g The Film Panel Notetaker: Music in Documentaries

Friday, March 30, 2007

Music in Documentaries

3/29/07 Music in Documentaries
Covered creative decision-making and practical issues with finding music.

Ron Sadoff
(Moderator) is Director of the Film Scoring Program at NYU’s Steinhardt school.

Andy Teirste (Composer) magical, ingenious, superbly crafted work inspired by the rich and diverse folk roots of modern culture.

Alison Ellwood (Filmmaker)is a documentary director, producer and editor (Enron, The Smartest Guys in the Room).

Amanda Pollak (Filmmaker) has been producing and researching documentaries for Public Television since 1992 (PBS’ American Experience).

Christine Kozler has music clearance and licensing company LALA License servicing music licensing for film, TV, advertising and new media.

Conducted by the NYWIFT and co-sponsored by NYU Dept. of Journalism

Two main themes in the music in documentaries discussion was how music is an all-out collaboration and ultimately the cohesion for a film. I personally never assumed you could acquire music or get a score written just to then wash your hands of how it plays into your film, but each panelist had a film-music story that was relevant to the discussion.

I loved the set up of the event, which begun with watching relevant scenes and then discussing how the music came about logistically and creatively. Sometimes with copyright considerations and time and budget constraints, the score or soundtrack can be compromised.

At first, I felt a little lost for who was who on the panel. There were not tent cards identifying anyone and the moderator did not point out for whom he was reading the bio—and then just read the bio from off the page handed to us. Whatever comprehension issues I may have, I can read so that was a bit uninteresting. But what he did do really well was critique the music in the scenes technically and then define exactly how it served the scene—be it instrumentations, rhythms, or styles.

Andy Teirst had an enormous amount of experience and mature thoughts on the compositions in documentaries. He said that the subject of a documentary comes with its own culture, history and music— how much of this do one access for a particular sotry? How can the music be the connecting tissue? The tempo of the music helps serve as a rhythm for the edit. The clips he brought demonstrated this beautifully.

Amanda Pollack’s latest film was for PBS’ American Experience on the history of New Orleans music. They shared a scene about Tennessee Williams, where they had Irvin Mayfield improv trumpet as it played out. It was really awesome. For the other scenes, they were able to do this in addition to pulling from archival music that was brought to them.

Alison Elwood said it is tough to get attached to music emotionally, and then have to let it go for copyright reasons. But sometimes you lay it in just to communicate what you’re looking for. Her clip was a trailer for her next project, Plane Trap. The selection was eclectic and was clearly used just as placeholders, but that spawned a quick exercise of what sound a composer could pick out as the through thread and create the score from that.

Christine Kozler had an interesting perspective. She cited the famous Mad Hot Ballroom scene where the Rocky-themed ring tone interjected a scene perfectly, but then was hellacious to clear. Kozler was licensing music for EMI at the time. It was a turning point in her wanting to be on the licensing side along with the producer for Mad Hot Ballroom who was so persistent and annoying they just wanted to work it out so she would go away. I related to her a bit since I was an office manager at a boutique licensing company.

She went over a few terms we all should know about music licensing:

MFN (Most Favored Nations): a business practice than can affect all the terms of a license. It means that you cannot treat the owner or licensor of content less well than any other owner or licensor of content used in a similar manner.

Publishing: The copyright on the melody and lyrics.

Master: The recording of the song.

If you have the recording rights to a song, you also need publishing rights. Just because your friends do a cover of Thriller doesn’t mean you can use it; you still need the publishing rights cleared. Speaking of Michael Jackson, if you’re at all familiar with the brouhaha between him and Paul McCartney, it’s the fact that Michael got the publishing rights to Beatles music. It proved to be a good investment for him since selling off those rights for commercials are probably what’s paying the bills.

Anyway, Kozler pointed out that often, artists you approach for their already-recorded music don’t necessarily want their message mixed in with whatever message your documentary has in it.

There was a mention that PBS generally doesn’t have to heavily license music unless it goes to DVD, but I would confirm that.

Generally when clearing music for your documentary, it’s not too much to ask for 1 year worldwide festival rights. Then you’re in a chicken/egg situation if faced with HBO or theatre distribution. How does a musical artist commit to an agreement when many documentaries don’t have up-front deals? There’s no one way to really figure this out ahead of time.

Also, it’s high maintenance to need rights and licensing to music in your film because it’s an administrative mess for any distributor as it has to be tracked for years. It’s not even about the cost of the licensing but the nightmare to keep records of.

In the Q&A, I found an interesting moment of defining fair use. It is not fair use if you’re putting a piece of music in the documentary for theatrical release where people pay—it’s just NOT FAIR USE. In the Rocky-song example, commentary wasn’t on the song itself. It was enhancing the work and just can’t and won’t be viewed as fair use.

Music is costly to license and composing over music in the background of a pertinent scene is a nightmare. Ideally, public domain is the way to go. Composers, get your BMI/ASCAP rep to be your champion especially for international negotiations.



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