Film studios seek fortune from movie soundtracks
In the movie business these days, music is sometimes more than just music. Take Pretty Woman, the new Richard Gere-Julia Roberts romance-comedy that opens widely on March 23. Late last year, when director Garry Marshall had finished shooting, the film still didn’t have a title. Or to put it another way, it had too many titles: 3000, Off the Boulevard, and She’s a Lady were all the name of the movie at one point or another. Then someone at the film studio, Touchstone Pictures (part of Walt Disney Studios), put together a rough version of a theatrical preview for the picture and arbitrarily used Roy Orbison’s ”Pretty Woman” as background music. According to one executive, Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg ”flipped.” Rights to the Orbison hit were purchased, and a title was born.
Now, this is a somewhat extreme example of music’s importance in films. But the story of how Pretty Woman‘s soundtrack found its way into record stores proves that there’s a lot more to movie music than meets the ear.
Long gone are the virginal days when a film’s music was chosen purely to establish a mood or reinforce an audience reaction. Thanks to the multi-platinum success of such soundtracks as Saturday Night Fever, Footloose, and Dirty Dancing, the music itself is a hot commodity. And, with the explosion in music video, soundtracks have become very sophisticated advertising devices for the movies they are selling.
With Pretty Woman, the state of soundtrack art has been redefined. For the first time ever, a movie company — Touchstone/Disney — and a record label — EMI — have established a joint venture strictly for the purpose of producing a soundtrack.
Usually record companies bankroll the cost of the soundtrack, produce the music, and take most of the revenues, and the studios pick up a royalty with no risk involved. But, with several million dollars of potential revenues at stake, Disney was willing to risk half the cost of the soundtrack album.
Let’s Make a Deal
EMI Records doesn’t have a great reputation in Hollywood, having evolved through three different corporate identities in the past few years. ”This label has a checkered past,” admits Ron Fair, vice president of artists & repertoireat EMI. By producing a blockbuster soundtrack, EMI hoped to improve its image. And, by stuffing a movie album with EMI artists, the label could give itself an enormous promotional boost. EMI badly wanted a movie deal.
Disney is an aggressive movie studio with the instincts of a shark. It has a track record for packaging commercial soundtracks with its pictures. ”Don’t Worry, Be Happy” from Cocktail and ”Wind Beneath My Wings” from Beaches were No. 1 hits, as well as successive Grammy winners for both Song of the Year and Record of the Year. The Cocktail soundtrack sold 71/2 million copies. Most of the profits from these songs, however, went to record companies. No wonder Disney wanted to get into the record business.
Last October, EMI let them do just that. The record label gave Disney an equal cut in the album profits, at least doubling the usual movie-company revenues to about $1 for each soundtrack sold. At the same time, Disney agreed to split the cost of the album, a whopping $1 million. Not much as far as movies go, but, according to Fair, it’s enough for about ”three or four Richard Marx albums.”
Poaching the roster
To prove his label’s clout, Fair went after the major artists on his roster. He flew to London and talked Robert Palmer into recording a new song. Fair convinced David Bowie to let the company remix his 1975 No. 1 hit ”Fame.” Natalie Cole agreed to do something. Fair could not, however, coax the Pet Shop Boys into participating. Nevertheless, says Fair about his poaching of the EMI roster, ”We utilized a lot of the cream of the crop.”
Fair was able to score one of EMI’s two current chartbusters, Roxette, but not the other, Richard Marx. Why? Fair says that the harvest of singles from the latest Roxette album was ”pretty much over and done with,” while Marx’s current release schedule, or marketing plan, couldn’t be altered.
Then there were the other EMI artists proposed by Fair: Go West, Jane Wiedlin, Christopher Otcasek, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. These aren’t household names, which is why EMI wanted them on the soundtrack. ”We hope that people will buy the album to get a Robert Palmer track and end up liking the Red Hot Chili Peppers,” Fair says. But the anonymity of these acts made Disney movie executives nervous. ”They think soundtracks are all Kenny Loggins and Phil Collins,” says Mitchell Leib, Touchstone/Disney’s director of theatrical music. ”They don’t like it if you don’t have one of these guys.”
”I thought we had enough of the beef,” Fair says. ”And we couldn’t have an album of superstars.” Especially if the soundtrack was to stay under the $1 million mark. The most expensive songs on the album cost about $150,000 each. Less expensive tracks, such as the song by the unsigned and little-known Lauren Wood, came for as little as $25,000.
In the end, Disney accepted the EMI parade of artists. It didn’t hurt that Fair and Leib managed to land Peter Cetera, a balladeer from another label who had scored with a song from The Karate Kid Part II, for the tune that plays over the final credits.
As for ”Pretty Woman” itself, Leib’s initial reaction was that the Orbison version was old. He asked a number of major artists to redo the song, including Kenny Loggins, Bob Seger, and Joe Cocker. ”They all said, ‘Come on, the guy’s barely cold in the ground,”’ Leib says. Thus, Orbison survived to the final soundtrack.