It's the Pits

When the producers of the upcoming fantasy film Warriors of Virtue decided to use the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to record the film's score, many saw it as a great opportunity to jump-start the struggling ensemble.

But now some people are singing a sour note, arguing that the CSO was so desperate to make the deal with the Denver-based Law brothers that negotiators were willing to ignore a mandatory contract clause that would pay royalties to the orchestra's musicians.

Pete Vriesenga, head of the Denver Musicians Association, the local union, defends the deal. "Colorado Symphony could really use some extra money in its coffers," he says, "and here was something that can bring notoriety and some extra cash. Is it wrong that some of the musicians and management wanted to barrel into the project and do it blindly?"

The American Federation of Musicians, the national musicians union of which Vriesenga's local is a part, has an answer: Yes, it's wrong. "We have a requirement that union musicians have to work with a signatory if they want to have continued employment," says AFM official Florence Nelson. Under AFM rules, what's called a signatory must sign off on the deal and ensure that terms are met and the union and its members get paid.

At issue is a "special payments fund" clause in a contract between the Colorado Symphony and the AFM, which represents the orchestra's musicians. The special fund contains royalty payments that kick in when the film hits other markets, such as video, cable and television. The royalty amounts to 1 percent of the producers' adjusted gross. No signatory, no royalties.

It doesn't sound like a lot of money, and usually it isn't. But if Warriors of Virtue--a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles-style fantasy (featuring kangaroo-like humanoids) that opens in May--turns into a huge hit, then the dollars begin adding up.

Though they have no comment on whether they violated the contract, CSO officials admit there is no signatory for the Warriors session. "Prior to recording, all CSO committee members were aware it was a non-signatory contract," says CSO official Valerie York. "They also received additional pay for services. Everyone seemed to be aware that that was the deal."

Vriesenga, however, says he found out about the non-signatory part of the deal the night before the orchestra went into the studio. And another member of the orchestra involved in the negotiations says the special fund was never brought up at all. "All the meetings we had, we didn't talk about that," says the musician, who asks for anonymity. "Nobody much considered it. I don't think anyone thought about it until we'd done the deal."

Shari Hoffman, electronic-media supervisor for the AFM, adds, "Musicians that I have spoken to are under the impression that there was a contract already in place."

Generally, the signatory is the producer of the film--in this case, the Law brothers, four Denver doctors who developed the film. But the brothers argue that they made the symphony a great deal--better than any residual package would have paid them. With regard to a potential legal dispute, Dennis Law sounds unconcerned. "If I'm wrong, I'll pay up," he says. "If I'm right, I'll tell them to go to hell."

The brothers say dealing with union contracts was not their problem. "I don't care what relationship they [the orchestra] have with AFM," says Ronald Law, the brother most closely tied to the negotiations. "There's no reason for me to want to sign up with unions everywhere to encumber my production with accounting that will be tied up for years."

The Laws point out that the AFM special-fund residual doesn't amount to much anyway. "By the time it trickles down, there's not much money here," says Dennis Law. "It's fighting over nothing."

"Probably in an average movie, it doesn't amount to all that much extra," Vriesenga concedes. "But if you happen to record a blockbuster film, it really pays off. I've talked to some musicians in L.A. that do a lot of this. A lot of them claim they make as much in their special-payment checks as they do in their regular recording fee."

Whatever the dollar amount may be, the AFM is tuning up for a possible fight. In a letter to Vriesenga in February, AFM president Steve Young urged the local union head "to immediately obtain the correct signatory status for all recordings that have taken place in order to avoid forcing the Federation to take legal action" against the CSO.

Young did not return several phone calls from Westword, but AFM official Nelson says AFM is just protecting its members' interests. "The union is very concerned about protecting its members and making sure that they get paid the appropriate amount," Nelson says. "And that's what we will endeavor to get."

But others wonder if the AFM is merely struggling to reassert its diminishing authority. Since 1970, the union's membership has dropped by half, and in recent years major orchestras such as those in San Francisco and Philadelphia have suffered acrimonious strikes. Divisive negotiations for a new Phonograph Record Labor Agreement last year had many questioning the value of nationally negotiated agreements, Vriesenga says. And everyone points out that in the soundtrack-recording business, many projects are now being recorded overseas with non-AFM orchestras, where the contractual climate is less bothersome for filmmakers.

Vriesenga thinks the national union is just making a fuss and won't sue. "If we were to force CSO to become a signatory, which could happen, then we'd be forcing them to pay money on a contract they don't have the ability to pay," he says.

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T.R. Witcher