When I first arrived in Hollywood, I had a Ph.D. in music composition, a keyboard, and one connection. While that might not seem like much, it was more than I had when I moved to the United States from my native Bulgaria ten years earlier. I figured if I could make that first transition, Hollywood would be a breeze. In retrospect, while my naivete was laughable, it was also vital in getting me as far as I have today.
If you had told me upon my arrival 15 years ago that the first time a woman (Shirley Walker) composed the score to a studio feature film was 1992, I'd have been shocked. If you had told me that over the next 22 years, only eight other female composers would accomplish the same feat, I'd have been disbelieving. And if you'd told me that in 2013, fewer than 2% of all studio features would be composed by women, I might have turned around and gone right back into academia.
Luckily, no one told me the odds. So I stayed. And like Shirley Walker, I cut my teeth by orchestrating for other composers. I began at the bottom and worked my way up to the point where, last year, I was the lead orchestrator on two big sci-fi films: Ender's Game and Elysium. If someone had told me back in 1999 that the second woman in history to be the lead orchestrator on two films with budgets over $100 million would be me, I'd be incredulous.
Looking back, I see that by doing all that work, I've learned the ins and outs of making a great score for a studio film. Now I'm prepared for when opportunity comes knocking.
In the meanwhile, I've developed my own voice as a composer by leaping at every opportunity to score an indie film, even when that entails spending my own money to hire live musicians when there isn't room for it in the budget. Many composers do this because we want to hear our music as we imagined it, but that means we're lucky if we don't lose money on those movies.
I went into this profession with the belief that hard work and the talent I hoped I had (and was determined to develop) would eventually win the day. But in the time I've been here, I've realized it takes something more. And part of that is having a great mentor. I've been lucky enough to have had people who believe in me open doors I couldn't. And the women who have broken through that celluloid ceiling are very supportive, but there are just so few of them that progress is slow for women as a whole.
Still, the generosity I've received has made me determined to help other women up that ladder once I break through. I'm deeply proud of the mentoring role I've already played for dozens of young men and women, but if we're to shift the gender balance in movie music as a whole, I believe we'll create greater equality the more women mentor other women.
I've also finally realized that I can't just wait for an opportunity to come knocking. For the big-budget films, the decision makers need to hear exactly what they'll be getting, so to prove I'm the woman for the job, I'm hiring an orchestra of 70 musicians to record an album of blockbuster sci-fi themes of my own so they'll know I'm a sure bet.
I'm calling the album The Woman Astronaut because, after watching Gravity, I look up the stats discovered that 11% of all people who've gone to space have been women. Compare that to the less than 2% of women composers who have scored studio features. That means a woman who wants to be an astronaut has more role models to look up to than a woman who wants to compose music for film.
And that's just crazy.
But I'm not going to wait around for anyone to change that for me. I'm taking the first step myself. So this next step is a big step for me, and one more small step for Hollywood.
Penka Kouneva is an award winning composer and orchestrator in Hollywood. Learn more about her current project, The Woman Astronaut, on her Kickstarter page.