Making movie music in Prague

By bne IntelliNews May 9, 2008

Beth Potter in Prague -

Providing the music for Royal Bank of Scotland's corporate video at April's angry shareholding meeting, where management were humiliatingly forced to admit their incompetence, is not perhaps the most triumphant venue for advertising one's services. But the Czech orchestra that did so is part of a growing trend where Western filmmakers come to Prague to produce and record their scores.

To some shareholders, the idea that RBS had specially commissioned a soundtrack for its corporate video seemed at odds with the UK bank's request at the meeting for the biggest rights issue in corporate history to sort out its financial problems. "The music was recorded in Prague," was all RBS would say, "which after a thorough review offered both world-class musicians and the lowest price."

Indeed, RBS joins Hollywood producers like David Lynch with "Mullholland Drive," Thomas Newman with "American Beauty" and Johnny Depp with "Sweeney Todd" who all know they can save money by recording movie scores in a nondescript store front on Ve Smeckach street in the centre of Prague, which is owned by the Czech Republic's biggest movie studio Barrandov.

One of the biggest pluses of the recording arrangement is the huge cadre of trained classical musicians in the Czech Republic. Perhaps even bigger, though, is that the studio is non-union. And because of wage differences, Czech musicians are happy to get paid the $20 or so per hour offered by US clients. In London, musicians make about €60 per hour; in the US, the price can be as high as €90 per hour. Similar rates apply for movie production.

Violinist Jakub Hron, 34, says he already has a union job with the Prague Radio Orchestra, but since the recording sessions are a "side job," he doesn't expect anything special. While Hron declines to say how much he makes at the symphony, the average Czech salary has risen rapidly in recent years to CZK22,000 per month in December 2007, which is about €875. "This is 'plus' money," Horn says. "Obviously the orchestra is more prestigious, but this is good, too."

James Fitzpatrick, owner of London-based Tadlow Music has capitalized on the price difference to grow his business. He has worked with Silva Screen Records in London to produce work for David Arnold (who composes the James Bond scores) Sarah Brightman and Shirley Bassey. Both Tadlow and Silva have musicians sign "buyout clauses," which give the production companies full rights to the royalties.

Fitzpatrick is currently pouring $80,000 of his own money into re-recording the 1961 great "El Cid" with Charlton Heston and Sophie Loren. He expects to market it to nostalgic audiophiles willing to buy a new and clean recording of the romantic music. "Every member of the orchestra plays with full heart and full passion here," Fitzpatrick says. "Sometimes in London, it seems like they don't even try."

That's why Silva Screen continues to return, too, most recently recording music for "The Queen" and for some new video games, says Rick Clark, a producer at Silva. "The quality gets better every year. They nail it, the first time. It's spot-on, it's so good," Clark says.

Musical economics

Barrandov's soundstage actually feels a little bit like something you remember from high school - walls buffered with old-time soundproofing and more than 20 high-tech boom mikes scattered around the room. A translator stands next to the conductor shouting out directions or pleading with musicians, depending on the tone of her boss.

Are copyrights an issue on any of these pieces? Fitzpatrick says no, adding that he can get most pieces "cleared over the phone" with a record company, depending on licensing arrangements. In the case of "El Cid," Fitzpatrick and conductor Nic Raine made an agreement with the family of Hungarian Miklos Rozsa, a friend of Raine's who died in 1995. "With soundtrack albums, if they re-record it, they don't necessarily need to worry about copyright," says Steve Gordon, an entertainment industry lawyer and consultant based in New York. "You need the composer's permission and often you have to get the record company anyway."

But the biggest reason to record in Prague is to save on future royalty fees, Gordon says. "You pay the musicians so you don't have to pay the record company. The musicians are cheaper in Prague than in the United States."

That could change soon, however, as the dollar's buying power continues to drop against the Czech crown. Both music and movie industry heads already are lamenting about the drop-off in American music and film business in Prague.

"Couldn't they just pull it back slightly?" Fitzpatrick says of the Czech crown and the government's current unwillingness to say when the EU country actually plans to adopt the common currency euro. He smiles ruefully as he scans the near-empty lobby of the Fenix Hotel, just one block off of the main Wenceslas Square.

"It's hurting my business," Fitzpatrick says.

And for now, the price difference still makes it profitable for him to fly back and forth between Prague and London to record. "If Beethoven or Mozart were alive now, they would be doing film scores," Fitzpatrick says.

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Making movie music in Prague

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