On The Music Beat
The Ins and Outs of Music Placement in Movies and TV Series
Featuring : Julia Michels
Music Supervisor– Format Entertainment
By Frances and Harry Date – Song Matchmakers Network
Julia Michels is an independent Music Supervisor who has enjoyed a rewarding career in the film music industry for over twenty years. She is currently working on jet setting romantic comedy Baggage Claim (Fox), starring Paula Patton and Derek Luke, directed by multiple NAACP award-winning playwright, David Talbert. She most recently completed work on the highly anticipated Christmas release, Parental Guidance (Fox), starring Bette Midler and Billy Crystal, and the irreverent a cappella comedy Pitch Perfect (Universal Pictures).
Prior box office success includes the lucrative Alvin & The Chipmunks: Chipwrecked! (Fox), the illustrious Sex & The City (1 & 2) (New Line Cinema/WB), critically acclaimed drama The Blind Side (Alcon/WB), beloved family trilogy Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Fox), and the indie film A Single Man (The Weinstein Company), which was nominated for Best Original Score at the Golden Globes. Other notable films she has supervised include Hope Springs (Mandate Pictures), Marley And Me (Fox), the Oscar Nominated (Best Song) and Grammy Nominated (Best Soundtrack) August Rush (WB), and the 2006 blockbuster The Devil Wears Prada (Fox).
Before her independent status, Julia most recently held the position of Sr. Vice President of Music for MGM Pictures, overseeing such films as Be Cool, Beauty Shop and the remake of The Pink Panther. Before working at MGM, Julia was the Vice President of Soundtracks at EMI Records. In this role she oversaw soundtracks for all the labels in the EMI family including Capitol, Virgin, Priority and Blue Note records. Prior to EMI, Michels spent four years as the Vice President of Music for Twentieth Century Fox. Here she supervised all music for features produced by Twentieth Century Fox, Fox 2000, Fox Searchlight and Fox Animation film divisions. She was the music executive on such projects as Daredevil, Unfaithful, Down With Love, and The Banger Sisters. Before joining Fox, Michels was the Director of Soundtracks for Capitol Records and was instrumental in the creation of such soundtracks as Hope Floats, Good Will Hunting, There’s Something About Mary and Never Been Kissed. During her extensive career in the film/soundtrack business, she has also been a music editor, a co-owner of an independent record label, and an agent for film composers.
Julia’s contribution to films continues to warrant staggering box office results. Sex and the City alone grossed over $415 million. Together, Julia’s major box office hits have totaled over 1.7 billion in worldwide ticket sales.
Recent recognition includes both the 2010 and 2012 award for Outstanding Music Supervision in Film by the Hollywood Music In Media Awards, and the 2011 award for Best Music Supervision in Film by the Guild of Music Supervisors.
1. SMN: What is your favorite moment in the process of music supervising?
JM: Oh my gosh what is my favorite moment. I can think of two. Can I have two? One is when I have that “aha moment,” when I’ve actually found, or think I’ve found, the perfect song for the perfect scene after looking for months or sending hundreds of options. I’m not joking when I say a hundred for one scene. It’s that moment when I say this is it, I found it and I’ll send one song either to the director or the editor and it goes right into the movie, which is very rare. I’ve had a few of those moments. I can always remember where I was when I found the song or how late at night it was. Those kinds of moments are few and far between, but I do love them.
My other favorite moment is being on the scoring stage, when an 85 or 100 piece orchestra is playing the score “live” to the picture. It’s just magical. We get the best musicians in the world; in Los Angeles and London or wherever we go. The movie comes to life, and, although it is not a song driven moment, usually, I’ve had something to do with the score. It’s one of those moments when I love my life.
SMN: That’s interesting. I never realized that the orchestra is actually playing behind the scene.
JM: They are! We record on a “scoring stage.” There are a lot of amazing scoring stages in Los Angeles. There is one at Fox, one at Sony, and one at Warner Brothers. We also score out of town. We score in London; we score in Seattle, and I’m usually at those sessions as well. That’s another part of music supervision. I think people think we listen to songs all day, which we do, but music supervisors are also very involved with the composer and the score.
