By Jeffrey Brabec and Todd Brabec
Whether the score is dramatic, soothing, romantic, comedic or foreboding, it is an integral part of the fabric of any motion picture.
Music in the movies is an essential element of the
filmmaking process and is one of the main factors that
helps to determine box office success or failure. Think
of a motion picture without music - whether it's an
orchestral or synthesizer score, a brand new hit song
or a long time standard - and you'll begin to realize
the value and contribution of music and lyrics to film.
And whether you're a producer, a director, an agent,
a composer, a songwriter, a studio executive, a music
supervisor, a business affairs executive, or anyone
involved in film, or who wants to get involved.
THE FILM BUSINESS
Most feature films are produced either by the major
Hollywood studios or by hundreds of U.S. and foreign
independent production companies. The independents range
from major companies just below the rank of the well-financed,
all-purpose studios, to medium and small continuing
companies, to firms that fold up their tents after just
...there are many
thousands of films produced each year worldwide
which do well, make money, and create income opportunities
for composers and songwriters...
Filmmaking costs have skyrocketed in recent years.
The average cost to produce, market and advertise a
film in today's industry is in excess of $75 million
versus a 1980 figure of $16 million. Out of necessity,
films are now financed in a variety of complex ways
including major studio backing, joint ventures, outside
private or public investors, limited partnerships and
pre-sales of ancillary and distribution rights, among
others. Regardless of how a film is financed, though,
all parties involved normally have a good idea of the
principal revenue-producing areas from which their investment
will be recouped and, they hope, a profit made. They
usually are also familiar with the various stages of
production which ultimately lead to the release of a
finished motion picture.
Though the stakes are high, the returns for a blockbuster
hit can be monumental. In 1976 only one film had generated
over $100 million in U.S. and Canadian box office receipts;
by 2000, close to 200 films had reached the $100 million
mark. Considering also that foreign markets can equal
or surpass the U.S. and Canadian gross (the film Titanic
grossed over $1.8 billion worldwide, with Star Wars:
Episode I-The Phantom Menace at $920 million), the
profit potential for a hit can be astronomical despite
the high cost of producing a film as well as the odds
against box office success. Blockbusters aside though,
there are many thousands of films produced each year
worldwide which do well, make money, and create income
opportunities for composers and songwriters, both in
the initial year of release and for many years afterward.
The initial market for any film is the exhibition in
U.S. and foreign motion picture theaters. Films are
then released as DVDs, video cassettes and laserdiscs
for purchase and rental, with subsequent sales to pay-per-view,
to pay cable services (HBO, Showtime, Disney, The Movie
Channel, etc.), to the television networks (ABC, CBS,
NBC, FOX, etc.), to local television stations or basic
non-pay cable services (USA Network, Lifetime, etc.)
and to foreign television and cable stations. Soundtrack
albums and singles are also often released with many
of them becoming major chart hits, in turn creating
additional income from such ancillary sources as U.S.
and foreign performance income from radio, television,
cable and theater performances, worldwide mechanical
royalties from tape and CD sales, download and streaming
royalties and commercial advertising fees, among many
TYPES OF MOTION PICTURE MUSIC
Motion picture music falls into three basic categories:
underscore (James Horner's score to Titanic,
John Williams' score to E.T.,or Randy Newman's
score to Toy Story 2); the pre-existing song
or song and original master recording (Bruce Springsteen's
"Hungry Heart" for The Perfect Storm,
Steve Miller's "Fly Like An Eagle" for Space
Jam, the Guess Who's "American Woman"
in American Beauty); and the song written specifically
for the film (Diane Warren's "I Don't Want To Miss
A Thing" for Armageddon, Phil Collins' "You'll
Be In My Heart" for Tarzan and Harold Arlen's
and E.Y. Harburg's "Over The Rainbow" for
The Wizard Of Oz.)
Each of these three distinct types of music in film
involve very different negotiations, contracts and considerations
and produce very different backend royalties once the
film is released.
THE PRE-EXISTING HIT SONG USED IN A FILM
Most successful motion
pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor,
establish a mood...
Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create
a period flavor, establish a mood, give an actor a chance
to sing, make people laugh, make people cry, elicit
emotions, and create interest in the movie through successful
soundtrack albums and hit singles. A film producer who
wants to use an existing song in a motion picture must
secure the permission of the music publisher to use
the composition in the film. Once an agreement is reached
as to a fee, the producer will sign what is known as
a synchronization or broad rights license, which will
give the studio the right to distribute the film theatrically,
sell it to television, use the song in motion picture
theater trailers or television and radio promos, and
sell videos. The synchronization fee received by the
music publisher is shared by contract with the songwriter.
