What's Behind the Great Music Biopic Boom of 2015?

Illustrated by Matt Herring

From Amy to N.W.A, there has been a market for music-led movies. Why? Think new platforms like Netflix, and eager labels with deep catalogs.

Asid Kapadia had a dilemma. He had agreed to helm a documentary about Amy Winehouse, but the Senna director wasn't sure there was a story left to tell about the late tabloid-hounded British singer. What convinced him to move forward? Footage of Winehouse, unearthed by a former manager, radiating joy in her early touring days. "This was a version of Amy I'd never seen before," says Kapadia. "That's the moment when I thought there was a movie."

Two months after its July release, Amy is 2015's top-grossing documentary, earning more than $7.9 million in the United States, according to Box Office Mojo. Universal Pictures' N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton surpassed $150 million in its first three weeks. Oscar talk is high for both films, as well as for director Bill Pohlad's psychedelic take on The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson in the independent feature Love & Mercy.

Those aren't the only recent success stories. This spring, the first part of Alex Gibney's four-hour, Emmy-nominated Sinatra: All or Nothing at All boosted HBO's time slot by 73 percent over the previous April 5. Following its theatrical run, CNN's June premiere of Glen Campbell... I'll Be Me scored the highest rating of any movie aired through CNN Films.

Courtesy Photo

They are all part of a music-movie landscape that finds new players, on the production and broadcast sides, investing millions in artists' stories. In an effort to exploit catalogs and boost album sales despite their continuing downward slide, Universal Music Group (UMG) and Warner Music Group (WMG) actively are pursuing projects based around their rosters, while Netflix, CMT and Vimeo have all begun producing original music films.

"I don't know that the industry got together and said, 'Let's make this the year of music movies,' but let's make it the new normal and keep it going," says Mike Knobloch, Universal Pictures president of film music and publishing, who oversaw the music for Straight Outta Compton.

It adds up to more music films entering the pipeline. "The success of Netflix and other SVOD [subscription video on demand] outlets [with] these projects means independent music docs with modest budgets can find a path to an audience and to profitability that doesn't require mainstream theatrical success," says Scott Pascucci, CEO of Concord Bicycle Music and an executive producer on 2011's George Harrison: Living in the Material World.


The robust rollout continues during the Toronto International Film Festival, which opens Sept. 10 and features films about Janis Joplin, Arcade Fire and Chet Baker, among others.

Amy was the first film financed by UMG as a "build it and they will come" scenario. "There's enormous appetite for our artists even beyond their recorded music, and lately there has been a surge of interest from networks, studios and OTT [over-the-top] platforms in developing music-themed programming," says UMG chairman/CEO Lucian Grainge, who adds that the label group is "working closely" with Studio Canal and Apple Corps, among others, on director Ron Howard's film about The Beatles' touring years.

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Similarly, WMG recently expanded its agreement with Catalyst Global Media to exploit the Warner catalog. "The story comes first," says Rich Robinson, WMG senior vp synchronization for Europe. "It could be about a brand-new artist ... the creation of one of our iconic labels, the smallest minutiae of a detail in a specific song or artist's life, or it could be the tale of one of the biggest music movements in history ... It helps give fans deeper access to artists and draws in new audiences."

And, hopefully, boost album sales. Following Straight Outta Compton's release, 10 N.W.A-related albums landed on the Billboard 200. After Amy, Winehouse's 2007 set Back to Black surged to its best sales week since 2011.

Increased sales are only part of a much broader plan to transform UMG from a music company to a media company, says Grainge. "With all the available platforms, we have to think in terms of presenting content in all the various ways consumers experience it, and not just limit it to a recording and a music video. We're in the culture business." Just as the proliferation of jukebox musicals has brought new life to dormant catalogs, music-based movies have the opportunity to do the same.

Netflix added original music docs in April with What Happened, Miss Simone?, directed by Oscar nominee Liz Garbus. The service's second original production, Keith Richards: Under the Influence, directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom), premieres Sept. 18.

