Both as a function of history and of image, people think of the film industry as a massive cash-spewing mothership that makes people instantly rich and has endless amounts of resources. While most filmmakers in the digital age are not that, and most documentary filmmakers were never that, there are those who seem to see an easy mark when a filmmaker comes along looking to use music, images or other copyright material. Be it for use in film festivals or for a small projects that are labors of love, the cost of rights is significant.
On my first film I went asking for use of a single photograph that had appeared in The Boston Globe. I got on the phone with a rights-office functionary, who quoted from a price list that had no relationship to the photo’s proposed use. The Globe wanted $300 for a festival license, and somewhere in the $5,000 range if I distributed the film. For one photo. Needless to say, I chose not to use the photo – it just wasn’t that good. And I also suspect that the Globe, mired as it is these days in financial desperation and layoffs, missed an opportunity to make money from me. I’m likely the only person who ever did, and ever will, come looking for that picture. Their earnings on it, I presume, remain at zero.
Music is a bit different, except perhaps for the way that the price tag rises when someone says “film.” While ASCAP has guidelines for licensing music that speak of “step deals” and other ways of figuring out the right price for the right project, and workshops such as this one tonight in Maryland abound, there’s no absolutes except the one shared by musicians and filmmakers: That we’re all dealing in creative property that is the result of work and talent, and stealing it is no less immoral than walking out of the supermarket with a ham under one’s shirt.
Most filmmakers go looking to make their own deals for rights, others use lawyers, and others go to a growing numbers of rights-negotiators such as The Rights Workshop.
Annie Lin, the director of licensing at The Rights Workshop, looks to bridge the gap.
Lin, trained in law at the University of Houston Law Center, is a former musician who makes it a business to help filmmakers get the music they need for their projects.
“We’re a music-rights clearinghouse. We specialize in film, especially documentary film. We provide a couple of services: We clear music that a filmmaker already knows they want to have or needs to have in the film, whether for onscreen or for context. We have relationships with all major labels and publishers and can clear those copyrights.
“The other part of what we do is provide creative services, so if you’re looking for music for a particular cue, we can help source a bunch of options that are already cleared for however much you want to pay for that particular cue.”
As much as the industry has fought to protect the cash flow from its big artists, the music industry is filled with music people looking to make some amount from their work. Lin’s firm serves as a broker between the sides.
“We have a sister company that represents composers; they’re all artists who have their own careers as recording artists, and have a sort of indy cache, but are also interested in the film arts and writing music for that.
“We have some catalog, but what we primarily do is work closely with filmmakers to get them the music that they want.”
Lin previously worked in the Theatrical Licensing Department at Cherry Lane Music Publishing, and has worked with films in production. She is credited on films including “Half-Life” (Fade To Blue Productions), “Joy Ride 2: Dead Ahead” (20th Century Fox Home Entertainment) and “Down The Barrel” (ESPN Original Entertainment).
“People come to us at different stages of production. Sometimes they come to us with songs they’ve already tried to clear, and are horrified with the number that’s come back; we can help them unsnarl that tangle.
“If we get brought on board to clear particular copyrights on an à la carte basis, then we charge per copyright. Our fees are charged per copyright, and beginning to end it’s $500 per song. Usually there are two copyrights per song: The master copyright and the publishing copyright. So usually the cost is $1,000 per song.
“If we’re brought in to do music supervision that involves clearance, but also working along the way to find the kind of music that will be appropriate to the project both creatively and budgetarily, then we usually go on a case-by-case basis based on the film budget.
Lin says there’s more room to flex with music copyrights than with news organizations who own photos or footage.
“Unlike with footage, where every organization is going to have different pricing structures, it’s a bit more standardized. An organization that has standard prices for footage will give you them same price that Steven Spielberg would get.
“With music, on the other hand, it’s completely subjective. It depends on who’s asking the question, what the project is for, how the song is used, and how the negotiation goes. It’s really subjective, and you might get a really really high quote for one film, then another film which is very similar, you might get something that’s half the price. It’s not fair, but unfortunately that’s how the copyright system works.
“The music industry is very beleaguered at this point. Because of that, they want to make money. Sometimes when a filmmaker or an ad agency contacts a label to negotiate, they view it as “This is somebody who needs this from us, who needs that music.,, and we’re never going to have to work with them again.” It’s not as if it’s an ongoing business relationship. So it’s, ‘Let’s try to charge them as much as possible, because we don’t think they know what music should really cost.’ Sometimes people come to us with music they’ve already tried to clear and we say, ‘You need to remove a zero from that figure.’”