As the content universe expands at a rapid clip, music has never been more appreciated as an essential aspect of visual storytelling. That’s the 30,000-foot view of the film and TV music marketplace from dozens of industry insiders, tunesmiths and top players who are taking part in Variety’s annual virtual Music for Screens Summit. The three-day event examined how the global content boom has enlivened the work of composers, music supervisors, songwriters and artists.
Veteran creators and curators say respect for what scores and soundtracks add to storytelling has increased because there’s never been more collaboration among composers and music supervisors with directors, producers, actors and other key talents. This feeling was reflected in several of the summit talks, including keynote conversations from Bono, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Jennifer Hudson and Variety’s composer of the year Hans Zimmer.
Below we’ve highlighted our ten biggest takeaways from the week of music-making discussion and panels, check out the full video discussions below.
Bryce Dessner Originally Rejected the Idea of Making a Musical for ‘Cyrano’
Bryce Dessner is a widely accomplished musician known for both his film scores (“The Two Popes,” “The Revenant”) and his work with indie rock band The National, but working on “Cyrano” was still far outside of his comfort zone.
“Erica [Schmidt, ‘Cyrano’ screenwriter] approached [The National] and says, ‘Would you ever consider writing songs for a musical?’ And we all thought, ‘No!’” Desnner revealed on the Music for Screens panel. “We were in the middle of a tour, and we write albums for our band, and we’ve done crazy projects, but it wasn’t the first thing we were thinking about doing. But the more she talked to us about it, the more convinced we were.”
One of the most daunting aspects of the project was adapting “Cyrano de Bergerac’s” iconic balcony scene into a song.
“[Schmidt] mentioned the balcony scene, and I was like, ‘The balcony scene as a song?’ It was so bold to think we could do that. But it was actually one of the first songs we wrote. It’s a song called “Overcome,” and it was a great experience. Aaron [Dessner] and I wrote the music but Carin [Besser] and Matt [Berninger] wrote the lyrics, and when we heard what they did with it, it was immediately clear this was gonna work. After 20 years of writing songs together, we’d never really written songs in the service of another narrative.”
Anderson .Paak Dreamed Up ‘Shang-Chi’s’ Epic ‘Fire in the Sky’ With Nothing But A ‘Vague Description’ Of The Plot
Anderson .Paak was highly desired as a contributor to the soundtrack of Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” — but he was still told very little about the film before he started working on it. But based on what he calls a “vague description” of the plot alone, he spent hours in the studio and ended up with “Fire in the Sky,” the jazzy track that ultimately ended up on the album.
“My buddy Dumbfoundead was working with 88rising and they were really adamant about getting me on the soundtrack,” Paak says. And I talked to Awkwafina about it [while] she was shooting the film. She was like, ‘You gotta get on this, please!’ So I sat down with 88 and they told me a little bit about the film. They couldn’t play me anything. I really wanted to see it, but they were real tight about it. But they said, ‘If we can just get a [recording] session, you can just make anything that feels good, and we’ll see where it goes from there.’ So they, they locked me in with Rogét [Chahayed] and two other producers, Taylor [Dexter] and Wes [Singerman] — Rogét actually is up for a Grammy for producer of the year — and we got in the studio and we were in there until five in the morning.”
“We made about four jams, and the last jam we did was ‘Fire in the Sky.’ It was as we were leaving. I was like, ‘Let’s just make one more.’ It started off as a joke, we were making this ballad with no drums and we were kind of delirious, but in that song was the makings of ‘Fire in the Sky,’ the beginning pieces of it. And the next day, we were like, ‘This is kinda sick!’”
Why M. Night Shyamalan Refused To Use Temp Scores On ‘Old’
In his own strict fashion, director M. Night Shyamalan refrains from working with temporary scores. Instead, he elects composers like Trevor Gureckis to come up with music inspired by the screenplay of the film.