2. SMN: How do you find music for shows and movies? Do you have a catalog of songs, and do you send out a song search of the scene you’re working on to known sources?
JM: There are various ways that I do this. I have a library in my office of over 100,000 songs that we’re constantly managing. We receive CDs and digital links daily, and are always listening through those and importing into our library what we think are appropriate for the kind of films that we do.
When I do get to a project where I need something specific, we have contacts at labels, publishers, and indie pitching companies. I go to those reputable people, and they pitch to me. I also look on iTunes and Spotify; when we have a search it’s sort of a combination of everything.
3. SMN: When you first read a script, what is your process for deciding what scenes will have music? How do you decide what genre and the general direction of the music to use? Is there anyone else involved in that process?
JM: That normally depends on when I’m brought on to a film. If I’m brought on to a film that hasn’t been shot, I read the script and break it down for music. There are two categories; the first is music that will be handled in post-production, when the movie is shot. The other category, which has to be done before shooting, is what we call “on-cameras.” So, for instance, if anybody is singing on camera, doing any choreography or playing in a band, those get grouped into the second category, and are the first priority. We need to find the song, clear the song, and in many instances, go into the studio and do pre-records with either our actors or artists before we shoot. So when we get to the set, there is something for the actors to lip-sync to or a guide for live recording.
I recently finished a movie called Pitch Perfect, which is a comedy set in the a cappella singing world. I worked on this movie with a partner, another Executive Music Producer. It was the most intense project I’d ever worked on. There were 40 on camera a cappella moments, and we had to do everything before we shot. Then in post, we were overdubbing many of the tracks, flushing out arrangements and mixing levels…many, many components. That’s another conversation in itself.
4. SMN: You’ve been the music supervisor on some outstanding box office hits, including The Blind Side, Sex and the City, and the Devil Wears Prada. Do you have a favorite story, something that happened on the set of those films, or another, that you’d like to share with us?
JM: I have a great story from the Devil Wears Prada. For those who have seen the movie, there’s a very, very big montage using a U2 song, called “The City of Blinding Lights”, when our main character (Anne Hathaway) goes to Paris.
During shooting, a film studio will often ask a director to put a bunch of scenes together for them so they can see what he/she is doing. The director actually put that song in a sizzle reel and sent it to the studio, so it was kind of an “anthem” of the movie from the very beginning.
But U2 is always a process to get cleared, as you would imagine. They have approval over everything. We had to send the scene to one of the band members – we didn’t even know which band member we were sending it to – to watch it. I was with the director when he got a phone call from one of the band members who said, “not only is this approved, but it is the best use of one of our songs in a movie EVER.” Talk about a compliment. It was just like “wow” to get that stamp from U2, a pretty exciting moment.
SMN: And it was a great movie too.
5. SMN: What is your role pre and post-production, and who do you interact with at those times?
JM: Kind of what I’ve mentioned before. Pre-production depends on if there are any on-cameras, then I’m very involved. I’m dealing with the director, the producers, and the studio.
In post-production, before the studio even sees the movie, I’m usually in with the director and the filmmakers. I’m helping the director to realize what his or her vision is musically. The studio doesn’t become part of the process until after they deliver the director’s cut. So until then it’s kind of nice, we are sort of in our own little cocoon, and no one is bothering us. No one is telling us what they want or giving us notes. We can do whatever we want, within the realms of the budget. We always have to keep that in mind.
Once the studio becomes involved, they have their wishes and their agenda that they need to fulfill. So I’m the go-between at that point between the studio and the director to make everybody happy and give both sides what they want.
That’s the challenging part of this job. Sort of like being the mother that makes it all work!
SMN: You’re doing a great job at it.
JM: Thank you
6. SMN: Can you give us an idea of what is paid for an unknown song that is placed in a movie for a montage scene or for an on-camera placement?
JM: That is all determined by the overall film budget. I’ve done movies where I’ve paid $10K all-in for a montage song, and I’ve paid $250K all-in for a montage song. As you get bigger budgets you can put in more reputable and known artists. If you are dealing with smaller budgets you just go for great songs. You don’t have to know the artists; they just have to be great songs.
