When you think of the movie "Jaws," can you hear a shark coming? If so, credit John Williams for his brilliant score. Does the swelling African music in "The Lion King" tug your heartstrings? That's the lasting legacy of Hans Zimmer. Maybe Danny Elfman music, like the scores to "Good Will Hunting" and the 1989 "Batman," is more your speed. Although the average moviegoer might not think much about film scores, the work of film composers shapes the way audience members respond to movies. This might be a dream job for people who love film and music. It's also an incredibly hard job to get.
Film score composers create all the music that accompanies a film. Different movies use music in different ways – some scary scenes are silent, for example, while others have music that builds to increase the viewer's sense of suspense. Some movies have very little background music; in others, music is nearly constant. The composer works with the director and film editors to figure out which scenes will have music and what type of sound and musical style the director envisions.
Usually, the composer comes in after the movie has already been shot and roughly edited. He or she will watch the rough cut to figure out the plot, style and pacing of the movie, then go off to a home office or studio to write the instrumental music. It's uncommon for a composer to write the score before seeing the movie.
Once the composer has had some time to work, he or she will start presenting music to the director and editor. They may go back and forth, with the director requesting edits and the composer presenting new music until the director is happy with the choices. Up until this point, composers typically use software to create their music. An orchestra or a smaller group of musicians may be hired to record the score once the director is satisfied with what the composer has written.
Having a bachelor's degree in a music field isn't strictly necessary to get work as a film composer. When directors and studios are hiring composers, what they're interested in is the person's proven talent and previous work. Still, composers typically attend a conservatory or music school to learn the craft of composing. A formal musical education is also helpful for networking with fellow alumni, which is important in this highly competitive field.
As in so many entertainment industry jobs, there's a huge salary range for film composers. The famous, in-demand composers can command millions of dollars per major studio film, but most composers earn considerably less. Composers are paid by project. Often, a composer is offered a package deal – basically, the studio pays one sum in exchange for a finished product. The composer pays for studio time, musicians and his or her own salary out of that package.
According to Berklee College of Music's Music Salary Guide 2016, a film composer working on a student film can earn anywhere from zero to $10,000. (Composers just starting out might agree to write a score for free in exchange for exposure.) An indie film composition package deal is worth between $2,500 and $500,000. For a studio film, package deals pay between $35,000 and $2 million or more. How much the composer keeps depends on the project's expenses.
Between jobs, composers might have weeks or months with no work, but once a project is underway, they might work 12-hour days or longer to get the score done on time. In the U.S., film composers are largely based in either New York or Los Angeles. Composers are basically independent contractors, so they may work from home or rent out office or studio space.
Years of Experience
As you're enjoying the music in Danny Elfman movies and thinking about how you'd like to try this creative career, you're probably not thinking about the job insecurity that plagues composers. Other than those mega-successful people at the top, like John Williams and Hans Zimmer, most composers have to hustle to line up jobs. It's very difficult to make a living as a film composer, and success depends largely on talent, luck and who you know. How long you've been working as a composer doesn't have much relation to how much you'll earn.
Job Growth Trend
Film composition is a niche industry, so there's not enough data to make an accurate prediction about its future. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 6 percent growth for composers and music directors between 2016 and 2026 (which is an average rate of growth, compared to other industries) but that figure includes all types of composers, not just those who work in film.