“I always try to use my composer and partner in the healthiest way, not to solve my problems, but in a mutual movement where then you put the music on, and it brought all these beautiful colors out,” explains Shyamalan, speaking to his most recent film “Old.” “It’s a very pure process between me and the composer.”
Songwriter and performer Saleka Night Shyamalan was enlisted to write the song “Remain” for the film with only the script to work with as well. Without having seen the film, the songwriter sought to capture the essences of family and collaboration she read in the script, as well as hone in on the emotions of the characters.
“What is this person feeling in this moment, and what is their perspective? Are we connected to it or not? It’s my job to figure out the puzzle pieces of that,” says Saleka. “I would say the lyrics I was very deliberate about because I wanted it to reflect the relationships and not be too on the nose… But really, it felt so natural to write based off of a script because I was so excited and inspired by it.”
The Cast of ‘Girls5eva’ Passes On Their Industry Insight
The cast of ‘Girls5Eva’ all sat together and got into their favorite songs and rehearsal moments from Season 1 of the Peacock show.
“I remember our first, when we sat around the piano and we had like a proper music session,” recalled Sara Bareilles. “I just found those voice memos, and I think it’s hilarious. I was very serious about the music and reading the notes.”
“Girls5Eva” comically chronicles the members of a 1990s girl group as they’re brought together in present day after being sampled by a young rapper, giving them one more shot at success. Along the themes of the show, the cast also shared their own lessons learned as they’ve navigated the entertainment industry themselves.
“When you’re in this industry, it’s not that you’re going to make it, but you will be around people that do. You will get to study it,” commented Renée Elise Goldsberry. “I’ve been around people who have had tremendous success. I’ve been around amazingly talented people who have not, in and out of it. And this is a great home for that information, this show in general.”
“I think for young artists in particular, it’s really scary to lean on the fact that your authentic and individual perspective is your superpower,” added Bareilles. “So the more willing you can be to be honest and forthcoming about what’s really going on for you, I think it feels like the scariest and most vulnerable thing to do. But it’s the most connective. It’s like the most resonant thing you can put into the world.”
The Importance of Archiving Music
With the increasing demand for archival assets in the entertainment industry comes a necessity for increasing accessibility, transferability and search ability of this media. Also given the growing demand, there’s been a resurgence of artists who want to preserve their collections. Which is exactly what was discussed on Variety’s “How Archiving is Fueling The Music Streaming Engine Featuring The Grammy Museum and Iron Mountain Entertainment Services” Music for Screens panel.
“We deal with artists on a daily basis,” says Nicholas Vega, curator and director of exhibitions at the Grammy Museum. “When I have straightforward conversations with them to ask them about their archives in their collection, they’re just blown away. I’m so glad there’s this interest to not only preserve [their collections] for the sake of storing it for longevity, but being able to partner with the Grammy museum or partner with other institutions to tell their stories and share that with the public or put it on their social platforms or roll that content into their live concert performance.”
No matter how young or early an artist may be, archiving their work and storing it now may be crucial to preserving and cataloging their career as a whole, as the access to and demand for archival materials increases.
“If there’s any young artists out there, it feels very disingenuous or you don’t feel particularly humble to start thinking about your archive when you’re a new artist,” says Lance Podell, senior vice president and general manager of Iron Mountain Entertainment Services. “But if you are capturing it and storing all of it now, one day when you are a mega star, you’re going to be glad you did it…because all of this material that Nick and I are talking about is what we’re going to want from you…It’s the same way you decided to become an artist. Believe in yourself, believe you’ll matter in the future too.”
FYC Film Composer Roundtable Gathers Together Big Names
The FYC Composer Roundtable featured Jeymes Samuel (“The Harder They Fall”), Daniel Pemberton (“Being the Ricardos”), Carter Burwell (“The Tragedy of Macbeth”), Nicholas Britell (“Don’t Look Up”) and Kathryn Bostic (“Who We Are: A Chronicle of Racism in America”).
