Producing Movies? Produce Your Own Music, Too

Aside from writing up a comprehensive film business plan, acquiring the rights to music is often the one job that filmmakers dread the most.

And it’s not difficult to understand why. One of the first things you learn in producing school 101 is that you can’t simply throw anything you like on Spotify into the final mix, and that going about rights acquisition can be a lengthy, tedious and not to mention expensive process.

But there is a way to take the sting out of its tail, and even maximize the profit you stand to make from movie production. Today, we’re going to argue the case for becoming your own music publisher – but to put it in context, let’s first look at:

How to Buy Music For Your Film: The Traditional Way

Let’s say you want to use a track from a mid-level rock band in the background of a bar scene. Even if it’s only for half a minute, you still need to seek down and contact the license holder – often an arduous task in and of itself – and negotiate how much it’ll cost.

But not only is the price hugely variable, but the type of license you need is also wide-ranging. If you only purchase the Festival Use License but the movie then takes off and you want to distribute it, you’ll have fun either going back to negotiate for a Master Use License, or else having to re-edit the movie to replace the score.

It can also be fun having the licence holder come back to you asking for more money, because you originally stated the movie would only see low-level US theatre distribution but then ends up going global and selling well on DVD.

Oh, and don’t let the term ‘Master Use’ lull you into a false sense of security. you’ll probably also need the Synchronization Licence, too. All this is done through the music label…

… or the publisher.

Or both.

In most cases, you’ll have to pay two separate entities for the multiple licenses of one track.

How much will this cost? If only there was a standard answer, but expect to pay about $2,000 to $10,000 for every track you want to use (and note that’s the most ballpark-iest of ballpark figures.)

Getting all of this right is as much of a minefield as it sounds, and the penalty for getting it wrong – even through a genuine mistake or via factors outside of your control – can be a near-production killing lawsuit.

All in all, any alternative to the above sounds attractive…

Be Your Own Music Publisher

If you want to cut through the hassle of endlessly negotiating with music publishers, it might be worth considering the old adage “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”

Instead of pouring exhorbitant amounts of money into limited use licenses, you may find the money better spent in hiring a producer to create original music. The benefits here are numerous:

– Greater creative control over the soundtrack of your movie

– As the publisher, you will retain most if not all of the ownership rights (depending on the deal you strike up with the composer or artists; see below on Composer Agreements)

– Ownership of rights means that you get to license to other people, and that can be immensely lucrative (much in the same way that it can be very expensive on the other side of the fence.)

So although getting started comes with some overheads, it can pay dividends in the long run.

How to Set Up A Music Production Company

Thankfully, this is a lot easier than it might sound: simply give ASCAP a call and they’ll walk you through the process of getting registered.

From there, you can approach artists or composers and seek what’s known as a Composer Agreement – essentially, who ultimately retains ownership over the final score. Usually, you’ll pay the musician an upfront fee as the producer, though if you’re unable to offer a desirable amount it’s not uncommon to trade some proportion of ownership back and forth until a deal  is made.

As you can imagine, starting a production company comes with its own learning curve but for the most part ASCAP will be able to help you put your best foot forward.

More importantly than anything, make sure you start small. Really, you’re in the best position to do this as someone working in film production, not to mention that there are even more benefits for you to reap as a filmmaker in need of compelling music.

Be Bold, Be You: An Interview With Franck Onouviet

Documentary filmmaker Franck Onouviet

Franck Onouviety pictured on the right.

NYFA: Could you tell us about your background and what drew you to documentary filmmaking?

Franck Onouviet: First I would like to thank you for the opportunity to be part of this Q&A. My background is in graphic design & fine arts. After completing a master degree in Paris and working in advertising I had to go back home (Gabon) due to visa issues. There I was working as a freelance graphic designer. Meanwhile web design was growing and I was getting a lot of specific demand to do some web design I wasn’t really interested in and therefore I was declining all of them. Then came a point where I felt like I had to trade this non skill for another one.

