March 25, 1996

On a Disk, 'Nixon' Faces the Music


Of the five original film scores nominated for an Oscar, John Williams' soundtrack for "Nixon" has a certain something extra.

When popped into a CD player, the soundtrack plays like any conventional music disk. But placing it into a computer's CD-ROM drive opens a storehouse of related material. It includes the film's preview "trailer," movie stills, video interviews with the director and composer and an annotated cast list.

These digital flourishes are unabashedly promotional, and they may have little bearing on whether the brooding "Nixon" score earns Williams a statuette at Monday night's Academy Awards ceremony.

But Oscar-nominee status for the first -- and so far, only -- film soundtrack in the emerging format known as enhanced CD is drawing attention to the inherent multimedia potential of movie music. And other composers are taking note.

"It seems fitting that as we can market a film with incidental music, we can now sell music with incidental film," said Michael Kamen, whose movie-score credits include the "Lethal Weapon" and "Die Hard" films and who is a nominee for this year's best-song Oscar with "Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman" from "Don Juan de Marco."

"Consumers are trained to respond only to the newest films, but music has a significant shelf life," Kamen said. "And as soundtrack music gains a new respectability, enhanced soundtracks could become a major attraction."

Certainly, soundtracks could use a lift. Except for the occasional big sellers like "The Lion King," whose soundtrack has sold 10 million copies, and "The Bodyguard," which has sold more than 15 million, movie scores typically do not sell well.

The category represents only about 1 percent of the record market, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

And so far, whatever the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may say about the artistic merit of the "Nixon" soundtrack, it is not exactly flying off the shelves.

The $16.95 disk has sold only about 5,000 copies since its release in January by Walt Disney Co.'s Hollywood Records label, according to Sound Scan, which tracks music sales.

Yet the Billboard music charts were not necessarily the target. Kip Konwiser, vice president of interactive entertainment for Graphix Zone Inc., the Irvine, Calif., company that developed the CD, said the disk was primarily a promotional tool for the movie that "helps people remember the music and enjoy it outside of the theater."

Williams and the director of "Nixon," Oliver Stone, declined to be interviewed for this article. But Hans Zimmer, the composer who won last year's film-score Oscar for "The Lion King," said he doubted that the enhanced CD format had anything to do with the "Nixon" score's nomination.

"The academy is made up of a lot of people who don't even know how to put a disk into a Mac or an IBM," Zimmer said. " 'Nixon' was nominated because it was a serious piece of work by a serious composer."

Regardless of what the enhanced CD format did or not do to enhance the "Nixon" score, the release of a film soundtrack may help give the format a raison d'etre. Since its introduction in late 1994, the enhanced CD has remained primarily an experimental technology used by artists outside the music industry's mainstream.

The idea for an enhanced CD, which does not contain as much multimedia content as the average CD-ROM, was conceived as a way to recapture the space for art and "liner notes" text that was lost when the 12-inch LP album cover was compressed into the 51/2-inch compact-disk case.

These new disks, which are usually priced comparably to standard CDs, can contain music videos, interviews, drawings, still photography and other material that complements the music.

Though the medium is still a work in progress, major labels like Sony, Capitol, Warner Brothers and Atlantic have active enhanced-CD departments.

Veteran artists looking for a new edge -- including the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Yoko Ono, Todd Rundgren and Jackson Browne -- have released enhanced products, while younger bands are recognizing the format as a way to underscore their cutting-edge cachet or convey their identities to a public not yet familiar with them.

But unlike these artistic embellishments, which add costs to the making of an album without necessarily adding many buyers, the release of a movie soundtrack on enhanced CD allows the producers to recycle at least some existing material from the film-making and movie-marketing process.

In fact, the "Nixon" enhanced CD is something of a spinoff from a larger endeavor, a Graphix Zone CD-ROM biographical project on President Richard Nixon that began as a tie-in to the Oliver Stone film. It was during work on the CD-ROM that the developers had the idea for enhancing the soundtrack disk.

Graphix Zone's next enhanced soundtrack, a hard-rock disk produced with Philips Media, is for "Barb Wire," a Gramercy Pictures film adaptation of a cult comic-book hero.

The disk is to be released this spring in advance of the movie, and the hope is that the stunts, special effects, interviews and behind-the-scenes footage will help sell the disk, which will in turn help sell the film, said Ted Cohen, vice president of multimedia music at Philips Media, which, along with Gramercy Pictures, is owned by Philips Electronics NV.

Other producers see film buffs, not music lovers, as the target audience for enhanced-CD soundtracks.

"This process is for those who love film and know more about the individual movie, the actors and how it was made," said Paul Atkinson, president of nu.millennia/records, a Los Angeles label that is developing an enhanced soundtrack for the Geena Davis pirate movie "Cutthroat Island."

Given how few people were willing to buy tickets to the movie, it is unclear how many will care to delve digitally behind its scenes. The non-enhanced "Cutthroat Island" CD is already on the market, having been released in time to accompany the movie, which opened in December.

So far, sales of the music-only album are beneath Sound Scan's radar screen. But those purchasing the album are receiving a mail-in coupon entitling them to a computer disk, due in May, billed as a "behind-the-scenes multimedia adventure."

Zimmer, the "Lion King" composer, who said he would remain open to the idea of enhanced CD opportunities for future projects, said that he was interested in pushing the medium beyond mere movie promotion. He said he saw an opportunity to tap into the interactive capabilities of computer disks to give the user a more creative role.

"A composer could supply musical fragments, allowing people to put them against a scene and see the different emotional reactions," Zimmer said. "I could give you the tools to impose your own sensibilities onto a scene. It could be a fun game."

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