Aside from sharing their processes and scoring, the composers talked about the organic fusion of film and music. “It’s all about the storytelling and the thread and connecting things,” Brittell explains. “We know the things we’re doing. If I’m doing this here, what am I going to do over there? Maybe this will be something that will plant a seed that grows into something later in the film.”
Samuels who made his directorial debut with “The Harder They Fall” also worked on the film’s music. He praised his fellow composers for their work and hoped film scores would be celebrated again. Samuels says, “I want to do things where we celebrate scores again. When kids and adults watch our films and they leave, they know the melodies.”
The Music Video Resurgence
According to Jamee Ranta, executive producer at Boy in the Castle, the marketing of a music video is about artistry and social relevance just as much as it is about money.
“I think that great marketing is not just about increasing sales. Obviously, that’s a very important part of it, but I also think it’s about creating ideas that form culture,” she says. “A lot of times what myself and the directors that I work with do is a lot of research on current events and current trends and things like that. I’m looking at it from a creative perspective, not just from the marketing side of things. So I’m like, ‘What are the kids doing? What’s trending? What are some current events that are really important to society right now, in terms of technology or politics or environment? And how can we subtly and creatively incorporate those things? And it also depends on what the artist represents and what aligns with them.”
“A lot of times we’re very, very particular with how we create and present things, or a certain color or tone or texture, or why a certain scene is a certain mood, or why there’s a certain element added to it,” she added. “And we hope that those subtleties will be picked up.”
How To Make the Audience Believe Someone In Leather And Spandex Can Fly, With Music
Superheroes may dominate the industry, but they’d be nowhere if they saved the day in silence.
“Musically, we’re called to make it believable that, you know, a person dressed in leather and latex can actually fly,” says composer Sherri Chung (“Kung Fu,” “Batwoman”) during the Power of Music in Superhero Storytelling panel, presenteed by BMI, “Because without [the music], it seems a little silly.”
Crafting scores for costumed crime fighters also allows for composers and music supervisors to stretch beyond the regular boundaries of their profession.
“You have a lot more room to be over the top and exaggerated,” says Chung, who was joined by Madonna Wade-Reed, music supervisor, “Batwoman”; Lolita Ritmanis, composer of “Young Justice: Phantoms” and “Batman: The Killing Joke”; Sean Miyashiro, founder and CEO of 88rising, and a music producer and writer for “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”; and Christophe Beck, composer, “Ant-Man and the Wasp,” “WandaVision.”
Marvel Studios, of course, is the biggest player in the superhero space, and composing scores for its projects is as vigorously collaborative as any other discipline.
Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige “is such a student of film music,” Beck says. “So though the notes sometimes come in at very unpredictable times, they always make sense.”
While the genre has been dominated by white men for decades, women and people of color have become more central in the past five years, and the music for their stories have followed suit.
“I had for many years taken personal offense to women stories being told with male vocals,” says Wade-Reed, who aims to use Black, women and LGBTQ recording artists for “Batwoman” since it’s about a Black lesbian. “If there’s a woman on screen kicking ass and taking names, my first choice, if possible, is to have a woman do it with her.”
The Importance of Weaving the Trumpet Player Through ‘Passing’
Given the choice, composer Devonté Hynes prefers to write movie scores that don’t have a lot of music in them.
“For me, the best scores that I’ve worked on are when the director thinks about music,” Hynes says. “They actually know about sound, and it’s a part of the thing they created. You’d be surprised how that’s not always the case.”
Hynes spoke of his latest screen collaboration, working with Rebecca Hall, writer, director and producer of the period drama “Passing.” Hall’s debut feature is based on the Harlem Renaissance novel by Nella Larsen that follows a Black woman who reunites with a childhood friend who’s passing as white in 1920s New York.
