Settling the Score

I’m wrapping up, as those in show biz say, my documentary on film composers for the School of Cinematic Arts’ CTPR 474 course. I’ve hit a few snags here and there- to be expected for a first-time cinematographer- but haven’t experienced too much grief. That is, until today. Enter Brian King, Director of USC’s Scoring for Motion Picture and Television program: Lucy Van Pelt to my Charlie Brown. King is a warm, friendly, and dedicated member of the Thornton School of Music. He is well-connected, well-educated, and has deservedly run the SMPTV program for the past 12 years.

Choosing the subject of a documentary was an easy endeavor given my partner and my shared interest in music and fortune in taking a class in the School for Cinematic Arts (a luxury given to us through our master’s program in journalism.) Naturally, we were interested in working with King in showcasing the SMPTV program for its unique opportunities and invaluable education for composers in a city and industry ripe for failure.

I sent the following email to King on September 12:

Dear Brian,

Hello there. We are Jessica Hilo and [name omitted], two students in the Specialized Arts Journalism program at USC. Your contact information was given to us by Jon Burlingame.

We are filming a 15-minute documentary about film composers in Los Angeles; with particularly interest in understanding the “nitty gritty” of how one makes a career of music composition for film, and the day-to-day responsibilities, inspirations, hardships, and successes of a composer’s work.

To this end, we’d like to sit down with you to discuss the film composition program at USC’s School of Cinematic Art/Thornton School of Music- with the possibility of incorporating that discussion into an on camera interview featured in our documentary.

Please let us know when you might be available. If it’s possible to do it this coming week, that would be phenomenal.

A little bit about each of us: [my partner] comes from an administrative job at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, and Jessica comes from a similar position with the Santa Barbara Symphony. We are both music enthusiasts, journalists and (incidentally) dancers, and we look forward to meeting you and hearing your music!

Thanks again and all the best,

[partner name] & Jessica

H.O. Production [Hellion Orca Productions]

The email went unanswered. A week and half later, I resent the email with the following preface:

Dear Brian,

I wrote to you earlier regarding a documentary my partner and I are filming for Bill [name omitted]’s CTPR 474 film and tv documentary class. I would like to shoot exterior shots of Thornton Music Hall; and your name was passed along as the contact for clearance. I would love to work with you on this project and look forward to hearing from you.


Jessica Hilo

We received the following email that very day (September 24):

Dear Ms. Hilo,

I did receive your email. Unfortunately, due to a very demanding time schedule, I won’t be able to accommodate your request. Generally speaking, I like to make arrangements well in advance. And from the information in your email, it looks like you’re well into the process of producing your project.

As program director, and creator of this current version of the program, I would request any reference to the SMPTV program, including coursework, instructors, curricular and non-curricular activities, as well as any content linked to SMPTV student projects, be submitted for my review as well as my approval.


Brian King

The guy’s a director of a world-renowned scoring program. I appreciated his candor and respected his perspective, but this email signaled more hoop jumping and back scratching on our parts. In the weeks that followed, my partner and I were only privy to slices of information regarding the tone of King’s disdain for our documentary. Our subject, Alexis, said she had approached King on her own accord to ask if we could sit in on a scoring session. She was greeted with animosity. Bill wrote an email on our behalf with much the same return. Never one to coalesce (read: stubborn), I scheduled a meeting with Brian King to iron out what seemed to be a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings and leave King with a better sense of what we were trying to accomplish with our documentary.

That meeting, today’s meeting, resulted in a lot of headache. King outlined four major points:

1. Our initial email was incredibly informal and unprofessional

2. We should have contacted him earlier and for an earlier meeting to discuss use of the SMPTV program/permission for referential use of the program in our documentary.

3. He is incredibly put off by our behavior and seeming disrespect

4. He wants to see a full script, clips, and proposal if we intend to use SMPTV in any way (even mentioning it by name.)

Out of respect for King, the SMPTV program, and USC’s Thornton School of Music, I will omit certain admissions King made in confidence regarding the film- suffice it to say, that King, whose accusations of our informal and unprofessional manner, had a large stone in his hand for one residing in a glass house.

Moreover, it seemed that King wasn’t in touch with the mission of our CTPR class, let alone the investigative nature of our documentary. His suggestions for our film, were we to get his ok in mentioning SMPTV, merely theoretical now since our deadline is in a few weeks, were so micro-managerial and so dictated, that the resulting documentary would lack any creativity or objectivity whatsoever. It would, to put it plainly, be a press piece for the SMPTV program- which, in my opinion, has so many notable alumni carrying its weight that it could use some shutting up.

But it wasn’t King’s suggestions that harkens my frustration at the meeting, rather his overall tone during its undertaking. His hostility had a certain flavor of Manhattan entitlement (two parts classism, one part chauvinism) that makes me ask: would he use this tone if we were men? Taking film comp’s boys’ club atmosphere into consideration, this year’s SMPTV class still has only one female entrant. And rather than speaking with her, King suggested we interview Andrea [name omitted]. That’s only two women who have been associated with the program in a pool for our doc- one of which we cannot use and the other making her way up the food chain through the program’s connections (with all due respect, hardly a case study on the “nitty gritty.”) Is the veritable lack of female voices in the SMPTV program on purpose? Is the access given to us as students at USC limited because we are female?

It’s a shame for those associated with or who make their living from the SMPTV program to have a leader like Brian King; for, uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides. Until then, our film Score (working title) debuts Friday, December 4, 2009 7pm at Norris Theatre.