You, the director, have decided on the Composer you want to write the great timeless score to your great timeless film. And now the big question: How much will it cost?
There are no standard union rates for Composers as there are with editors, DPs, actors, set designers or just about anyone else. Somewhere I’ve seen a range of 5 to 10 percent of the overall budget(For a $250,000 film, this is $12,000 to $25,000). Of course, if this film requires a soundtrack of epic proportions with the London Symphonic Orchestra, this won’t even cover the orchestra salaries, let alone the recording sessions and Composer’s fee. Or if this film was made for $5000, this may not work. On most independent films, the budgets are barely enough to cover a Composer’s fee and live musicians (besides the Composer) are a luxury.
What usually happens is a combination of cash and a structure for back-end payments should the film actually make some money. This could be structured on a sliding (“step”) scale where as certain levels of success occur, the rates of payments change accordingly.
Your agreement should make clear whether the Composer is doing a “package deal,” where all costs for creating the soundtrack are covered by the Composer, or whether you are paying a fee for just Composing and then additional for musicians, recording, copyists, union fees, etc. Package deals are quite the norm in low budget films and television. On larger projects, the studio often has relationships and the clout to command better rates and access on recording studios, with orchestras, etc.
On major studio productions, the Composer will be hired on a “work for hire” basis which means the studio will own all of the work. Major studio budgets are usually pretty large and the marketing push given these films means Composers will do just fine on the money end. Composers still retain their writer’s share of their copyright, but the publishing portion is owned and controlled by the studio. Example: If John Williams wants to perform or record some of his classic movie scores, he needs to ask for permission from the studio who controls it.
On independent films, the Composer will usually retain all publishing and rights to release the music independently. This allows for an income stream to make up for lower fees.
The Film Music Network publishes an annual salary survey of Composers that makes for interesting reading. It provides general ranges based on interviews with working Composers. For more information also, check out the excellent Film Budgeting group on Yahoo.