It was quite interesting because our thesis project was done with a photographer from Louis Vuitton (Jean Lariviere). He came to the school to do an animated project as part of a future exhibit about traveling into space at the LV showroom in Paris. Since we were part of the visual communication curriculum, our tasks ranged from designing a DVD box set and visuals such as a poster to doing a behind-the-scenes of the entire project.

Since I was the movie freak of the class, they designated me to do the making-of video. I had no idea of what I was supposed to do. The entire weekend was spent watching something like 10 making-of movies I liked and trying to mimic them. So it went from shooting the people doing the whole animation character design to the meetings about art direction and challenges.

Now thinking about it I probably would do it differently. But hey, we all start somewhere. Long story short, it was my first experience and while I was in Gabon since I wasn’t about to get into the next big thing which was web design, I had to choose something, so I gave a shot to filmmaking. My cousin just completed the screenwriting program at NYFA and as I was too scared of writing I traded screenwriting for documentary filmmaking, which was the first year of the program. And it all started that summer.

NYFA: You define yourself as Afropean. Could you explain what this means and how has this self-identification has shaped your work? How do you see French and African culture influencing your work?

FO: I run my mouth too much sometimes (fake smile ahahah). Well, I was born, raised and lived in Libreville (Gabon). Then I headed to Paris to do a masters in Visual Communication and Fine Arts. Then it was New York. Meanwhile I was fortunate enough to go to many countries in Europe for work. I had the opportunity to really understand cultures and build a keen sense to adapt to a wide array of cultures. It started with France; as a necessity I had no choice, I was there to study and not for the fun part. So since you are put in a box most of the times regardless of how you think of yourself, let’s just say I wasn’t feeling like any boxes were fitting the description. And as I saw it as a strength I made it clear for people to understand in one word that there was more to me than the place we would meet. Hope it makes sense. It influenced my work a great deal, probably not on a conscious level all the time, but it allowed me to never accept one way of doing things but mainly searching for the right way for the project. I hope it doesn’t sound cliché, but for instance depending if I was working in Europe, Africa, or the US I would tap in, I guess without really thinking about it, to a different culture than where I was, just to allow the project to be treated with a different flavor, when needed of course.

I wouldn’t say French but European culture and it gave me the will to find an African voice that is up to the level of established European filmmakers I guess. I’m not there and it’s a constant work in progress. As for the African culture, well it is just who i am and at the same time I’m fighting to make sure people see and feel Africa as a continent and not a country.

NYFA: Your short film The Rhythm of My Life looks at the hip-hop industry in your home country of Gabon. For me, as a rabid music fan, I had no idea Gabon had such a vibrant hip-hop scene. Where did the idea for the film come from and what was your objective in putting the film together?

FO: Hope you will still enjoy the short after the truth behind it… Well, my cousin and fellow director Marco A. Tchicot, called me one day telling me about a recording artist being in town and meeting with local beatmakers. The idea was to make some kind of 5 minute promo to help them raise awareness about their music project. So since I was the one who did documentary at NYFA he felt I could help on the project. Well when I arrived we talked about the promo video to shoot, then we listened to the work they have been doing all along. And from that moment I looked at Marco and told him: “Forget about it man, we doing a documentary.” Since we were not here when they actually met, we agreed based on how they met and other events to use some fictional parts in the doc to open it and close it. It was kind of a metaphor about how they could have met in Gabon.

As for the objective let’s just say we were focusing on the music and how people from different backgrounds can relate and connect through music.

NYFA: How did your time in the documentary program at NYFA shape your approach to filmmaking and what lessons from the program do you find yourself still applying to your current work?

