Monday, November 13, 2017

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film, Part 6: Music

The purpose of this series is to share my experience of making my microbudget feature film, Wait, while being as transparent as possible. This series is specific to my experience only. Please do not take these posts as universal How-Tos. Also know, this series is intended to shed light on the process of making a film, not on the quality of the film itself. 

The right music can seriously enhance the emotion of your film. Music can be so important to a film’s DNA that it can actually function as its own character. Fellow blogger-turned-filmmaker, Nikhat, recently asked me for advice on how to acquire the rights to protected songs for movies, which I’ve outlined here below. But if you’re making a microbudget film, acquiring song rights is an option you likely can’t afford. So before I dive into that, let’s talk about a way you can get great music for a reasonable price.

Original Score
My ultimate dream for Wait was to conclude the film with “Wait” by M83 blaring in the background. But I knew my budget couldn’t afford to license the song. My initial total budget was $45,000, the majority of which I spent in pre-production and production. Having failed to set aside a good chunk of my budget for post-production, I ended up spending an additional $10,000 during post. That was already more money than I had to spend, so taking the time and money to license a popular song simply wasn’t possible.

One day on set, I shared my music licensing frustration with Murielle, who plays Natalie in Wait. Murielle said she knew two brothers who made great music and were interested in scoring movies. She gave me their information, and I quickly researched their work. To be honest, when I first listened to the work of Martin and Ezequiel Etcheverry, their tunes didn’t vibe with the tone I was looking for. However, the more I listened to their tracks, the more I realized how musically talented they were, even if the songs they had on their website weren’t a fit for Wait. 
Some influences on Wait's musical score
I set up a meeting with the brothers, during which we talked about influences and the overall tone I wanted. I expressed that I wanted an ethereal vibe to underscore a few scenes in Wait. I did not want a conventional movie score; something that plays throughout most of the movie. Instead, I was looking for five standalone, electronic tracks to heighten the emotion of five scenes. I gave Martin and Ezequiel plenty of references to work with, specifically: “Digital Shades Vol. 1” by M83, “Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks” by Brian Eno, “Takk” by Sigur Rós, and Shane Carruth’s original score for Upstream Color.

Because the brothers had never created music like this before, we agreed on a trial run. Martin and Ezequiel would create a song I needed for Wait, and if I dug it, we’d go from there. Two days later, I had a song from the brothers titled “Thinking” in my inbox. I hit play and was transported. The song was intended to play during a moment in Wait when one of the main characters receives some shocking news. The character stumbles around his kitchen, completely dazed. I dropped “Thinking” into my editing timeline, and watched the dynamic of the scene grow stronger. 

Martin and Ezequiel’s first attempt at their first track for Wait was a home run. I hired them to create four more songs, paying them $500 per song. My collaboration with Martin and Ezequiel remains one of the most important I formed for Wait. Their music did exactly what I needed it to. So, ultimately, my advice concerning original score is listen for musicality. Do not judge a musician based solely on the music they have released. If they have musical talent, there’s a good chance they can create tracks within your sonic landscape.

Music Licensing 
“How do I acquire the rights to a song for my film?” An easy question with a complicated answer. Because all of the music in Wait is original, there was no need for me to acquire the rights to use protected songs. But I do have experience attempting to legally acquire music rights, as I spent many agonizing hours trying to figure it out for my previous short, Earrings. 

Some important distinctions need to be made here. I am not a lawyer, so please don’t take these words as rule of law. Everything I’m going to describe is accurate information I discovered in mid-2012, so it is possible that some of these “rules” have changed. Furthermore, as I can only accurately describe my own experience, know that everything I am about to say pertains to American fair use laws.

The main issue for acquiring song rights is money. If you will not require people to pay money to watch your film, then you can essentially use any song you’d like. I put Earrings on Vimeo for free, which is why I was legally allowed to use songs by Radiohead and M83. Wait is currently available on iTunes, Amazon and Vimeo OnDemand, all for a price. If I used protected songs in Wait without permission, then I could be sued.
Martin and Ezequiel's song, "Thinking," seriously helped underscore the emotion of this scene in Wait
If you are making a microbudget film that you intend people to pay to watch, it’s unlikely your budget can afford to purchase the rights to a protected song. However, if you’re determined to use a song, and somehow have the financial resources to acquire it, then hire a copyright lawyer, who will go about getting you the rights to the song. None of this will be cheap, and I honestly think your money would be better spent elsewhere (on gear, locations, sound, post-production, etc.)

If you aren’t charging people to watch your film, then you can, in theory, use any song you want. But now we have to break down the “in theory” part. Musicians (or their record label) own the rights to their songs. Some musicians are more lax about fair use than others. M83 and Radiohead are pretty chill. If you use a Radiohead song in your film, then upload that film to Vimeo, there’s a good chance your video will not get blocked by Vimeo’s copyright filters. This is why Earrings is still live on Vimeo, because Radiohead is apparently okay with their music being used in a free short film. (YouTube is a different story. Their copyright filters are very strict and they rarely let any music get used for free. This is why Earrings isn’t on YouTube – the film was blocked for using protected songs).

Other musicians, like Dr. Dre and Drake, have such strong filters on YouTube and Vimeo that if you attempt to use their work in your film, you likely won’t be able to make your video live. Even if it’s a short film that people can watch for free, certain artists simply will not allow their music to be used, as is their right.

