Freddie & Gaga (And Up Next, Aretha & Elton): Music Helps Drive Movie Box Office

Music is driving a number of films this season, all of which faced barriers coming to market. Here Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury and Gwilym Lee as Brian May star in the Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody.”
With films featuring music performances cleaning up at last night’s 2019 Golden Globes, including “Green Book,”  (which had the most wins with three awards for best supporting actor for Mahershala Ali, best screenplay and best film comedy or musical), “Bohemian Rhapsody” (best film drama, best actor Rami Malek) and “A Star is Born” (best original song for “Shallow). here is a re-post from an earlier Pollstar story on the difficulty of making of music films.
A Star is Born,” 16 years. “Bohemian Rhapsody,” 10 years. “Amazing Grace,” 46 years. Three hot titles in movie theaters have had considerable gestation periods owing to everything from artistic difference to rights issues to, what else, money.
Two of the three titles are killing it at the box office – “Bohemian Rhapsody” passed the $150 million mark at the domestic box office in November and was on target to top by Christmas the record set by “Straight Outta Compton” for a musical biopic, $161.2 million. “A Star is Born,” though not a biopic, has already surpassed that at $191 million as of last weekend. The third, a long-in-the-vault Aretha Franklin concert film, has critics losing their minds over its greatness.  
Collectively, they prove one thing: Getting a musical film to the screen requires stamina, luck and a guiding force. And considering how much studios rely on trying to match the success of predecessors, “Bohemian Rhapsody” may have opened a door similar to one “Ray” cracked a decade and a half ago.
Producer Graham King got the story of Queen to the big screen by sticking with the project after losing a star and discord over the script with band members. “A Star is Born” was once a Beyoncé-Clint Eastwood project. And Sydney Pollack died before the doc on Aretha’s 1972 performance at a Los Angeles church was ever finished. Once Alan Elliott delivered a final cut, issues over payments kept it out of pubic view. But owing to a deal made with Franklin’s estate, this December “Amazing Grace” will receive two Oscar-qualifying runs in New York and L.A.
Filmmaking is not a whole lot different than the record business. Just as labels sought out the next Rolling Stones, Alanis Morissette or Radiohead, so, too, do studios open their eyes to genres that in earlier times would have been box office poison. The greenlight to the latest version of “A Star is Born” owes in some ways to the success of “The Greatest Showman” and “La La Land;” you can even credit Disney animation of the 1980s and ‘90s with creating an audience thirsty for film musicals.
If King had launched production on the Queen story five or six years ago, it would have served as a neat bridge between the biopics on Ray Charles and Johnny Cash/June Carter and Universal’s films on James Brown and N.W.A.
Instead, there was a significant gap between those musical stories of the early 2000s and the more recent biopics. Is it possible “Straight Outta Compton” might never have been filmed if not for the film version of James Brown’s story?
Universal’s James Brown biopic, “Get On Up,” was the film where the studios got interested in musical biopics after staying away for awhile. 
After a run in the early 21st century that included Oscar-winning “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” studios largely avoided the genre for nearly a decade. 
Twelve years passed between the Godfather of Soul’s story showing up on a development slate and Mick Jagger’s company starting production; Universal released the film, budgeted at $30 million, in 2014 and it grossed almost $31 million in U.S. theaters.
A year later, the studio saw the staggering success of “Straight Outta Compton,” which went into production prior to the release of “Get On Up.” Budgeted at $28 million, “Compton” grossed $161.2 million in 2015, less than 18 months after Universal had picked up the unproduced project from New Line.
Since then, independent filmmakers have had marginal success tackling the lives of Tupac Shakur (2017’s “All Eyez on Me,” $55.5 million box office on a $40 million budget); Brian Wilson (2015’s “Love & Mercy,” $28.6 milion B.O. on a $10 million budget); and Hank Williams (2016’s “I Saw the Light,” $1.8 million B.O. on a $13 million budget). Recent years have also seen a fair number of flops, among them Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film “Miles Ahead,” the Chet Baker pic “Born To Be Blue” and “Jimi: All is By My Side.”
Others just disappear after being announced, movies on Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Peggy Lee among them. Aretha Franklin spoke often about a biopic with Harvey Mason Jr. as the producer and a desire to have Jennifer Hudson star, but there is no script, director or financing. A George Jones and Tammy Wynette film was announced in 2016 with Josh Brolin as the star and Taylor Hackford directing; it’s still in “pre-production.”
A death on the set of a Gregg Allman film resulted in his story never being told and that picture’s producers also owned the rights to a film about Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, which has vaporized. The next biopic of note is “Rocketman,” the Elton John film that opens in May. It will arrive as Elton is three-quarters of the way through the first year of his three-year farewell tour and he has the end of March and all of April off – could he be the rare artist to be involved in drumming up business to get people into theaters to watch his story? 
Remember, Elton’s the producer and the originator of the project so he’s had rights locked up since day one. To get it into theaters, it’s only taken him seven years.