Close Archives

How Independent Filmmakers Choose and Use Music With Producer Bernie Stern

Bernie Stern is an independent film producer here in Los Angeles. He’s incredibly articulate and really knows the industry. Not only has he produced quite a few films, on several of them, he’s been the de-facto music supervisor. So, he knows music, he knows filmmaking, and he knows that I want a lot more indie filmmakers to use TAXI as a resource.

And I’ve got to say thank you to Bernie, because he’s brought a couple of films that he’s been working on to TAXI and found [quite a bit of] music for them. He’s also gotten some other filmmakers to use us as well, and [they’ve been thrilled with the result], and they’ve used TAXI member music in their films as well. So, I really appreciate that.

I know what a record producer does, and I know what TV producers do—but I’m not clear on exactly what film producers do. Describe what your job is and what a typical day is like in terms of the list of things that you would take care of in a film.

Sure. So, my job is different all the time. Every day is different, but the easiest way to say what I do is spend all of the money. They come to me with a script and an amount of money, and they say, “All right, we need to get this film made.” So, I need to figure out what their vision is and what needs that they would have, and then I hire all the crew, and get all the beer, and spend most of the money. A lot of producers also raise money for the executive producers. I would be in charge of fundraising, or for attaching talent to the project. In this world that I’m in, my job overlaps with a lot of hats that I wear, both in the pre-production phase and during production, and then in post-production. And because of my experience with post-production over the last decade and a half, I also post-produce. So, I will carry the film all the way through completion, through the editing and the sweetening, and adding music and color and sound effects, and all that.

But it really comes down to what I thought it was going to be a really glamorous job, and fun— and it is fun—but, in the end it’s about figuring out how to solve problems.

Well, if I had a problem, I’d want you to solve it. You seem pretty capable.

So how is Covid-19 treating independent-film production now? And I want to let everybody know that there was a period there where Bernie couldn’t work because, obviously, nobody was shooting anything. And we were very fortunate to have him screen some stuff at TAXI, and he did a great job on it. So, thank you for that.

Have productions started shooting again?

Yes, we actually are hoping to shoot something. I mean, it’s day-to-day with what can happen or what is able to happen. But we’re looking to shoot a feature film in the next three weeks, and it’s gonna be chaotic. But yes, Covid was extremely difficult. Right at the beginning, like everyone, every project I had went away. They all just stopped and just vanished. I was supposed to be making an eight million-dollar feature film, and I was supposed to go to Oklahoma to make two other films, and everything went away.

So, it’s been an extremely tricky road. We started back—we kind of dipped a toe in—with a short film that we did in Lancaster, PA, a couple of weeks ago. It was a really nice experience. It was a very tiny film, so we were able to navigate kind of how we would stay safe and keep the crew and everybody safe. We would think about how we could scale this to an actual feature film. The biggest issue is that to really protect everyone and make them as safe as possible, it cost a lot of money with regards to having to do testing three times a week for actors, or you have to make sure that people are isolated, or that food is individually wrapped, it could add anywhere from like $50,000 to $150,000 to a budget that never hits the screen. And so, to convince an investor to give you that additional money when they’re already giving you every dollar they want to—and usually a little less—or to add an actor, or add that AC/DC song that they wanted, it doesn’t equate to an easy solution. But we’re trying it. We’re going to navigate it.

“Rich people can lose a $100,000 at the end of the year as a tax write-off, so you can find investors that are willing to give you a $100 grand to just kind of clear it off their thing.”

Let’s give everybody kind of a view of the budget range for small indie films up to midsize, and maybe even a large indie film? Tell us about the budgets…

So, the smallest category… If you’re doing a union show under a SAG contract, a $250,000 budget is down at their bottom tier. I’ve made movies that size. It’s extremely hard, but it can be done.

The next tier goes up to $700,000, so there’s a little bit more room for effects and things like that. The last feature film that I did fell into this category, so we had a lot of great sets, we had a few name actors in that one, and it allowed us to kind of expand out and get some more quality into the film. And then from there they go up. I haven’t tackled the million-and-up budget yet. I haven’t figured out what kind of investor is looking to spend that kind of money yet, but that’s hopefully my next step. We had a little bit of momentum coming off the last movie, because like I said, Covid shut everything down.