Bottom lines: if you’re charging people to watch your film, hire a lawyer to negotiate song rights. If you’re putting your film online for free, use whatever song you want, but know that the artist has the right to take your video down whenever they want. It all depends on the musician and the streaming platform.

Film Festivals and Protected Songs
Let’s say you use a protected song in your microbudget feature, even though you didn’t get the rights to it. You submit your film to festivals, hoping it will eventually be picked up for distribution. Your new distributor will like your film so much that they’ll fork over the money to acquire the song rights. That all sounds great, but it doesn’t happen often. And when it does happen, it’s usually with established filmmakers.

And there’s a chance the festival may not accept your film, simply because you used songs you weren’t allowed to use. While the burden of copyright falls on the filmmaker, not the festival, festivals may not want to deal with the hassle of accepting a movie that used protected material. So many films are submitted to every festival, and using protected material without permission presents an unnecessary red flag.

Get Creative
I love music. Music inspired me to make Wait. I dreamed of using M83’s “Wait” in my film, but I knew I couldn’t afford it. My advice is to get creative and seek out someone who will make an original score for you. There are plenty of young, talented musicians who are eager as all hell to create music for a movie. They’ll likely give you an original score for cheap, if not free. Use your resources to find these people. Ask your actors and crew, use social media, scour SoundCloud, and so on. Making a microbudget film is cool as shit. And there are tons of people out there who love making music and would kill for the opportunity to have their work be heard in a feature film. Look hard and you’ll find them.

Main Takeaways from Part 6: Music
—It is very unlikely that you can afford to license protected songs to use in your film.
—If you use protected songs without permission, you can be exposed to serious legal consequences…
—…and it may be harder for your film to get into festivals.
—Get creative, find people who will create an original score for you, for a reasonable price.
—Do not judge a musician based solely on music they’ve made available. Meet with them, they may want to branch out and try something new for your film.

Primary Costs for Part 6: Music
—I paid Martin and Ezequiel $500 for each song they made for Wait, totaling $2,500.

Emotions to Expect for Part 6: Music
Frustration once you realize you can’t afford protected songs.
Overwhelmed in trying to find someone to score your film.
Satisfaction when you find the right person(s) to make music for your movie.
—Utter joy when that music enhances your film immeasurably.

How I Made a Microbudget Feature Film




  1. Music is often the most expensive thing I heard when it comes to making films. I remember during the making of the The Social Network, the most expensive thing that was used in the film was getting the rights to use the Beatles "Baby, You're a Rich Man" for the film and we all know that having the Beatles used for a film is going to cost a shitload of money.

    In the last script I wrote, I did have ideas of what songs to used but I had hoped to use it on location rather than create a separate soundtrack. If I was getting the chance to make it, that would probably be impossible as I also had a M83 track from Digital Shades Vol. 1 in the script as it's played on a walkman or a digital music player.

    I was wondering if you were going to discuss music rights as it's something I'm nervous about as I'm getting some damn good pointers on this.

    I own a CD copy of Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks as it's one of my all-time favorite records.

    1. The Beatles definitely do not fuck around with their song rights. Back in the day, they wouldn't even allow their lyrics to be printed in books (which is why their lyrics aren't in Vincent Bugliosi's Helter Skelter).

      So cool that you like Digital Shades and Apollo as well. Those albums have informed my writing so much. I adore them.

      And I really hope you get to shoot one of your scripts. That's something I'd love to see.

  2. One question, if you have someone sing a cover of a song, do you still have to pay for the rights? I never knew if there was a loophole around that or if every film that ever had karaoke had to pay for those songs anyways.

    1. Great question! Let's say I want to use M83's "Wait" in my movie, but I can't afford it. I find a band who is willing to cover their version of “Wait” and sell me the rights to use that cover in my movie. That is a workable loophole, but that new band would still have to pay M83 to cover “Wait.” Bands are often more chill about selling the cover rights to their songs than they are about selling their song rights for a movie. Basically, M83 would likely charge considerably less to have a new band cover “Wait” than they would to have me use the original song in my movie. But the new band still has to pay M83 for the rights to the original song, and I’d still have to pay the new band for the rights to their cover.

      A great example of this is Donnie Darko. Richard Kelly really wanted to use Tears for Fears' "Mad World" during the final montage, but Kelly couldn't afford the rights to the song. So Gary Jules stepped in, paid Tears for Fears for the rights to cover the song, and Gary Jules sold the rights to that cover to Richard Kelly. They really make you work hard for those loopholes.

  3. A great happy accident that Murielle told you about the two brothers who wanted to do score music! Glad the collaboration worked out so well.

    1. Oh yes, it certainly was a happy accident. I was so down and out about music at that point (it was Murielle's last day of shooting), and thank god she gave me their names!

  4. I was wondering why the song "Wait" didn't appear in your film. It would've certainly fit better in it than some other films I have seen it used in (I'm looking at you, The Fault in Our Stars). All this rights stuff is scary shit.

    1. So scary. Soooo much red tape. And honestly, M83 may be a bad example here, because they are pretty chill with their rights fees. They've given their work to very low budget films, without charging them too much. But, at the time I was making Wait, their song "Wait" was one of their most popular tracks, so it was too expensive for me. And that doesn't even include the lawyer fees to set it all up. Ugh.