On the Wimpy Kid movies – I’ve done all three Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies – I’ve placed songs in the film that are $3K or $5K all-in, though probably not a montage. It just takes all kinds. You have to get really creative, and that’s where my contacts and the people that pitch to me come in handy, because we work together, we’re partners. They know what I need to do, and they are there to help me do it.
So it’s a puzzle. You have to put the pieces together depending on where you want to land, budget-wise.
7. SMN: What about background or source music. What is generally paid for those placements?
JM: Same kind of variables. As I mentioned, in Wimpy Kid I’ve done $3K all-in cues and $500 all-in cues, and in other movies I’ve done more. You probably wouldn’t pay $250K for something that’s playing on the radio though; you have to prioritize. It just depends on the artist and the budget. It’s not a constant. It’s hard to be specific about that.
SMN: That’s interesting, because I always thought “source music” was on a low budget end, because of that being in the background.
JM: Yes and no. If you are in a bar and it’s a country music bar and they want to set the country music vibe, they might want to play an authentic country song. It may not be Hank Williams, Jr., but maybe a more contemporary country artist. They will pay a little more money for those that are on labels. If not, you can look at the less expensive options.
8. SMN: You handle the licensing side as well as the creative side. It’s important to keep your finger on the pulse of technology when you’re clearing rights for “all media,” as that term no longer is limited to TV, radio, and film/theatrical performances. What other areas are included with technology being what it is today?
JM: I’m lucky enough to work on studio films where they have large clearance departments so I don’t have to get into negotiating media rights. What I do, and where my relationships come into play, is to be involved in the negotiation of the price of the song, the upfront fee. I will call my contact at Atlantic Records and say I have, for example, $40K all-in, can we make this work? Then I hand in my clearance request to the studio with the fee pre-cleared. They will then handle the rest of negotiating the “all media” rights. I try to do that as much as possible to make things go smoothly and to take the guessing out of what everything will cost. I can’t do that on every song of course, but I do my best!
9. SMN: How do you like to receive submissions and how do you catalog the songs you like?
JM: Good question! My coordinator, who’s a rockstar, is the one who really catalogs the music. I don’t even know how many playlists we have. We have 60’s jazz, radio pop, R&B etc– we have as many specific playlists as possible. We just keep sliding the songs in and creating new playlists because that way we don’t have to start from scratch every single time and search through 100,000 songs. It just would never be possible to get anything done.
We also go back to searches, like with Wimpy Kid, I had a million songs about summer, great fun summer songs. I have a playlist called “great summer songs,” so when I need another one for another movie, I might go back to that Wimpy Kid summer song search; I’m sure I’d find something.
In the meta data we always write who pitched the song, if it was pitched for a price, and the company it came from, so we can reference it super quick. If we don’t know where the song came from, we can’t fill out the clearance request.
SMN: Do you prefer CDs or digital downloads, and what’s the best way to send submissions?
JM: If I’m asking for something and I need it right away, I definitely want a digital link. If it’s a new CD coming out, like Christina Aguilera, I want the CD. I will listen to it in my car. I still have them in my office. Some supervisors have done away with CDs totally, but I’m a little old school. I want my son to know what a CDs is; I don’t want him to grow up without CDs! Fortunately he loves CDs, so I make sure that they are around.
SMN: I know what you mean about the CDs, I feel the same way. It’s different listening time when you are driving around listening to one song after another.
Absolutely. When I used to listen to my albums, I read EVERY liner note. I wanted to know who wrote each song, who produced, who the artist thanked etc. I’m still very interested in all of that, who the artists collaborated with…you can’t get that on a digital download.
SMN: When submitting a new artist CD, do you want to see a press kit with some of their pictures, some biography?
JM: I don’t need any press. It just needs to be a great song. If I want them for an on-camera performance, to be in the movie, playing, then I might need a photo. Otherwise, that kind of stuff goes in the trash, I don’t have time to read it all.
10. SMN: When you’re looking for new talent, what website do you most often visit? And what other avenues do you use to look for new talent?