But that’s kind of the realm. It’s interesting, because there’s this middle ground between… Rich people can lose $100,000 at the end of the year as a tax write-off, so you can find investors that are willing to give you a $100 grand to just kind of clear it off their thing. So indie films a lot of times will get made by these investors, and I can’t wait until I’m in the position that I can just lose $100,000 in December. [Laughter] That’s gonna be a really great day. But you don’t find a ton of people that are looking to clear a million dollars’ worth of tax liabilities, and don’t have any opinions about what you make with it.

So, it’s a little bit difficult to kind of jump from one to the next without having a very recognizable actor in the film, or some other piece like that.

Do they want the recognizable actor because they think it ups the chances of making their investment back, which they may or may not care about? Or do they want the actor in there so they can tell their other wealthy friends that they have made a film with XYZ actor?

It’s a little bit of both. Again, for the $100,000 to $500,00 movie, a lot of it is just, “I’m already rich. I have houses and boats, and I just want to want to walk the red carpet.” So, there are a lot of investors that come in for that reason. On the higher level, you want that recognizable face and name so that you can sell the film. And once you get into the $750,000-to-a-million-dollar range, making the profit back becomes a much bigger conversation. No one really knows how to do it, and right now it’s an extremely awkward conversation. Because there used to be this like high-risk/high-reward idea of, “OK, you if we make an awesome movie and we have a good name in it, it could get a theatrical release.” Even if it is not a studio movie, it could potentially get a theatrical release. But right now, there are no theatrical releases at all, so there are no movies planned.

So, you know, convincing an investor that we’re definitely gonna make a profit selling to Netflix or Amazon, and they’re [Amazon and Netflix] are so inundated with content that they don’t have to pay as much that they’ve once paid for an indie film. So, it’s just a little bit tricky to kind of figure it out. But, yeah, taking photo ops on-set and going to dinner with a star is certainly a way to court investors.

So, what portion of a half million-dollar budget would be allocated to music?

That’s a great question. It is as much as we can get into it, is usually the idea. I have yet to be on a film that was able to spend more than $25,000 on music on all the budget levels that I have been at, unfortunately. It is extremely sad. That’s why the conversation about post-production is the trickiest one at these budget levels, because you have best intentions when we start, and you allocate as much money as you can to post-production, and then there’s overtime and fees, and then there are some prop rates, and then a camera goes down. Something happens, and then you start borrowing from the first budget just to get the movie filmed, and then by the end of it it’s like, “Oh, now we’ve got $2,500 for the entire soundtrack.” It’s extremely tricky to do it that way.

Poor musicians and music. Always the bastard stepchild, it seems.


“I want to say there was a couple hundred thousand dollars spent on a movie like Baby Driver, getting all of the songs into it.”

Talk to me about bigger movie budgets. Let’s get a little perspective there.

I want to say there was a couple hundred thousand dollars spent on a movie like Baby Driver, getting all of the songs into it. If a film is extremely music-heavy, it could be five, 10 percent of the budget going towards music. So, you have movies like that where you know going in you have to get the songs, so it’s gonna be a much higher percentage. But, yeah, it ranges. I mean, you can spend anywhere from $5,000 to $25,000 to $100,000 on a single song. And if you’re using it multiple times, it can get extremely expensive for a recognizable… again like that AC/DC song, that big song.

So, let’s say that somebody’s got $150k allocated for music like in a mid-sized, bigger-budget film. And the person who put up most of the money, or somebody in a position to make this kind of decision, or this kind of demand I guess would be a better thing. It’s like, “Yeah, I really want that Rolling Stones song.” Maybe I’m reaching too high, but, you know, they want something in there that’s gonna be… They get a $150k budget, and they want a $100k song, and I’m sure that makes the producer go, “Oh, crap, there goes my music budget so I can make this person happy with just one song.” But it happens, right?

Sure, it does. Absolutely. I’ve been lucky enough not to have that exact thing happen from an investor side. I did literally just get a text from the director about the movie I’m about to make: “I know we have a small music budget, but do you think you could get ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ for the final fight scene?” No, not even a little bit can we get that song at all. “Well, maybe?” Sure, I’ll make a phone call and find out that it’s never gonna happen.

