Work for Los Angeles studio musicians continues to decline as production companies find cheaper alternatives elsewhere, so musicians’ union executives are backing California legislation designed to provide financial incentives to return film- and TV-scoring jobs back to Hollywood.
Assembly Bill 1300, the “Music Scoring Tax Credit Bill,” recently introduced by Assembly Majority Leader Ian Calderon, would offer a 30 percent tax credit to U.S. productions made in foreign countries, as well as for low-budget films, that use California musicians. Union officials believe that passage could mean millions in regained wages for studio players.
According to International Recording Musicians Association president Marc Sazer, L.A. musicians – who once routinely scored nearly all American movies – have lost substantial ground to London and other European venues. In 2003, nearly 60 percent of feature films were scored by American Federation of Musicians members; by 2015, that number was down to 30 percent.
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In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 33 “major motion pictures” that opened wide were produced overseas, and only five of those were scored in the U.S., Sazer reports.
RMA provided Variety with a list of 2015 releases scored outside the U.S., five of which were among the year’s 25 top-grossing films (“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” “The Martian,” “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” and “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) that, had they been scored here, would have generated wages and residuals totaling nearly $18 million.
These films, they argue, were “jobs and wages that could have been brought back” to L.A. if the proposed tax credits were already in place.
Production companies “follow tax-credit money to the U.K., to Spain, Hungary, wherever, and the scoring gets done in London (or elsewhere in Europe),” says Sazer. Adds AFM Local 47 president John Acosta: “Tax credits really drive a lot of the business. In conversations with the studios, that’s what they tell us: ‘We’ve got to go where the tax credits are.’”
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So union executives are lobbying legislators to modify the state’s current tax-credit program that, according to Sazer, “has been extraordinarily successful for IATSE, the Teamsters, actors, writers and directors. But it hasn’t worked for us (musicians). Virtually no new jobs have been brought to us as a result of the program.”
In any given year, according to Los Angeles RMA chapter president Steve Dress, L.A. musicians earn an estimated $10 million to $12 million in wages for movies, and passage of this bill could bring in another $5 million annually. “It would transform our community,” he says.
Numbers vary widely depending on the film but, on average, Local 47’s Acosta explains, “each film hires anywhere between 50 and 80 unique musicians. On a big film, you’ve got 100 musicians on a scoring stage, and another 20 or 30 music preparation personnel. A hundred to 120 people times 10 movies, you’re talking about over 1,000 jobs.”
That amounts to “millions of dollars in taxable income, plus pension, health and welfare benefits — it’s huge,” says Acosta. “A million-dollar credit can generate 10 times that in what it pays back.”
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That’s at the high end. Union executives are also looking at the smaller films, the indies that often score non-union because budgets are so tight. So there is a provision in the bill for a similar tax credit for films costing $5 million or less.
“If we can get the state to invest in those projects, we can be competitive, and give composers access to the top musicians,” Sazer says. It’s also in the indie arena where minority composers and women composers are working more steadily, Acosta points out. This could benefit them and promote diversity in film music.
“If there is a financially attractive option available, one that has not previously existed, it will keep more [scoring] work in Los Angeles,” says Lolita Ritmanis, president of the Alliance for Women Film Composers. “There is nothing to lose by fighting for these tax incentives. As a community, it benefits all of us to have our brilliant musicians working, re-energizing the Los Angeles scoring community, along with support businesses that benefit from jobs remaining in California.”
The legislation calls for a 30 percent tax credit for foreign-produced films that would provide jobs for at least 35 musicians, and films or documentaries with a budget of $5 million or less that would employ at least nine musicians.
Tim Davies, an Australian composer who is now one of L.A.’s busiest maestros (“Frozen,” “La La Land”), also supports the effort. “I think it’s a good thing,” he said on Saturday. “The other guilds have benefited from tax credits way more than we have. Projects we could have done here went elsewhere for tax credit reasons,” he points out.
RMA executives say they expect to be lobbying for this legislation over the next several months. “It’s business, it’s dollars and sense,” says Dress. “Everybody we’ve talked to in the music community has been supportive.”
To help call attention to their campaign, AFM Local 47 will stage a free outdoor concert at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 19, on the steps of Los Angeles City Hall. Scheduled to perform are Rickey Minor, longtime “American Idol” music director; “This Is Us” composer Siddhartha Khosla; and others to be announced.