Hitting the right notes on a TV pilot can often require composers to pay for their perfectionist ways. After landing the scoring gig for the CW’s DC Comics pilot Arrow, Blake Neely was faced with the daunting task of following in the footsteps of other big-screen superhero themes. However, at the time, The CW was unsure if Arrow was a go on the fall 2012 schedule. And Neely’s using an orchestral score wasn’t even a possibility.
“The best way to prove to them that they needed (an orchestral score) for the series was for them to hear it,” says Neely. So he hired a 30-piece orchestra comprising strings and brass to create a suspenseful, dark-toned sound, recorded in his Sherman Oaks studio. CW suits were wowed, and Neely’s score lived – but only for the first episode. The bulk of the music budget for Arrow was sacrificed for other production elements, which is typical considering most shows get by with synthesizers.
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Nonetheless, it’s quite common for composers to spend their own dough to get a pilot’s score just right. The amount can range from $12,000-$23,000 for a 30- to 50-person orchestra and studio engineers. Even if a series creator thinks a cue is great, the composer will often keep his musicians overtime and gladly pay for it if he’s not happy with the session. Such is the case on indie features as well. Director Sacha Gervasi was gobsmacked when composer Danny Elfman picked up the overtime during the scoring session for Hitchcock.
And after the music budget shrank on ABC’s 1800s drama pilot Gilded Lilys last year, three-time Emmy-winning composer Jeff Beal (Monk), who is nominated this year for House Of Cards, put his fee toward a 17-piece string section.
“The rationale behind spending the money was not just to make the best presentation possible, but to produce future samples of my work,” says Beal, who fortunately bypassed the entire pilot process on House Of Cards (on which he plays horn and piano), given Netflix’s two-season pickup.
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“Composers are in a unique position in that our livelihood is pitted against the quality of our work. We’re production companies, expected to deliver a final product at the end of the day,” explains Bear McCreary, who recently shelled out for a few extra musicians on a major network pilot and is nominated for his renaissance string themes on the Starz series Da Vinci’s Demons.
In scrambling for projects, the number of which have increased thanks to ABC’s embrace of Revenge, Neely says that many composers will hire their own orchestra to record demos just to land the job. But it’s not something he hopes anyone expects during the process.
“A costume designer doesn’t pay for the material, and the cinematographer isn’t forced to pay for their film,” Neely says. “It’s a bit of a double-edged sword that we don’t want the industry to get comfortable with.”
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