A few weeks before the November 2018 release of Bohemian Rhapsody, Brian Monaco, president/global chief marketing officer at Sony Music/ATV Music Publishing, sat down for an early screening of the Queen biopic. Having administered the band’s song catalog for years and licensed many of the group’s biggest hits for the movie, Monaco -- who oversees the company’s licensing of songs for film, TV and ad campaigns -- watched with some trepidation. Almost 10 years in the making, Bohemian Rhapsody had traveled a troubled road: Early in its development, the actor originally cast to play flamboyant frontman Freddie Mercury, Sacha Baron Cohen, had left the film, as had its first director, Dexter Fletcher, only to return when replacement Bryan Singer was fired with only a few weeks of shooting remaining.
As Monaco watched Rami Malek, who eventually took the role of Mercury, and the other players portray Queen’s rise to stardom, his skepticism evaporated, particularly during the movie’s finale: Mercury’s 1985 performance at Wembley Stadium for the all-star Live Aid concert. As Malek strutted across the stage wielding half a microphone stand, dressed in a white tank top, faded jeans, Adidas Country running shoes and a studded black leather belt and armband, Monaco marveled not only at the performance but the details of the reenactment: the massive crowd waving and singing Mercury’s trademark “Ay-o’s” back to him; the black grand piano at center stage littered with half-drunk cups of beer and Pepsi. It wasn’t fake and cheesy-looking. “It blew me away,” he says.
By the time he left the theater, Monaco was feeling bullish about Bohemian Rhapsody’s box-office prospects and determined to ramp up Sony/ATV’s work with filmmakers. In recent years, the music publisher had licensed songs for film adaptations of Broadway productions Jersey Boys, about The Four Seasons, and Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which Tom Hanks’ Playtone is developing; Hank Williams tunes for the 2016 biopic I Saw the Light; and Beatles cuts for the forthcoming Danny Boyle-directed Yesterday. But Sony/ATV administers a catalog of over 3 million tracks. How many of the artists behind such repertoire have compelling stories to tell? “We really started digging into our catalog,” says Monaco, who has since begun developing a Marvin Gaye biopic with Dr. Dre, who, in 2018, was granted permission by the Motown legend’s family to use his likeness and music for a feature-length film.