Negotiating Deals
for Hit Songs in Movies


by Jeffrey & Todd Brabec

part one  |  part two  |  part three

Song: "American Woman"
Film: American Beauty
Use: (on car radio while Kevin Spacey drives to a fast food restaurant)

Song: "La Grange"
Film: Shanghai Noon
Use: (background while Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson slug it out in a barroom brawl)

Song: "Over The Rainbow"
Film: You've Got Mail
Use: (Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan meet in the park and realize they have been e-mailing each other)

Motion pictures-mega blockbusters, dismal failures or small independent films coming out of nowhere. A multi-billion dollar worldwide business of films in all shapes and sizes. But despite their differences, the one common denominator is that all films use music. And of all the various types of music in film, the biggest money maker of them all--the one that can provide a substantial lifetime of earnings--is the hit song in a movie.

Use of Existing Hit Songs in Motion Pictures:

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 distribute the film to the home video market.

Because of the substantial fees involved in getting a song in a film, the possibility of the song becoming a hit single or being put on a multimillion-selling soundtrack album and the potential of life of copyright income from uses of the film and all other potential uses and sources of income that flow therefrom, the ability to handle a call or request from a film producer's representative and make the best deal possible without losing it is the key to success. The following article is intended to provide some of the more important ins and outs of the negotiation.

Monies Paid for Existing Songs:

The synchronization fees charged by music publishers for the use of pre-existing compositions in major motion pictures are generally between $18,000 and $55,000 (with the majority being between $20,000 and $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 (e.g., sung by one of the actors and also used as background music as a reoccurring theme), 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. The fees are negotiated in the context of each individual film; the same song may be licensed at different rates for different projects

Use Over The Opening or 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 utilized for background uses or as visual vocals or instrumentals in the body of the film. The same is often true for use of a song over the end credits, although it is somewhat common for 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 $25,000 to $60,000 for synchronization and video rights, but each negotiation and final price depends upon many of the factors mentioned earlier (e.g., 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 (e.g., from $100,000 to over $500,000). Multiple Uses of a Song: If a producer uses a song more than once in a motion picture, the fees charged by music publishers will be higher than if the song is used only once. The duration of each of the uses is also important, as four uses of less than 20 seconds each is usually less costly to a film producer than four uses of 1 minute or more. The importance of the song to the plot development or movement of the film (e.g., if it becomes a signature song for an important character or if it becomes thematic of a certain reoccurring point of the film such as the first time two lovers saw each other) can also be a factor that raises the price. It is vital to secure from the film producer an overall plot summary and specific scene descriptions when negotiating fees for multiple uses of a song in a film.

Lyric Changes:

Occasionally a film producer will request permission for a lyric change in a song that will either be re-recorded for the film or sung by one of the characters in the motion picture. In most cases, the changes will be of only a few words to fit a particular point in the plot or help a scene dramatically, but in some cases, substantial lyric changes will occur. When such a request is received, a music publisher will 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. If approval is given, an additional fee is virtually always added to the price that would have been charged had there been no change.

Excerpted from the book "Music, Money and Success" by Schirmer Book. Reprinted by permission from the authors.




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