Monday, May 23, 2011

Why using karaoke songs in a movie can still make your budget disappear

V Thornburg asks:

I know in the past you advised against putting songs in a spec script because of licensing, and especially don't make almost the entire plot revolve around one song (The name of the girl that broke the Protagonists heart was "Mary Ann" so you used More Than a Feeling that's so original!) I'm toying with the idea of doing a movie based on a group of karaoke singers. I know that a karaoke version of a song is different, and if I remember correctly the rights to the karaoke version of a song are considerably cheaper. I would make all the songs random and have nothing tie in with the plot. Do you think it'd be worth a shot or should I just keep it in my notebook?

As always, I'm not a lawyer, so there might be something I'm missing here, but here are the issues you'll need to consider.

There are two kinds of music licensing that filmmakers need to be aware of:

Synchronization rights - this is the right to use an existing recording of a song in your film. If I want to play Boston's version of "More than a Feeling," these are the rights I need to purchase. As you might expect, with desirable songs and protective artists, obtaining this license could very easily be prohibitively expensive.

Performance rights - Essentially, this is where you purchase the rights to record or perform your own version of an existing song. (I've seen some books that refer to this as "publishing rights" as well.) In your karaoke movie, these are the rights you'd be going after. Sometimes, when it's not too expensive to get performance rights, you'll notice that some TV shows/Movies/Commercials purchase those and then hire a soundalike band to perform a cover version.

In theory, this should be cheaper - but some songs can be incredibly expensive at this level. Watch this interview with Tina Fey where she marvels at how much it must cost for Glee to get the rights to all the songs they use and tells how it cost her show, 30 Rock, $40,000 to get the rights to sing two lines of a parody version of "Night Moves."

(There's a misconception that if you do a parody, you don't have to pay. As I understand it - and again, I'm not a lawyer - it's true that you don't have to pay rights for the lyrics... but if you're using the precise melody without licensing it, I'm pretty sure the composer is owed some cash.)

$40,000... for ONE song.

This is a movie about karaoke performers, so let's assume you're going to use 10 songs, and that the $40,000 is more or less the average cost per song. (You might get a break on some, you might decide there's a song you really want and pay more.) Total music budget is suddenly $400,000.

Movies cost so much that perhaps that number seems meaningless. I'm going to try to put it in perspective. Do you know how much the minimum payment is for a screenwriter for an independent original low-budget screenplay? (Defined as $5 million or lower): $42, 930.

Yeah, it costs almost as much for ONE song as it does to pay the writer.

Any budget over $5 million nets the writer a minimum of: $87,879 for an independently-produced screenplay.

(You can find links to this documentation here.)

Consider the actor budget as well. SAG's indie rates for a low-budget film (which they define as less than $2.5 million) is a day rate of $504 or a weekly rate of $1752. (Info here.)

The non-indie rate appears to be $809 per day and $2,808 per week. (Per this.)

So I think you can quickly see the disparity here. Even if the film you write gets purchased by a studio, in theory, the music performance rights can still cost substantially more than the producers would need to spend on the talent. That right there should give you an idea of why such a big deal is made over a three-minute song - it's a comparative budget suck!

Obviously there have been plenty of low-budget movies made that paid above those minimums to secure talent that was a draw, and that probably shelled out some cash for songs that mattered to them. The bottom line is - it cost them. For some, it might well have been worth the headache to go through that for one or two songs.

But a karaoke script - with multiple cover songs? Unless you're lucky like Glee and can count a number of musicians among your fans, and thus, can count on getting a break on the licensing, music can cost a pretty penny.

Fey notes that using music got so expensive for their show that they've had to start writing their own songs that are reminiscent of other songs. This is a network show, presumably with a decent amount of cash to throw around per episode, and they still have to make these decisions for performance rights!

It's your call if you think your script is strong enough to take a gamble on. I'm just pointing out some things to consider.


  1. As a follow-up question and something perhaps the writer could consider since he says he doesn't need to use any particular song: Bitter (or anyone) have any idea how much it could cost to hire someone to compose a library of songs?

    If it's considerably cheaper than licensing rights and the actual lyrics don't matter, perhaps the film could take that approach? I mean who doesn't know a down-on-his/her-luck musician that would love to write music for a film?

  2. That I couldn't tell you. I suppose it depends on the songwriter.

  3. The writer might want to think about how to write the story without adding lyrics into the screenplay. In my years as a screenplay reader, I've seen numerous scripts where writers create scenes in which the characters sing/karaoke/etc., and the long passages of lyrics are almost always unnecessary. In "The Hangover", does it matter specifically that Mike Tyson is singing to "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins? It adds to the completed scene, but in a spec script, it would make an impact to simply state that the character is singing a song that might be described as "easy listening".