What Songwriters Need to Know About Writing for, um, Hollywood

Everybody wants to get into the act. And why not? In Hollywood they stiff you whenever and however they can, just like everywhere else. But if what we write – TV show, film, theme song, score, gets made and shown – wow, what a thrill to be able to reach millions.

And sometimes somebody in power screws up, and guess what? Yeppers, we actually get paid.

TVWriter™ tips its hat to song writing and songwriters. Everywhere:

What? No Ableton?
What? No Ableton?

by Andrew Leahy

Before Los Angeles had record labels, it had movie studios.

Hollywood has been the center of America’s film industry for more than 100 years. It’s the town that gave us Citizen Kane, Gone With The Wind and The Graduate. A town whose backlots and sound stages include sights like Norman Bates’ house and the clock tower from Back To The Future. A town where all of the “Big Six” movie studios have headquarters. Songwriters like Brian Wilson may have created the “California sound” during the 1960s, but California had a look long before it had a sound.

So what happens when the look and the sound combine?

Even before movies had actual audio, their screenings usually involved some sort of live music. During the early 20th century, organists would play along with silent films, only stopping after the credits rolled. Even the Lumiere brothers got a piece of the action on December 28, 1895 – the day they held the world’s first movie screening ever – byhiring aFrench pianist to help add some sparkle to the event. From the very start, music and movies were close cousins.

Who gets to make that music these days, though? And how? Those are the questions we asked some of our favorite L.A.-based musicians, bandmates, songwriters, supervisors and licensing agents. Their answers paint the picture of a community that’s as diverse and complicated as the city that spawned it.


There’s always been a fine line between composers and songwriters. Composers write instrumental music and themes for films. Songwriters, on the other hand … well, songwriters write songs. And if you’re a songwriter looking to break into film, you should be prepared for a bit of an uphill climb.

“This isn’t the easiest world to break into, especially if your history is with a band,” admits Robert Schwartzman, frontman of the power-pop band Rooney and nephew of Godfather director Francis Ford Coppola.

In a town filled with hundreds of wannabe John Williams’, it helps to know someone on the inside. Someone who can grease the wheels, so to speak. For Schwartzman, that person was his cousin, Gia Coppola, who recently asked Schwartzman to write a full score – including instrumental music and traditional songs – for her independent film, Palo Alto.

“Typically, the filmmaker is either a big fan of the band,” Schwartzman continues, “and they think, ‘I just wanna work with this artist, and whatever we do, something cool is gonna happen,’ or that songwriter is someone who’s studied orchestration and has worked his way into the film world. If you’re a songwriter, you’re not really viewed as a composer. It’s a different beast. You need to find an entry point, a way to get your foot in the door.”

In a city like L.A., it’s common for musicians to have some experience in front of the camera. Take Jenny Lewis, who kicked off her career as a child actress before ditching the silver screen to form Rilo Kiley. Still, that doesn’t mean she wasn’t excited – and maybe a bit surprised – to receive a call from Disney in 2008, asking her to write music for the CGI film Bolt.

“I was so shocked that Disney asked me to do it, and the process was amazing,” Lewis says. “I was invited to come see the film before it was concluded. I got to stand in a room with sketches of the characters tacked up on the wall. I got to see a three dimensional figure of one of the characters. I went home and wrote the song in an hour, then demo’d it on Garageband and sent it along, and they put it in a Disney movie. A Disney movie! And that song has probably been heard by more people than any of my other songs combined.”

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