Listen Closely

12.23.13

Meet the Musicians Behind (Almost) Every Movie Trailer Score

Boiling down a film like Catching Fire into a two-minute piece of music is a unique art form. The guys at Immediate Music have been pumping out high-adrenaline scores for 20 years.

Before the critical and commercial success of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire—the record-breaking box office, Jennifer Lawrence’s pixie cut, the themed Barbies—there was just a trailer. Like most of today’s blockbusters, the first footage of this dystopian sequel was packaged in a sleek teaser, filled with quick cuts, multiple cliffhangers, and costly special effects. It featured a tense shot of Katniss Everdeen, facing off against a Panem officer; breathtaking views of The Capitol; elaborately designed costumes, like the winged Mockingjay gown; and a booming, high-adrenaline score.

Normally, when a trailer for a tent-pole film like Catching Fire debuts, it undergoes a thorough CSI-level examination, with fans and critics dissecting every frame in search of plot points, twists, and Easter eggs. But unless your clip includes a famous song (say, Led Zeppelin’s “Good Times, Bad Times” in American Hustle) or a new track by a popular artist (Karen O’s “The Moon Song” for Spike Jonze’s Her), the score will often scoot by unnoticed. However, that shouldn’t diminish its importance. Part of an enormous, multi-tiered industry, original trailer compositions are a key component to a studio’s marketing campaign, helping set the tone of a film and giving audiences a taste of what to expect before they head to the theater.

Scoring an entire movie can be a taxing assignment, but boiling down its most important moments into a two-minute piece of music is its own unique art form. You have to successfully hit the film’s highs and lows in 120 seconds, all within a studio’s specific guidelines, and you have to do it without sacrificing the spirit of the movie. These projects—which can cost anywhere from $500 to $50,000, depending on the length of the trailer, where it will be seen, and the number of musicians required––will often need to be completed in a truncated period of time. That includes brainstorming, composing, hiring an orchestra, and recording the piece, sometimes in the span of a few days.

Today, dozens of companies specialize in composing songs for movie trailers. However, at the top of the list is Immediate Music. Created in 1993 by musicians Yoav Goren and Jeffrey Fayman, Immediate owns over 5,000 song licenses, which have specific, theme-oriented names like “Lacrimosa,” “Survive the Game,” and “Prince of Darkness.” Over the last 20 years, Goren and Fayman—along with the company’s third in-house composer, Greg Dombrowski—have written and produced tracks for some of the biggest films in history, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight Rises, and Catching Fire.

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But before Immediate became one of the most sought-after composing houses in Hollywood, Goren and Fayman were just amateur musicians looking to break into the business. For Fayman, the idea of scoring trailers began back in the late ‘80s, when he got the opportunity to do one for a film called Mutant Hunt.

“I was just lucky that someone I knew 25 years ago worked in film trailers as an editor. He heard some of my music and said ‘Your music is really visual. Would you like to try to do a trailer?’ I didn’t really know anything about it. I thought they always used the music from a movie for the advertising campaigns. But he showed me that they didn’t,” says Fayman, echoing a common misconception regarding movie trailers: that their music is just a chopped-up version of the official film soundtrack and not a custom creation.

Several years later, Fayman crossed paths with Goren at a music store in Santa Monica, where he was selling keyboards and software. The two quickly bonded over their shared love of film scores and ambitions of composing their own. Eventually, Fayman told Goren about the work he was doing with trailer music, suggesting that they might be able to break into the film scoring business that way.

“I was intrigued because it was a vehicle that allows the composer to write big thematic music without really having to do 95 percent of the other soundtrack, which is a lot of underscoring and clarinets and pizzicato strings—kind of incidental music—whereas this was the big statement,” says Goren.

Before long, the duo got to work composing tracks together. Their first job was an ad campaign for the 1993 Academy Awards. Months later, they got their shot at a major movie, writing the trailer music for Carlito’s Way. It was a project that helped put Immediate Music on the map—but getting it done wasn’t easy.

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“It was the trailer from hell,” says Fayman, about Carlito’s Way. “We were working 20-hour days. Finally... everyone signed off and said ‘OK, now we want to do this with an orchestra.’ And we were like, Oh, OK. We had to pretend—we had never worked with an orchestra.”