Telling your director “no” is a big part of producing in general, because you want to be able to say “yes” to everything that they’re asking for, but that isn’t always possible.

So, when you and I went to lunch a few months ago—we were talking a lot about royalty-free, and I was expressing my personal frustration with the fact that so many indie-film producers that I have reached out trying to get them to run listings with TAXI, and they say, “Oh, I get my stuff from a royalty-free library. I subscribe and it’s like a couple hundred bucks a year for all you can eat.” The producers actually think that if they don’t use royalty-free music that they themselves are going to have to pay the royalties every quarter, like they’re going to have to dip into their pockets to pay royalties.

So that’s why I originally, when I went out to lunch with you… I’ve got to say you were impressively polite and open-minded at that lunch. You really didn’t know TAXI. Actually, that’s not true; your brother’s girlfriend, if I remember correctly, is Mandy—whose last name I won’t use right now—but she’s like a big-deal music supervisor now. And we’ve known her since she was kind of a puppy in the industry, so she was able to tell you, “Yeah, these guys are for real.”

Anyway, why wouldn’t producers reach out to TAXI? We need to educate them so that they understand that they don’t have to pay the royalties, and they can get much better music from TAXI for not a whole lot of money. You know, we’re not in the business of throwing our members under the bus, like some breadcrumbs for a song. But a lot of musicians would be thrilled to get $250, $500, or $1,000 to get their song in a legit movie.

Yeah. Look, here’s the thing that I didn’t know until I really talked to you. I think that the perceptions that the producers have is that they have to pay to run a listing with TAXI, and I was so happy to have been corrected about. To know that I can actually get this project exposed to musicians that have music and want to create something for this project, and it doesn’t cost my production anything. That was a huge sell to my directors!

What happens a lot with editors and with directors when they are crafting a film, when they are actually editing the film, is everybody wants to have temp music in. So, the last thing you want to do is put in your favorite song into this scene, because as soon as you fall in love with it, you’ll never want that scene any other way. And so, the trick that editors will use to not shoot themselves in the foot is to use these websites that just have like downloadable samples of royalty-free music, and they throw that in there so that they don’t accidently use a Mariah Carey song for the big moment, and then never get that feeling ever again.

I literally have a film, it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever made. It played at 40 film festivals. It won Atlanta, it won Slam Dance, it won all of these major festivals. No one has ever seen it, because they never figured out the music rights for a couple of the tracks in it, and it blew through a distribution deadline and then lost the deal. And it was all because the director was so in love with one track that he could not let it go, and then he ended up not finishing the film.

So, the beauty of a service like TAXI is that you can be a little bit more allowing of yourself to put in a song you actually like, because then you can take that song and say, “Hey, this is the song I love the best; can we get something that sounds like it?” Something that gives you that same feeling, something that has the same rhythm and beat and energy. And then it’s not so much of a dramatic fall, as opposed to just finding a song other than, or a free song somewhere else.

So, I think that’s why a lot of people kind of end up on those royalty-free sites at first, because, “Oh, I can download a couple of tracks, and if my director falls in love with this, great, it’s $10.” Then you end up sacrificing for some lesser music.

“My director on my last film was absolutely over the moon with what we got from TAXI.”

My director on my last film was absolutely over the moon with what we got from TAXI. He has a couple of very specific old-timey songs that he knew he was going to use, that he knew he had deals for. So, we were able to place those, and then it was like, “OK, but there are 25 other drops in this film; what are we gonna do?” And I was fortunate enough to be able to bring him to y’all, and I want to say that we booked something like eight or nine songs [from TAXI members] on the last film, and it sounds amazing. That movie sounds awesome.

I would imagine that our members were tickled pink when they got the email or phone call from you, “We’d like to put your song in an indie film.” You know, like, “I’m in a film.” It’s different than reality TV—not necessarily better or worse—but it’s different. And the vast majority of the TAXI members that get placements, a lot of them are in reality TV with instrumental cues, because that’s where the most opportunities are. So, it must be exciting for them to get a copy of that film and say, “There’s my song.”

Don’t miss Part 2 of this highly informative interview in next month’s TAXI Transmitter!