By David John Farinella
Issue: December 1, 2003


Over the past year the audio post world once again underwent a shaking-out process where some of the market's weaker companies closed and some of the stronger gained work, personnel and equipment. Consider this "Business 101" - those who made plans for the tough times survived and those that didn't went away. Some post experts whose businesses have continued to grow through another rough and tumble year talked to Post about their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats over 2003 and where they saw things moving in 2004. While all agree the tough times aren't quite over, guarded optimism continues to rule.

Howard Schwartz

Owner, Howard Schwartz Recording, NYC

STRENGTHS: "Our long-term relationships continue to grow and we saw again how one man's misfortune is another's fortune - facilities and companies that are going under puts more business back in the marketplace and we were able to get our fair share of that in 2003. Hard work paid off, meaning tuning up our staff, rebuilding infrastructure during the summer when things were slower and expanding our realm into other parts of the advertising, film and television world. We created more services for our clients."

WEAKNESSES: "For the industry the weakness was people sitting back and using up their savings or depleting their cash hoping that their business will get back to normal. The word 'normal' doesn't exist anymore. I think anybody that is doing business the way they did before 9/11 is going to be out of the business shortly. I think that the business model of 2001 doesn't exist anymore and that we have to retrench, retool and re-think how we're going to do business.

"In this day and age our clients have now become our competitors and the people who did not differentiate themselves and just kept doing the same old business in the same old way were passed over."

Howard Schwartz Recording provided mixing services for a multi-spot Microsoft Xbox campaign.
OPPORTUNITIES: "We were always in the advertising, film and television world, but we performed a variety of services for our current advertising, film and television clients as opposed to just doing the one or two things. We found that the other stuff outside of our core business is growing and that our core business is not growing at the same percentage rate. Our not core businesses are growing by 50 percent and our core business is growing at about six or seven percent, the same as the economy. Our core business is our recording studio, mixing and sound design. Our business is still growing. Will it grow back to 1998 levels? I don't think so. But there's lots of other things we can do."

THREATS: "The company that is going out of business sets the price in town because they are doing anything they can do to stay alive. It's still going on. They'll give it away just to keep their heads above water. There are still bullies in the industry, including some of our clients and some of our clients' clients."

OUTLOOK 2004: "I think the number of spots coming out of the agencies is going to stay the same. I think you're going to see more in-house work being done and you have to come up with a different paradigm to keep them as a heavy client."

Mark Isham

Film Composer, Los Angeles

At press time, The Last Samurai was wrapping up audio post at Ascent Media's Creative Sound Group for early December release.
STRENGTHS: "At this point I have a lot of experience. It's dawned on me in the last year or so that I can now be working for directors who have significantly less experience than I have. It wasn't always that way. I think any composer's strength is the style at which they excel at and the way that that strength is best utilized is, of course, the right choice. In other words, if the music that is conceived of by the filmmaker is in fact in alignment with the strengths of the composer. The biggest thing with somebody working in the film scoring world is the ability to work with people. You can look around and see geniuses who can't get along with people and you can see people who are adequate, but have a great way of interacting in a group and supplying what the group needs, and they're working all the time."

WEAKNESSES: "I still get a little intimidated by films that want a wall-to-wall, hit-everything-on-the-nose score. I would say after 20-odds years in this business that technically, there are things that I enjoy doing and there are things that I don't enjoy as much. I pretty much have most of it figured out from a technical point of view. The thing I have to realize is that I just need to stick to the things that I really enjoy doing and that keeps me happy and much more inspired."

OPPORTUNITIES: "I've never taken my view completely off the independent world, but I'm really starting to keep a sharp focus on the independent world. This is the opportunity that you get artistically that you won't get anywhere else. This movie, The Cooler, is the perfect example. It was a very low-budget film and they had no money for the music, but the director had a vision and I was definitely part of his vision. It was an opportunity that I wouldn't get on a major studio film. Those are the opportunities that you have to go out and create for yourself."

THREATS: "That's a pretty rough word, but I think one of the annoying things is that the computer age is supposed to make everything so simple. Technology is supposed to be so easy and so fast, well it's actually a lie. I don't think it makes things any faster or easier. Yes, certain resolutions are better but somehow it's gotten into this point of view where you say 'Okay, I want this film finished in a week.' Certainly in the days of film and mag and pencil and paper and banging out a theme on a piano, which I never experienced [laughs] but I hear about it, nobody in their right mind would turn around and say they wanted a film finished in a week. Now you hear these sorts of things and all it means is that you still have to put in untold numbers of hours and hire untold numbers of assistants to come in and put in untold numbers of hours, supposedly because technology is helping. It doesn't."

OUTLOOK 2004: "There's definitely an interest in contemporizing film music. So, you see experiments from people from the 'pop world' coming in and scoring pictures to some great success and some less success. Then you see a lot of composers, such as myself, that have a foot in both worlds being asked if I have something more like Morcheeba or Fat Boy Slim. That's interesting, because it seems to me that there's a profound interest in finding someone who has the skill in the more traditional - the more emotions of romance or nobility or emotions that are more traditionally defined by melodic music - that can also handle the rough and tumble, aggressive pop influenced music that might accompany action. I think there's a real look for that, there's a real searching for the person that can give us the best of all worlds.

"I look at every film as an opportunity to learn something more about the language of music. I have no problem with film music moving into the future and creating the future. I am not hung up at all in any classic style of music that I feel is threatened at all. I do not fall into that category at all. To be asked to write something that would fit with Morcheeba but then to also turn on a dime and be romantic is a tremendous challenge. So, in a sense I think where we are going in 2004 is probably a broadening of a definition of film music."


