from a studio in the morning and told to have a trailer or tv spot ready by the end of day. This forces the use of existing track.

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