JM: I don’t really have time to browse websites. I have a coordinator and I have interns, they are really the people that keep me apprised of any new talent that’s up and coming. They make me monthly samplers of new artists and new bands. That’s kind of how I keep up on what’s new. If one of my record label contacts calls and says, “we just signed this band, they are really a priority for us, please come to the show,” I’m going to go to the show. I know that it’s a priority and that it’s important for my contact at that label. I just don’t have time to go to websites and look for new talent. It’s kind of unfortunate, because people spend a lot of time on their websites, but we just don’t have that kind of time.
11. SMN: We’re often told to do our homework before contacting someone and that a good place to get information is on IMDB. We looked up your newest project, Parental Guidance, there, and it said this:
When his daughter goes away for work, a grandfather finds himself having to take care of his three grandkids using 21st century methods — though he soon resorts to an old-school style of parenting.
SMN: Based on that information, how would someone know what music you’re looking for? Where else could they get detailed information?
JM: It’s a tough question, because I always want to be encouraging to people pitching their songs for film and television. But honestly, they are not going to know from that description. They are however going to get enough of an idea about the movie to say, “Hey I’m interested in finding out about Parental Guidance,” which is better than, “Hey what are you working on?”
If someone who is a friend/colleague calls us about Parental Guidance, we will always tell them what we are looking for. I also say that for those I met in Nashville, since I have so many great relationships there now. Other than that, if someone is going to get their music placed, they should have a representative. We are always talking about these great pitching companies. They do the research, they know all of us, they know what we are working on, and they will call specifically, or sometimes I’ll get an IM, “Hey did you get what you needed for Parental Guidance. Do you need anything else?” They know what we are working on. That’s always really nice.
I don’t know if this question is geared to someone who wants to get their songs in film and television, but it’s hard to do it on your own. It’s hard to just be sitting in your home office and wondering how to do the research, because you are not having the conversations with the people who are having the conversations.
It’s like the Nashville music scene: you have to be plugged in. It’s hard to do it from the periphery.
You have to be plugged in.
12. SMN: This article will be appearing on AIMP (Association of Independent Music Publishers) website, NSAI (Nashville Songwriters Association International) e-mail and our Song Matchmakers website. What advice would you give to publishers and songwriters/artists who want to place their songs in movies and TV?
JM; If you are an independent artist and want to pitch your songs, I strongly suggest you find a company or individual that pitches, unless you happen to meet one of us at a conference and start up a relationship. I certainly have had the pleasure of meeting a few great artists this way. For the most part though, I think if you are really good and get in with one of these companies, that’s when you are going to get your music in front of the people who make the decisions. I just can’t take unsolicited music, as I’m sure you have heard me say before, as it’s too much of a liability.
13. SMN: Many times it’s difficult to uncover the Music Supervisor’s name to pitch songs for TV shows and movies. IMDb doesn’t always list it, and the networks and production companies won’t give out that information. Do you have any suggestions?
JM: Another good question. Well, I know that not every movie has a supervisor attached, so that’s tough, and many projects are done in-house. I know that publications are out there that track all of this info, but unfortunately I can’t remember the name…
I know the Hollywood Reporter and Variety have the weekly production charts. When I was an agent and worked with composers, I would track movies that way, but I don’t know if they list supervisors. I know they list studios. I know there is a publication, but I can’t find the name of it. I can’t be that helpful.
SMN: Well Hollywood Reporter is a good start.
SMN: Any comments on Parental Guidance that we should know?
JM: Can I tell you this is one of my favorite, favorite movies that I’ve worked on? I love the director; his name is Andy Fickman, and he’s the best guy, really creative, really smart, and he lets his people do their jobs, so I really loved working with him.
This movie is a generational comedy. So you’ve got Bette Midler and Billy Crystal, Marisa Tomei and Tom Everett Scott, and their kids. It was one of those movies that I keep telling people about, that feels like it was made ten years ago, when movies were just great stories and not tons of action or had to be weird and creepy. It’s a movie with heart. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. It has something for everybody.
SMN: We’re looking forward to it.
JM: You guys will love it, love it. Bette and Billy are at their best; they have great chemistry.
SMN: I can’t wait
14. SMN: Is there a question we didn’t ask that we should have asked?
JM: I don’t know; you guys are pretty good. I think you pretty much covered it.
Thank you Julia for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us.