Though they can be absolutely key to establishing atmosphere, tension and even character in a film, the people responsible for composing musical scores remain fairly unsung compared to the directors and actors they collaborate with. Yes, they’re honoured with Oscars and BAFTAs and other major awards but with a few notable exceptions, most people aren’t able to name even a few off the top of their heads. Oftentimes these composers and their works are overshadowed by the licensed songs that might appear on the soundtrack alongside them—the music for Drive was an unexpected hit, reaching the #4 spot on iTunes’ charts, but customers were more likely drawn to its synthpop tunes rather than Cliff Martinez’s subtle score.
Regardless of how much attention and recognition these men and women might or might not be getting, a lot of them have done very well for themselves commercially, with several developing unmistakable styles of their own and becoming some of the most sought-out contractors in Hollywood. The following five individuals are some of the most commercially successful composers in Hollywood, and chances are you know their work if not their names.
5. Trent Reznor – Net Worth: $55 Million
The key figure of “one-man band” Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor might not seem like film composer material, having made a name for himself in the 1990s with his dark and heavy industrial music and occasionally collaborating with shock-rocker Marilyn Manson. But Reznor began his musical career as a classically trained pianist, and his compositional skills and intricate arrangements can be heard on the albums of Nine Inch Nails, his side project How to Destroy Angels, and the soundtrack to id Software’s 1996 video game Quake.
In 2010, director David Fincher, who had previously worked with Nine Inch Nails on the music video for “Only,” asked Reznor and his producer and musical collaborator Atticus Ross to come up with an original score for The Social Network, his depiction of the creation of Facebook. Reznor and Ross’ electronic soundtrack went on to win the Academy Award for Best Original Score that year, beating out Hans Zimmer’s work on Inception and Alexandre Desplat’s soundtrack for The King’s Speech. Reznor and Ross reteamed with Fincher in 2011 for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where the pair experimented with more organic sounds and covered Led Zeppelin’s “The Immigrant Song” with Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
4. Daft Punk – Net Worth: $70 Million (Combined)
The French electronic duo, consisting of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter, made their name writing and performing catchy, robotic music for clubs and dance halls, but they’ve also dipped their metallic toes into other waters. Daft Punk made their film scoring debut in 2010 with the soundtrack to Tron: Legacy, the much belated sequel to Disney’s 1982 sci fi feature. Daft Punk’s work on the movie, while utilizing orchestral strings and percussion on certain tracks, was mostly done in their usual, largely digital style, and was atypical for Disney music to say the least. It was a definite success, however: it peaked at #4 on the U.S. Billboard 200 and reached the top spots of the U.S. Digital Albums, Dance/Electronic and Soundtrack lists, as well as the U.K. Dance chart.
Tron: Legacy was not Daft Punk’s first excursion into film composition, at least for one half of the duo. In 2002, Bangalter wrote the score to Gaspar Noé’s disturbingly violent thriller Irréversible, though fans of Daft Punk and Tron should note that his work on the movie is markedly darker than what they’re used to.
3. Danny Elfman – Net Worth: $75 Million
If you’re a fan of the films of Tim Burton, it’s very likely that Danny Elfman’s musical scores have become ingrained in your mind. Elfman, formerly of the rock group Oingo Boingo, has composed all but two of the soundtracks for Burton’s movies, with Ed Wood and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street being the exceptions—he and Burton were fighting during the filming of the former, and the latter reused Stephen Sondheim’s work from the musical. Taking his inspiration from 20th century composers like Igor Stravinsky and Bernard Hermann, his music typically has a dark, off-beat or even mischievous character to it, and has been successfully applied to action movies like Batman or dark comedies like Mars Attacks!
Elfman’s discography isn’t just limited to Burton’s movies, however. Since his critical success on the scores to Beetle Juice and Batman, he has frequently collaborated with Gus Van Sant, writing the music to Good Will Hunting and Milk, among others, and worked with Sam Raimi on the first two Spider-Man movies, Oz the Great and Powerful, as well as contributing the main theme to his earlier Army of Darkness. Outside of film, Elfman wrote music for Iris, a Cirque du Soleil show that ran in Los Angeles from September 2011 to January 2013, and which will likely be taken on the road for a tour in the near future. Film scoring will likely remain his primary endeavour, saying in 2007 that he wouldn’t be returning to work with Oingo Boingo as hearing damage would impair his performance in a rock setting.
2. Hans Zimmer – Net Worth: $90 Million
The German-born Zimmer has been composing original film scores since working with Stanley Myers on the soundtrack to the 1984 drama Success Is the Best Revenge. But mainstream success and recognition came with his work on the Best Picture-winning Rain Man in 1988, which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Within a few years, Zimmer would score Driving Miss Daisy, Days of Thunder, Thelma & Louise and A League of Their Own. In 1994, his music for Disney’s The Lion King netted him his first and so far only Oscar for Best Original Score. As the ’90s progressed, Zimmer became more and more sought after, averaging close to four soundtracks a year.
Zimmer’s booming, brass-heavy scores would see extra prominence in the 2000s, with his works heard on the soundtracks on several Ridley Scott movies, most notably Gladiator, as well as all of the Pirates of the Caribbean films to date. In 2005, he kicked off a fruitful working relationship with director Christopher Nolan, collaborating with James Newton Howard on the scores for Batman Begins and The Dark Knight and working solo for Inception and The Dark Knight Rises. His work on the Dark Knight films allowed him to experiment, using string harmonics and out-of-tune keyboards for the Joker’s leitmotifs and incorporating chants into Bane’s theme. He will also score Nolan’s upcoming sci fi epic Interstellar, set for release later this year.
1. John Williams – Net Worth: $100 Million
It’s not surprising that Williams would be at the top of this list. After all, he composed the music for all six movies in the Star Wars saga, the fifth most successful film franchise of all time according to numbers compiled from sites like Box Office Mojo and The Numbers. The 1977 soundtrack for Star Wars won the Academy Award for Best Original Score and in 2005 the American Film Institute named it one of the most memorable of all time. Various entries in the series’ soundtrack releases have been certified Platinum or Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America. And his music for the franchise has cemented itself in the collective consciousness. Motifs like the famous main theme or the Imperial March are instantly recognizable by most people, even when whistled.
But John Williams’ career neither begins nor ends with Star Wars, the composer having been working in music professionally since 1957 and still writing scores as recently as last year. He became a star composer two years before Star Wars’ release with his score for Jaws, whose primary leitmotif, played on the strings and the upper register of a tuba, is indisputably one of the most iconic in cinematic history (the soundtrack earned Williams his second Oscar after his 1971 adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof). His discography, which spans decades, is extensive: Close Encounters of the Third Kind (which made his compositions a major plot device), Superman, the Indiana Jones films, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Jurassic Park and The Lost World, the first three Harry Potter movies… All in all, he’s one of the most prolific people in the music industry. And he’s still going.