Against the aural backdrop of the Jazz Age, the music that accompanies of the Netflix feature redefines the bustle of Harlem. Hall injects a young trumpet player into the background, throughout the film he is trying to find his voice, increasingly becoming more soulful. His beats are woven into a near duet with the classic number, “The Homeless Wanderer” by Ethiopian nun and pianist Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou.
“Passing” is packed with narrative complexities and subtleties designed to challenge the viewer, cinematically and musically. “The film does ask for a little bit of work of people,” says Hall. “I don’t think I realized that until I was sitting in a room with people, and could feel the tension, releases of laughter and see them picking up on the tiny details of the sound design.”
Hynes adds that a scene with the character Irene, played magnificently by Tessa Thompson, lying in bed with a migraine, was the moment he found the connection between his artistry and Hall’s singular vision. “There’s something that feels lost, even confined, and that’s what I hear and see in the film,” he says.
The Women Of Netflix
It takes a small army of music executives to steer the soundtracks for the streaming platform that serves up original content at a volume that has rocked the industry.
Top members of Netflix’s music platoon joined Shirley Halperin, Variety’s executive editor of music, to discuss their work and the unprecedented demand to deliver each year. The powerhouse, entirely female team that shapes the aural accompaniment that adds so much to the original content at Netflix is: Amy Dunning, vice president, music creative production; Carolyn Javier, vice president, business & legal affairs, music; Alexandra Patsavas, director, music creative production; Amanda Butler, director, music business development; Sunny Park, director, music creative production; and Colleen Fitzpatrick, manager, music creative production (series).
These executives, who come from varied career backgrounds, explain their roles, how they collaborate with each other and with the creative vision of the showrunners, filmmakers, producers and directors to showcase and emphasize the music at Netflix. They talk about how they guide the studio through the process of making the best music possible for its properties.
There’s no doubt that the preponderance of female energy among the executive team makes a difference.
“I’m starting to see a lot more women get into leadership roles,” Butler says.
Netflix’s “The Harder They Fall,” from director Jeymes Samuel, and series “Bridgerton” are explored as examples of Netflix’s unique approach and use of music. The former with Samuel serving as writer, director, producer and composer, the latter with its highly inventive interpretations of pop songs through a string quartet. The results are soundtracks that work well as stand-alone albums, as much as they enhance the visual for the properties.
“It’s a very collaborative process,” Dunning says. “A lot of the time you’ll have a situation where perhaps a composer is also writing songs or there’s an executive music producer who’s producing songs and potentially writing songs, so it gets quite complex.”
Panelists also speak to the partnerships they have with record labels, such as Roc Nation for “The Harder They Fall,” and the mutually beneficial outcomes for both Netflix and artists when a particularly well-placed sync results in discovery for an artist, or amplifies a particular song.
Netflix has been able to push the creative envelope further and lean into trends such as commissioning EDM remixes for the breakout tune “Pink Soldiers” from the “Squid Game” soundtrack.
The streaming giant emphasizes the importance of a musical identity for its originals. Panelists illustrated this point using “Queen’s Gambit” and “Lucifer,” which stood out with viewers in part because they had such distinctive soundtracks.
Moreover, the popularity of music documentaries such as “Homecoming: A Film by Beyoncé” and Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana” is explored during the discussion. Related to this are Netflix’s music-focused titles, such as “Julie and the Phantoms,” the fantasy comedy about an aging pop star who forms a band with the ghosts of three 1990s rockers; “Sex/Life,” where one of the characters is a record label owner; and “Tick, Tick … Boom!” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of the musical penned by Jonathan Larson of “Rent” fame.
The sheer diversity of Netflix’s titles and its broad slate overall allows for diversity in its hiring. The music chiefs discuss the advantages of being able to draw on a wide range of musical talent and genres.
Also discussed is Netflix’s international scope in terms of content, hiring of localized personnel, regional production hubs and a global talent pool, particularly two of the platform’s popular titles, “Squid Game” and “Baahubali.”