Underrepresented Composers Get a Helping Hand From New Agencies and Databases

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released its shortlists in nine categories in February, only one female composer made the cut for best original score — Lolita Ritmanis for “Blizzard of Souls.” Even then, the Emmy-winning composer was considered a long shot.

Ritmanis was up against Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who landed nominations for “Mank” and “Soul,” the latter alongside Jon Batiste), Terence Blanchard (“Da 5 Bloods”), James Newton Howard (“News of the World”), Alexandre Desplat (“The Midnight Sky”) and Ludwig Göransson (“Tenet”). Only Göransson wasn’t nominated.

Notably missing from that list were female composers who had contributed to film scores: Tamar-kali (“Shirley,” “The Assistant”), Amelia Warner (“Wild Mountain Thyme”) and Isobel Waller-Bridge (“Emma”) were among those who flew under the radar.

Since the Academy began handing out music Oscars, a total of five women have been nominated, and only three have won (excluding song categories). Ritmanis did not make the final five.

Meanwhile, Batiste’s win in the category represents just the second time a Black person has taken home the Oscar for score (Herbie Hancock won for 1986’s “Round Midnight”).

As Hollywood shifts to focus on representing women, diverse voices and people of color, new agencies are being set up to foster a fresh wave of composers in the film music industry.

Music supervision company SixtyFour Music is an official partner of Free the Work, a nonprofit talent discovery initiative founded by director Alma Har’el. The aim of Free the Work is to provide more opportunities for underrepresented below-the-line creators in TV, film and marketing.

Rebecca Grierson, managing director at SixtyFour, is the composer advocate for Free the Work, helping to grow a database of composers that offers choices to producers and promotes equal hiring practices within the industry.

Since 2017, Grierson has been working with a team to find women composers who had no representation. “We wanted to build the database with women who had some experience of composing for film, TV or games so people couldn’t counterargue that these people had no experience and so were not going to hire them,” she says. The database so far includes the names of 212 female composers.

The most recent Celluloid Ceiling report by the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film at San Diego State University revealed that women comprised just 5% of composers working on the top 250 grossing films of 2020, 1% fewer than in 2019.

“We feel like this is really shocking,” says Grierson, “because it’s not reflective of the talent that is out there.”

Anne Booty, a music supervisor and SixtyFour’s head of film & TV, points out that the barrier for women composers is the same one that women face across all categories. “It’s an old boys club,” she says. “People are bringing their friends on board.”

Booty notes that another reason for the lack of opportunity might be cultural, and illustrates the point by mentioning a female composer who didn’t get a job because she wasn’t pushy enough. “We’re taught to be polite and stand back,” she says. “Maybe that has something to do with it.” She suggests that up-and-coming composers shouldn’t be afraid to “find your mentors and ask, ‘How is this sounding?’”

“Evil Eye” composer Ronit Kirchman believes initiatives like Free the Work are on the right track. “Looking at an equal number of women and men for a given job would be pretty transformative,” she says. “That’s something that could be done from an institutional standpoint that I believe would have an effect on individual project hiring. People need to take a proactive stance when compiling their shortlists. That is definitely starting to happen.”

Composer Arbel Bedak (“The Stay Proud Project”) launched Spectra Creative Agency in March to advocate for diverse voices in film music. His clients represent a spectrum of cultures, personalities, genders and sexualities.

“When I talk about my roster of composers, one word I tend to use is championing these people,” he says of his approach. “Historically, there’s been a lack of that championing.”

Bedak is hoping his work will lead to more opportunities not just for women composers but for artists across the gender spectrum. “I feel there’s not enough trans representation in the scoring space, or even nonbinary composers,” he points out.

The advocacy of these groups seems to be having an effect. Booty has noticed a shift, albeit a small one, among those doing the hiring toward an understanding of the value of diverse voices. People are approaching her looking for talent that can offer authenticity in storytelling. “They’ll say, ‘This story follows a person of color,’” Booty explains. “‘We need to get a person of color to compose this.’”

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