But this is no silent movie, so if you want to win that Oscar you need a composer, and a ruddy good one.
PART IV: SOUNDTRACK
Your first reaction may be John Williams. You probably think if he composes your film you are guaranteed an Oscar, but this is not the case. He may have won five Oscars over his career, but in the last twenty years he has won only one Oscar for sixteen nominations and that was Schindler’s List in 1994. On the other hand, Howard Shore has won three Oscars from four nominations since 2002 and Gustavo Santaolalla has won two from two (Brokeback Mountain and Babel).
Now you may be right to hire John Williams, because he is getting on and no doubt the Academy will honour him once or twice more during his lifetime, but don’t be surprised if this is just an honorary award. One thing that is clear is that rarely does a film win both Best Picture and Original Score. Not even in 2003 when big budget musical Chicago ruled the show could it also secure an Oscar for scoring. The reason for this is unclear and may well be coincidental, but it does seem clear (and far be it from me to suggest the Academy are not a heartless, corrupt profit-driven machine) that this category seems to be awarded almost entirely on merit.
Side note: Best Original Song has an infamously baffling history of winners, and so it is best not to get too worked up on this and focus instead on getting a powerful score.
The types of films that win do tend to vary, rather like Best Picture, but there are sweeping trends that indicate broader similarities in tastes among the thousands of Academy voters. There is a clear fondness for orchestral scores, even if those scores are deliberately subtle in their execution, one recent exception being The Social Network. There is also a rather ironic aversion to musical scores, unless those musicals are Disney animations. Moulin Rouge, Dreamgirls, and even music biopics such as Ray and Walk the Line failed to take home the Oscar despite winning other awards. Finally, if you want to win a scoring Oscar you have to really ramp up the percussion and strings, the voters bloody love a bit of that.
But if you look through the list of winners for Best Score, it ultimately comes down to finding the right person for the job, the person who can bring your story to life most effectively. The score serves as exposition, telling us everything we need to know about our characters before they utter a word. It builds an irresistible atmosphere, absorbing the viewer, enticing them in. Your composer needs to understand the story as much as your director and in doing so they will create a powerful dimension to the film. This is the bridge from a good little indie movie with a solid return to a credible and critically acclaimed awards contender. When you choose your composer you need to understand the context in which it’s meant to fit.
All things considered John Williams may well be a good choice for your movie, but he is a strong possibility this year with Lincoln, and if he wins he will be very unlikely to get another one so quickly, based on his previous record. Titanic and Avatar composer James Horner is another candidate for the job, as is Hanz Zimmer. Both have a track record at the Oscars, but not only do they have a poor conversion rate from their many nominations, their compatibility with your American period drama is questionable.
This brings us back to Shore and Santaolalla. The former has worked extensively on major Hollywood blockbusters including many Martin Scorsese films and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit series. The latter has remained mainly in foreign language cinema including several Oscar-nominated films such as Biutiful and The Motorcycle Diaries. His work is less mainstream and potentially more to the tastes of Michel Gondry. However, Gondry and the Weinsteins are deliberately playing for Oscars here, so you need to make sure you get a composer that can deliver the right score for your potential American history epic.
So if you want to win an Oscar for your Weinstein produced and Gondry directed American period drama starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Amy Adams with Richard Gere, Whoopi Goldberg, Chris O’Dowd, and Frances McDormand, you need legendary film composer Howard Shore.
PartT III: THE STUDIOS
Part II: CAST & CREW
Part I: GENRE