Supervising Sound Editor, Skywalker Sound, Marin County, CA

STRENGTHS: "When we use the term sound designer here it means that someone meets with the director from the moment the project is awarded and that person follows it all the way to the end as the team leader. So, there's none of that confusion or conflict of interest that you get in other places. That was the whole basis of sound design here - the big picture was always the big picture from the very first day to the very last day. We also have a facility with all the latest and greatest and everything is under one roof and everyone has been together for a very long time."

WEAKNESSES: "It's the same thing that it's always been, we're out of town. We fight that fact even though we have FTP sites and tie lines and all the other things, and we can send everything electronically wherever you want it to be immediately. There's still that kind of barrier. So, getting people to come to Skywalker is difficult and it's also difficult for people to accept that they don't have to come up."

OPPORTUNITIES: "In the last few years there has been a tremendous change in the people that are in the editing business, because it's become more of a computer industry. Some of the old teams who are very creative have made the change, which has been good, and a lot of the people who are very computer literate have made the change to using the creative side of their brains."

THREAT: "I think technology is a threat to everybody in the post production business, because there isn't [a manufacturer] out there who's going to say, 'I'm going to build the greatest editing machine ever made.' They don't care. So, a lot of the stuff has stayed the same. The other thing is that post production is not that profitable of an industry that you can be on the cutting edge all the time if you want to stay in the black. We're lucky that we have George Lucas behind us, so we don't have to worry about that, but at the same time he's not going to throw every penny into every latest development. You just have to pick your moments to drop the big bucks."

OUTLOOK 2004: "Things had gone very quiet for a little while. There was definitely a slump. Things seem to be picking up speed and there's an awful lot going on here next year. It seems like it's going to be a very busy year. We're expanding right now and there are six new sound design suites and editorial pods and things. It's getting very competitive in the industry, that's for sure."


President, Ascent Media Creative Sound Group, Hollywood

STRENGTHS: "All of our editorial and creative people, and our ADR, Foley and mixing stages are connected through a gigabit connection across Los Angeles. We have the ability to streamline the logistics of delivery both to the stage to cut tracks as well as returning tracks to editorial for changes and updates and getting it back to the stage for pre-mix. It's a streamlined system that puts all of the creative staff virtually in one place. So when it's time to get ready for a session, instead of loading things off drives, we import and upload materials directly from the servers, put it on the local hard drive or Pro Tools, which we use for play back on all of our stages, and be able to start working within a few minutes of receiving that material. We also have access to our central sound library at every location, so you no longer have a sound editor coming to a dubbing stage with their little packet of sound effects."

WEAKNESSES: "A general weakness is the industry has contracted a lot in the last year and the studios have taken on a great deal of work that used to be outsourced to all the independents, of which we are one. I would say that there are a lot of pricing pressures that are coming from the marketplace in terms of supply and demand. Our goal is to deliver quality creative work but also run a profitable business, and I think the combination of being oriented toward having a healthy business isn't always in sync with the requests from clients for cheaper pricing on what is highly creative tasks that we perform.

"The television marketplace is not driven by directors and producers that produced and created the shows in production, they have a completely different set of people that complete the shows and often times there is a need to finish shows with a finite amount of financial support. That marketplace is a very difficult one from an economic and creative perspective because of the lack of resources that you can put toward a show. So, the difference in that market and the feature market is that you don't have the same strength of the creative forces driving the process. That's not to say that these producers are not extremely creative and committed to the quality of their product in conjunction with the limitations of their budget parameters."

OPPORTUNITIES: "Our biggest opportunities had to do with utilizing our infrastructure to be able to continue to evolve as the business evolves. I used to say that this isn't rocket science, but over the last 10 years it's become much more like rocket science. In fact, the education it takes for staff members to operate some of these complicated software platforms that are integrated and controlling hardware devices is really time consuming and deep."

THREATS: "The biggest threat that I perceived in the past year, as well as in future years, has been a continued feeling by the producing community that sound work is a commoditized field because of technology. Our biggest challenge is to get the producing community to understand that we're dealing in one of the most highly creative fields - motion pictures. Sound is one of the few fields where you've got to bring everything from scratch to the party - you're building something from scratch, like building a set. So, we really have a threat to our existence as a sound community, not just Ascent Media, in so far as the commoditization of what we do and the lack of understanding by the producing community of how important the individual creative person is in that process.

"[One] threat that we are up against is a continued pressure for downward pricing by our clientele. The biggest threat in the television market is the reduced overall production budgets and increased risks that the studios or production companies suffer in their opportunity to get something into syndication. As that risk increases they want to limit their risk so they want to limit their budget, and [now there are] low price providers entering that marketplace who don't need the credits to do feature films."

OUTLOOK 2004: "We're hoping for some real expansion. We're expecting '04 to be fairly consistent with the amount of movies we did in '03, and we're hearing from distributors, that there's greater difficulty for the low to medium budget films to get a place to be exhibited, and I think it's actually causing a decrease in that market. That's affecting us because we plan for those movies and our staff plans on doing all kinds of movies. On the television side, the amount of reality shows being done will hopefully decrease slightly and we'll get back into dramas. However, the reality shows seem to be popular with everyone. I think that the sitcom market is going to stay strong and the one-hour drama multicams will stay consistent. I'm also concerned with the amount of movies of the week. I think that those will be decreasing slightly, as well as what's being produced in the States versus what's being produced overseas. There are a lot of things happening in the United Kingdom, but that's produced an opportunity for us as well. We've actually just opened a Soundelux in Soho in London and we're working on our first film, which is Wolfgang Peterson's film Troy. I guess that's an opportunity for '04 and that's a big opportunity for us. We believe that we're able to provide high-end organization to the existing sound community in the UK for the benefit of a lot of the major studios in the States that are finishing their films in the UK."