Making things more complicated at the time was the fact that they would often have to turn around their compositions overnight, a process that would eventually inspire the name of their company. While the two co-owners enjoyed putting together these types of custom-made trailer songs, they soon realized that the short time frame wasn’t conducive to what they were trying to accomplish, so they decided to start composing trailer scores before they were even requested by the studio.

‘I really liked the trailer. It looked great. And then the movie comes out and it’s this complete disaster,” says Goren, about After Earth. ‘So we are kind of in our own little world here.’

“Up until then, the go-to thing was to pull from soundtracks of other movies into your trailer,” says Goren. “But then that music might have been great for 15 seconds for a big climax, and then kind of falls off a cliff, because it was scored to a film. Our music was really scored to imaginary trailers.”

Creating a back catalog of trailer songs was almost unheard of at the time, particularly because library music—tracks owned by production companies, which are then licensed to other businesses—had a very negative connotation. But the work Immediate was doing was top-notch.

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There are obviously pros and cons to scoring music to an imaginary trailer. While you’re forced to go on your own visual instincts, you’re not tethered to any specific guidelines or production notes from the studio. The latter scenario is often a rarity for musicians, who are forced to confine to corporate pressure and a shrinking financial base. Luckily for Immediate, it’s not the only area where the company is able to flex a little independence. While most of the people working in the movie industry today are connected to the rise and fall of box office receipts, trailer libraries are essentially immune.

Take the poor performance of After Earth. Before its critical and commercial drubbing, there was an entertaining trailer, which featured shots of a post-apocalyptic earth, as well as a jaw-dropping sequence where Will Smith gets sucked out of a spaceship like a vacuumed piece of dust. Immediate were the ones who scored the footage. But while the film eventually tanked at the box office, it wasn’t a loss for Immediate. They weren't involved with the cost of the movie's special effects nor the actors' salaries.

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“I really liked the trailer. It looked great. And then the movie comes out and it’s this complete disaster,” says Goren, about After Earth. “So we are kind of in our own little world here, and we’re fortunate we’re not completely divorced from the film. But it’s fairly insulated.”

It’s both weird and refreshing to hear that a business so ingrained in the movie industry isn’t directly bogged down by the economics of one film. In fact, the 20 years Immediate has spent writing trailer scores has given them a unique perspective on Hollywood in general, particularly how quixotic and bizarre it can sometimes get. Studios are so paranoid about leaks—with trailers, movie titles, plot points—that they will often go to extreme measures to prevent them from reaching the public’s ear. But, funny enough, the most secretive trailer Immediate ever worked on wasn’t for a superhero movie. It was for Waterworld, the 1995 adventure flick and one of the biggest flops in Hollywood history.

As Immediate Music moves into their third decade in the business, they continue to write traditional scores, like the one they did for Catching Fire, as well as more unconventional ones, like the score they completed for the Seth Rogen and Zac Efron comedy Neighbors––an a capella version of the Sesame Street song “People in Your Neighborhood,” a job that Goren calls “really odd, yet very satisfying.” Immediate is also still one of the go-to companies in the industry, which has seen an increasing number of rivals pop up in the last 20 years. According to Soundtrack.net, a site that compiles information on trailer music, Immediate Music currently holds three of the top five positions in the most-used trailer scores category. (Both Goren and Fayman assure me that they are still at the top of that list, however the information on the site is out of date; they also passon giving the officials numbers.)

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Since 1993, the movie trailer has transformed from a singular piece of advertising into its own unique art form, one that gets watched, analyzed, and shared over and over again. But no matter what shape the trailer morphs into in the future, Goren and Fayman will always be asking the same types of questions: What are the clients looking for? Is this piece doing it for them, creatively? Does the chorus get big enough or is it too busy?

“To be in the music business is very challenging these days. But for us personally, it doesn’t really change. The goal is to be creative. As a composer, you’re dealing with that, no matter how successful you’ve been. No matter how many people love you, from John Williams on down, you have to reinvent yourself, you have to be creative in a meaningful way,” says Goren. “Not just what you’ve done in the past. You’ve got to really push yourself.