FIG. 1: Kevin Teasley stresses the importance of networking for getting film-trailer composing work.
Photo: Amy Dunton
When you watch a movie trailer, or a commercial for a movie, it's easy to assume that the music you hear is from the movie itself. But for the most part, that's not the case. That music was likely written months before the film was scored, probably by a composer like Kevin Teasley (see Fig. 1), who specializes in creating film-trailer music. The owner of Los Angeles-based Distortion Music and Sound Design, Teasley has written trailer music for an array of major movies, including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (Paramount, 2008), The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (Universal, 2008), and Jumper (Twentieth Century Fox, 2008). In this interview, he sheds light on the inner workings of the world of movie-trailer music and offers advice for composers looking to get involved in it.
Is it always true that trailers get scored by people other than the film's composer?
It's probably 90 percent true, because the “teaser” for a movie, which is the 60-second version of a trailer, usually comes out anywhere from eight months to a year before a big-tent-pole [blockbuster] movie like a Spiderman or a Batman or something like that might come out.
So at that point, the movie music hasn't even been composed.
The music hasn't been composed, and usually when they're cutting the actual [main] trailer, there's anywhere between a month to three months before the film gets released.
There are several kinds of trailers, right?
The teaser is 60 seconds, and that's used to kind of tease the audience. Let's say it's this Christmas, and let's say Spiderman 4 is coming out next September. They might give you a 60-second teaser that's very vague on the story line and the characters, just to get people excited.
So a teaser would be one of those “Coming next spring” type of trailers?
Absolutely. A great example is when J. J. Abrams did Cloverfield. The teaser for that left everyone going, “Wow, what is this movie going to be about?” And it was 60 seconds long. And then what they do when they get closer, for a big-tent-pole movie, they'll do what are called trailer A, trailer B, and trailer C. And for a big movie, it gets to trailer D a lot of times. How that works is that trailer A is what they think is the best general-audience trailer. Then they'll cut a trailer B that might be geared toward young males. Trailer C might be more character driven, and trailer D might deal with the love relationship in the movie, or like that.
And each trailer would need its own score because each one has different excerpts from different scenes, right?
Absolutely. And sometimes there will be some cross-pollination, so to speak, of some cues. Like if it's a big action film, they're going to have the big action montage at the end, so that [the music for that part] may stay the same.
Is the picture that's in a trailer generally cut to the music, rather than the music being scored to the picture?
Yeah. When I got into the industry years ago, I didn't know that 99 percent of the time they're cutting to these music cues. They'll massage the music cues here and there to say, “Oh, it needs a ramp-up here” or “Let me just jump two minutes ahead.” But they really cut to how these music cues shake and to the beats in them. So when they give us the temp score and say, “Hey, we need something heroic like this,” there is a golden rule: if this trailer is cut to this [temp] cue that's 98 bpm, stay at 98 bpm or you'll miss all of the editor's hits.
Does any trailer music get composed outside of Los Angeles?
I'm pretty sure people compose what we would consider trailer music all over the world. But the main companies [that compose trailer music] are all right here in L.A. I'm sure there are one or two in New York, and a lot of music libraries service the trailer industry. But probably 99 percent of the major players are based in Hollywood.
You compose through your company, Distortion. Is there much trailer music that gets composed by individuals?
There is, but it's a little trickier to get a foothold in it because an individual composer who is trying to do an 80-piece orchestra with 100 voices, well, that [costs] a lot of money. So usually what these individual composers do is that they will go on as ghostwriters or a work-for-hire sort of thing for companies like mine or other companies here in L.A. that just do that. That's if you're going to do the orchestral thing. There are so many other genres of music out there.
Once you write a cue or cues for a trailer, do you give up all rights to that music?
The great thing about trailers is that the licensing is all nonexclusive. So if you have a song, you could license it eight times in a year at $15,000 a pop.
Is there trailer music commissioned for indie movies?
Yes. In indie films the budgets are a lot lower. So what happens is that they can't afford to license a high-end music-library cue. If you're an indie film and you're working on a budget, and you have three cues in your trailer and each one is costing $7,500, that's a ton of money just on music for your trailer. So what will end up happening [instead] is they'll hire a young composer — or an older composer, it doesn't matter — who is willing to custom-score the trailer. They might say, “Can you score the whole trailer for $500?” Who knows? It's up to each individual to decide whether that's worth doing.
But that might be a way in the door.
It is, and it helps you build a catalog.
If you were new in town and you wanted to try to get into the trailer-composing business, what would be the two or three things you would do, knowing what you know now?
Make sure to become literate to the craft, the skill set — not only on the creative side, but the business side. Make sure to learn what composers are charging for certain cues, how they should be delivered, and who should mix them. How does the licensing work? Who licenses it for you? What are the terms that you should know? The one thing you really don't want to happen is to finally get that meeting with that person you want, and when you leave they say, “This person has no clue.”
When you first start out, how do you even get anyone to pay attention to you?
I wish I had the key to unlock the golden door: “This is how to break in.” It's so much about meeting as many people as you can. For me, and I say this with a smile and tongue in cheek, you know it wasn't from asking many musicians or composers, because even though they're friends, they're trying to get the same work as me. So they may not be as willing to share information. So I tried to find out how to become friends with the editors, because they're the guys that actually put the music [on the trailers]. In the trailer world, the editors have a lot of power in what they choose for music. So I'm like, “How can I know editors? Where can I meet editors?” The music supervisors and the editors are the most important people to know. So if you sent them an email, they might say cordially, “Yeah, send me some stuff.” And you send some stuff, and it may never get listened to.
I don't mind sharing what I did, because I think that everyone should try to pursue their dreams. I made postcards. And I knew every time I sent postcards, they were going to chuck them in the trash, but I did that for six months to a year. So when I finally did call them, subconsciously they said, “Oh yeah, I've heard of you,” only because they saw my postcard. So I spent a lot of money making these great-looking postcards, and whenever I would get a credit, I'd put the credit on the postcard and send that postcard out. It was hardest getting the first credit, which is true in almost anything you do. And I say that because when you do get your first one, don't be the diva. Be the one that's knowledgeable. Definitely be on time. Always meet your deadlines. They don't care if your computer crashed; you'd better run to Kinko's. Do whatever you have to do. No one wants to hear your sob story. Don't involve them in any of that.
(Editor's note: For more of this interview, see theonline bonus materialatemusician.com.)
Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer. He hosts the monthly Podcast “EM Cast.”