FO: Well this one will be shorter yet relevant; it just made me and shaped my approach by allowing us to be us. With my background in graphic design I always wanted my work to have a certain visual esthetic, and it was clear from the get go I would do anything to make it that way. And Andrea [Swift] supported me in this direction and help me build on that. So up to today I’m trying to apply a strong work ethic on story I go after and give them the visual they need. My approach is organic in a way and I need to trust my guts to craft. It’s not yet ideal but it’s a lifetime commitment.

NYFA: Your creative output also includes rather striking portrait photographs. What is your philosophical and technical approaches to photography and how does it differ from your documentary film work?

FO: Is it the part where the myth goes away…? Okay so I’m not sure which [aspect of my] photography we are talking about. So depending on it I would say this, some of it is solely me, and others are a collaboration with a friend and photographer Cheick Touré.

Photography is like a blink, I don’t really like a long set up, unless I have a very strong concept and usually I share it with my friend (Cheick T) but it’s like taking as little as much time to snap it, searching for the right amount of time needed to capture what my eyes caught in a glimpse, and sometimes I can’t even snap anything, here comes the weird part. It’s like out of the whole eye line and vision I see or envision something interesting, but I have to move around the light to catch something I think my eyes saw. The only difference I see is that it takes less time so I take advantage of it. I don’t really like to spend hours behind a computer…it takes me away from the outside. And shooting a doc keeps me out there for longer but out there…ahaha.

NYFA: You go by the pseudonym of “ofa” as well? What meaning does this word have for you and your work?

FO: I guess at that time it was like I needed an alias as I was in graphic design and it was a cool thing. While I was mimicking, it had to be me. So ofa is just me (my initials, I’ll let you guess what the ‘a’ stands for ahahaha). Overall it keeps me grounded and reminds me where I started my creative journey.

NYFA: Music seems to play a central part in your documentary work. What is it about music that draws you to incorporate it—either as the soundtrack or as your subject matter—in your films?

FO: It’s very simple, our parents made sure we all learned music in the family and at that time my brother and sisters were all playing piano, it was kind of mandatory. I have to admit I couldn’t care less about music. I wanted to do sports and martial arts…period. Since there was no way to escape it I made my case about having at least the opportunity to choose the instrument i will learn…it was also a getaway as I was sure there was no saxophone teacher at the conservatory.WROOONG there was one guy. And this is how I ended up doing 6 years of saxophone and 2 [years] of piano. And I guess it never left me, I can’t edit until I find the right track or it will be a lot harder for me to come up with something I’m sure works, and also I always find my start and end point, I struggle a lot with the middle part of my edit. But everything is driven by music, sounds, even images are flowing like music to me. I actually regret I stopped practicing and learning music.

NYFA: Do you have any advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers and artists looking to make a living off their art? Do you think this is even a possibility for the vast majority of visual artists?

FO: I couldn’t speak for the vast majority, depending on where you live and what it is that you do as a filmmaker, but yes it is possible. It requires 2 things among a lot others. You have to do something you love and be focused on it. As there is no one certain way to make it in this industry you have to be open and get out your comfort zone. Know the rules then practice your own voice…your way is the best way to make it.

NYFA: What current projects are you working on and are there any particular themes you find yourself particularly drawn to at the moment?

FOI’m working with other filmmakers from Gabon to organize independent filmmakers, so we can start building strong and valid relationships with filmmakers from around the globe. The goal is to build up workshops and masterclasses to train people in all of the filmmaking departments.

Developing different projects both documentary and fiction. It takes a long time as writing isn’t my medium of expression by heart. And choosing to become better at something I pick cinematography over writing anytime…ahahah.

Themes wise I don’t know: human, consciousness, relationships, taboo, forgiveness….

NYFA: Any parting words of advice you have for NYFA students and aspiring documentary filmmakers?

FO: It might not happen when you decide it but it will eventually, be patient, be you, be bold. And by all means feed the kid you were he is the only reason we are creative folks. And no need to run after industry top dogs, they already coming doing masterclasses at NYFA, so focus on your craft to be up to their level when they show up.