6 Questions Composers Need to Ask Before Scoring a Film

Published December 15, 2017 by Eric O'Connell

Preliminary Questions from Composer to Filmmaker

As a composer I rejoice with you and the excitement of landing your first scoring gig. It’s a rush because you’ve crossed that fine line from “wishful-thinking starving-artist” to professional musician. It’s surely something to celebrate.

But before you go diving into just any project consider a discussion with the parents of your potential film-to-compose. I believe the following questions are the most important questions any serious composer should ask before scheduling a spotting session with a filmmaker.

Have you used a composer on past projects?

If the answer is no, great! You’re both popping your metaphorical cherry in filmmaking magic. If the answer is yes, however, this question needs to be immediately followed up by asking why the filmmaker is not using that composer again for this project. Sometimes filmmakers are simply disappointed by a composer’s quality or workmanship and suffer from buyer’s remorse. After all, not everyone who claims to be a film composer can score a film both powerfully and effectively.

However, some composers refuse to work with specific producers for various reasons: lack of chemistry, low-ball music budgets, disrespectful treatment, lack of organization/vision, etc. If you have any inkling in your gut that hints a filmmaker is simply out to use you for your talents, move on. I don’t care how big the budget, if you’re disrespected no amount of money is worth the headache. You’ll thank yourself, and then you’ll thank me.  

How soon do you need the final master music tracks for your project?

Because deadlines are so important, you must clarify exact deadlines for when the drafts and final compositions must be delivered. Filmmakers have spent a lot of time organizing their film’s timeline. They don’t need you throwing a monkey wrench in the process. Consider whether you’ll have enough time to gather ideas, outline drafts, record demos, re-record, edit, produce, polish, etc.

Sometimes meticulous filmmakers will ask for revisions or new music all together. You must accommodate for these requirements (based on the composer agreement) and prepare for any of life’s unforeseen circumstances. Make sure you have plenty of time to follow through on your agreements. The last thing you want is for a filmmaker to move on to the next composer because you were unable to deliver on time. When a filmmaker knows he or she can depend on you they will remember that the next time they need music. This industry is all about building solid relationships.

What is your music budget?

Ensure you’re on the same page by discussing compensation for your music. From time to time it’s perfectly fine to license a song as a gift especially if the movie is geared toward promoting a good cause or charity. But your music and talent are valuable and should be compensated fairly. You’d never ask someone to come over and wash your dishes or do your gardening for free, so why should your talents as a film scorer be treated any differently?

What kind of distribution channels are you utilizing for your film?

Find out if the film will primarily be shown at film festivals or if the film will be available at retailer outlets and streaming sites online. This is an important question for newer composers who are building their reputation in the industry. When starting out, since you’re probably not receiving the compensation you feel you deserve, at least determine if your underpriced contribution will get the exposure it warrants.

Will you sign an NDA before I send uncopyrighted demo music files?

Any reasonable filmmaker will have no problem whatsoever signing an NDA before you send uncopyrighted music files. The savvy filmmaker understands that the days of agreeing on a handshake are long gone. As a composer you must be weary of the lone leach who’s out to steal your intellectual property. Reasonable business professionals will never have a problem signing a non-disclosure agreement just as you should have no problem with signing their NDA before receiving a script. If you actually come across someone who is unwilling to sign an NDA let that be a sign that their offer is too good to be true. An NDA can save you tons of hassles and headaches down the road.

What list of emotions are you targeting to convey to your audience?

This is more a question that should be asked in a spotting session. But if your style or genre doesn’t match the goals of the film a spotting session will be a waste of your precious time. Music serves little to no purpose other than to convey aesthetic appeal in connecting with an audience through emotions. To deliver a suitable product you must know the goals and direction of the filmmaker. If the movie falls under the Romance genre, for instance, it will likely require light-hearted tones, some drama, and maybe heavier pieces during turning points.

Sure, some composers shock filmmakers by providing outlandish personal interpretations that can work. But look for a specific emotion (or better yet two or more emotions) for each specific piece. This will help you narrow the focus and hit the target spot on. It’s one thing to write a suspenseful piece for a serial killer motif. It’s quite another thing to write a suspenseful piece about a bad character who wants to purify his ways.

There you have it. Now you’re ready to book a spotting session which I’ll outline in a separate post. Just remember you can only honor the filmmaker’s laser-clear vision through mutual understanding. The more details you can scrounge up the less miscommunication you will have down the road.

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Until next time, Happy Composing!… Love and Blessings!