Determining How Much To Charge For A Song.
When the call comes in from the music supervisor of
a motion picture, there are a number of factors that
must be considered in determining how much to charge
for the inclusion of a song in a film, including:
- How the song is used (i.e. vocal performance by
an actor on camera, instrumental background, vocal
- The overall budget for the film, as well as the
- The type of film (i.e. major studio, independent,
foreign, student, web)
- The stature of song being used (i.e. current hit,
new song, famous standard, rock n' roll classic)
- The duration of the use (i.e. one minute, four minutes,
10 seconds) and whether there are multiple uses of
- The term of the license (i.e. two years, 10 years,
life of copyright, perpetual)
- The territory of the license (i.e. the world, the
universe, specific foreign countries)
- Whether there is a guarantee that the song will
be used on the film's soundtrack album
- Whether the producer also wants to use the original
hit recording of a song, rather than re-recording
a new version for use in the film
- Whether the motion picture uses the song as its
musical theme as well as its title
Actual Fees Paid For Existing Songs.
are no hard and fast rules in this area as the fees
are negotiated in the context of each individual
The synchronization fees charged by music publishers
for major studio films are usually between $15,000 and
$60,000 (with the majority ranging from $20,000 to $45,000)
but can be lower if the music budget is small or higher
if the song is used several times in the motion picture,
if the use is under the opening or closing credits,
if the song is a major hit, or if it is vital to the
plot or particular scene of the motion picture. There
are no hard and fast rules in this area as the fees
are negotiated in the context of each individual film;
the same song may be licensed at very different rates
for different projects (i.e. major studio release, independent
film, foreign film, film festival license only, web
production, or student film).
It should also be mentioned that record companies normally
charge between $15,000 and $70,000 for the use of existing
master recordings in a major studio film but, depending
on the stature of the artist, the length of the use,
the music budget and how the recording is being used,
these fees can be greater or less.
Opening And Closing Credits.
Because the songs used over the opening credits of
a motion picture many times reflect the theme or ambiance
of the film, they are many times more important to the
film than other songs used for background. The same
is often true for use of a song over the end credits,
although it is becoming more common for many songs to
be run during the closing credits in order to complete
the requirements for a soundtrack album. The fees charged
by publishers are almost always higher than other uses
of music in a film and usually range from between $30,000
to $65,000 for synchronization and video rights, but
each negotiation and final price depends upon many of
the factors mentioned earlier (i.e. budget of the film,
music budget, importance of the song, whether there
are replacement songs available, etc.). If the title
of one of these opening credit songs is also used as
the title of the film (but the film's plot is not based
on the story line of the song) the fees are increased
further (i.e. from $75,000 to over $500,000).
Trailers and Advertisements.
As previously indicated, the synchronization license
usually grants the producer the right to use all music
in the film in theatrical trailers (previews of upcoming
films which are shown in movie theaters) as well as
in television and radio promos. An extra fee is charged
for promos which use the song out of context (i.e. when
the song is used throughout the entire commercial over
many scenes, as opposed to just in the scene in which
it actually occurs).
On occasion, producers of documentaries, lower budget
films or films which have substantially exceeded their
production budgets at the time music is being selected
will ask a publisher to reduce its up-front synch fee
for a song and, in return, guarantee an additional payment
or payments at some time in the future if the motion
picture turns a profit or exceeds certain agreed-upon
gross or net dollar plateaus.
publishers recognize the importance of assisting
young filmmakers, since they are an integral part
of the future of the entertainment industry.
Because student-produced films have limited chances
for commercial success and small budgets, many music
publishers will license their songs for substantially
reduced fees. In such cases, most publishers recognize
the importance of assisting young filmmakers, since
they are an integral part of the future of the entertainment
industry. Songs will sometimes be given to these young
producers via a limited license for free or for a nominal
cost so that their projects will be realized and their
careers advanced. Most publishers, however, will provide
that if the project has any type of commercial success
or secures more than just film festival or art house
distribution, an additional fee or fees will be paid;
a proviso which not only helps young producers get their
projects off the ground but also ensures adequate compensation
to the publisher and songwriter for their generosity
if the film realizes national distribution or achieves
some kind of financial success.
Multiple Uses Of A Song.
If a producer uses a song more than once in a motion
picture (i.e. over the opening credits and in two scenes
of the film), the fees charged by music publishers will
be higher than if the song is only used once. The importance
of the song to the plot development or movement of the
film (i.e. if it becomes a signature song for an important
character) can also be a factor that raises the price.
Occasionally a film producer will request permission
for a lyric change in a song which will either be re-recorded
for the film or sung by one of the characters in the
motion picture. When such a request is received, a music
publisher should ask for a copy of the new lyrics, a
plot summary of the film, and a scene description including
script pages so that it knows exactly how the song will
be used before making a decision. A publisher may have
certain restrictions in its agreement with the songwriter
(i.e. all changes in the English lyrics to a composition
must be with the approval of the writer), that require
additional consents from the songwriter or his or her
Duration Of License.
The term of the license is virtually always for the
entire copyright life of the song unless the film is
a documentary or other noncommercial film intended for
only limited theatrical release.
Rights Granted To The Film Producer.
The motion picture synchronization fee paid to the
music publisher (which is shared with the songwriter)
for the use of a song includes the right to distribute
the film to network, local, syndicated, pay-per-view,
pay, satellite, cable and subscription television stations;
the right to show the film in motion picture theaters
in the United States; and the right to include the song
in trailers, previews and advertisements of the motion
Foreign theatrical distribution rights (i.e. the right
to show a film in motion picture theaters outside the
United States) are also given to the producer, but such
rights are subject to the payment of performance fees
by theaters to the various performance rights organizations
in countries outside the United States.
The territory of the license is normally the universe
or world but, in the case of certain television miniseries,
made-for-TV movies, and weekly series that are broadcast
on television in the United States and shown as a feature
in foreign theaters, the territory may be for the universe
or world excluding the United States.
"film festival" license may give the producer
the right within 18 months after the initial showing
of the film to extend the territory and the duration
of the license for an additional fee..
Limited Theatrical Distribution.
Depending on the nature of the film (normally in the
case of documentaries or art films which do not have
mass market appeal), the license may be for a limited
duration and apply to the distribution of a film on
a limited theater engagement or "film festival"
basis. Fees for this type of license are less than those
charged for commercial theatrical features with wide
distribution. In many cases, the producer will also
have the option to theatrically distribute the film
on a broader basis for an additional fee and put it
on home video for another prenegotiated fee - important
rights if a film is well received or receives an award
from an important film festival competition and goes
into national distribution. For example, a "film
festival" license may give the producer the right
within 18 months after the initial showing of the film
to extend the territory and the duration of the license
for an additional fee.
New Multimedia Uses.
The grant of rights clauses with respect to new media
are somewhat negotiable, with some film companies providing
for a good-faith negotiation provision as to "not
currently in existence new technologies" or "new
technologies not currently widely available;" other
companies being amenable to an increased fee for the
addition of new technology uses; some companies adding
a set, non-negotiated dollar amount to the license fee,
which will cover new technology uses; and still other
companies negotiating the inclusion or non-inclusion
of such language and the corresponding fees on a case-by-case
Soundtrack Album Guarantees.
On occasion, a music publisher will reduce the motion
picture synchronization fee for a song if the producer
guarantees that the song will be on a soundtrack album
released by a major label. Sometimes there are even
guarantees of an "A" side single release,
but these usually occur only when a successful recording
artist on a major label records the song for the film.
In this case, the publisher may give two price quotes;
a higher figure if the song does not make the soundtrack
album or if an album is not released and, because of
the possibility of additional ancillary album income,
a lower quote if the soundtrack provision actually takes
effect. For example, if a publisher gives a $25,000
quote for the use of a song in a film, it also might
agree to reduce the price to $22,000 if there is a guarantee
of a nationally distributed soundtrack album and may
even further reduce the fee if the song becomes an "A"
side single from the album.
Two reveals what you need to know about getting
your songs into movies and making the right deal. There
is nothing worse than to see a film open to rave reviews
with a hit soundtrack and an Oscar nomination and know
that your song could have been in it... but wasn't...
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
FAQ: How To Acquire Music For Film | ASCAP Film & TV
© 2007 Todd Brabec, Jeff Brabec
For more information, check out the book Music, Money and Success: The Insider's Guide To Making Money In The Music Business (Schirmer Trade Books/Music Sales/502 pages) available for sale at Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Music Sales Group and www.musicandmoney.com.