"Just by the nature of who [musicians] are, their stories tend to be quite engaging and compelling," says Lisa Nishimura, Netflix vp original documentary -programming. "But for us, the lens is really about digging deeper than just the music itself." She cites the emphasis on Nina Simone's civil rights activism in What Happened, Miss Simone?

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Netflix, which many filmmakers credit with helping whet the public's appetite for docs, earns high marks on its first effort. The outlet was "very aggressive" in competing for distribution, says Jayson Jackson, a producer on What Happened, Miss Simone?, and similarly committed in marketing and promoting the film. "They've been incredible partners."

The Richards doc started as a short -companion piece to his new solo album but morphed into a -feature. Producer RadicalMedia approached Netflix with early footage. "They said, 'We love it. Yeah, we'll pay for it,' " says Neville. "This is essentially what it would be like to hang out with Keith and talk about music and life."


Unlike HBO, which sometimes buys only North American rights for the projects it funds, Netflix secures worldwide rights for its original documentaries so that its 65 million subscribers in 50 countries "have access instantaneously on a global basis," says Nishimura, though she declines to reveal the budget for the music documentaries. However, sources say that a general rule of thumb is $1 million to $1.5 million per hour of finished film, although licensing fees can send that number upward.

Online outlet Vimeo's first commission was On My Way Home, June's feature-length doc on Pentatonix, produced in conjunction with Sony's RCA Records. Fans can rent the film that traces the a cappella group's journey for $4.99 or download it for $14.99. After the minimum guarantee license payment is recouped, the act gets 90 percent of all revenue and is free to pursue other outlets once Vimeo's exclusivity window (usually 60 to 90 days) expires. Because of the transactional model, Vimeo vp content Sam Toles says the company's interest lies in artists who have a strong "direct-to-fan connection."

The crucial step for any music pic remains getting the rights to the songs — otherwise it's a fool's errand, filmmakers contend. "That someone could think [proceeding without clearance is] the correct process to being successful is astounding to me," says Jeff Pollack, a producer on the Sinatra and Campbell docs. Witness 2014's Jimi: All Is by My Side, a biopic about Jimi Hendrix that did not get permission to use the artist's music and grossed a paltry $340,911 in the United States despite a strong performance by Outkast's Andre 3000 in the title role.

But while cooperation of the living rights holders and/or the subject's estate is imperative, they can't be so involved that they try to sway the story. When Brett Morgen, director of the Emmy-nominated Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, met Cobain's daughter, Frances Bean, in 2012, the first thing she said to him was, " 'Whatever you do, this film needs to be honest. That's the best way we can pay tribute to Kurt,' " he recalls. Then she was hands-off. (UMG will release Heck on home video in November.)

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That wasn't the case for Kapadia, who, after Amy's release, found himself under fire from Winehouse's father, Mitch. "Because you're dealing with a real person, you feel both a responsibility to get the story right [and] you're having to please without pandering to the subject matter," says Love & Mercy's Pohlad.

Cooperation from the rights holders can pave the way to negotiating favorable rates. Neville says that late A&M Records president Gil Friesen, who produced 20 Feet From Stardom, offered invaluable advice: "He said, 'Always take people out to lunch, because it's really hard for them to say no to you over lunch,'" says Neville. "Nobody was going to make a penny off that film, nobody had a vested interest in helping us, but a lot of people did." The movie, which has grossed $5 million theatrically stateside, has yet to recoup, but money from secondary revenue sources, including TV and home video rights, continues to roll in. Adds Neville: "These deals pay back over years, not [from a] big check up front."

As UMG and WMG are proving, taking a greater role than providing music rights is changing the dynamics of how these films will be financed. In a first for all three record companies, UMG, Concord and WMG (in a non-Catalyst deal) united to fund a 2016 documentary on saxophonist John Coltrane directed by John Scheinfeld (The U.S. vs. John Lennon) and produced by Spencer Proffer.

That cooperation allows the energy to go toward moviemaking as opposed to dealmaking for music rights. Other upcoming movies include the Hank Williams biopic I Saw the Light; Celia, Telemundo's scripted drama on salsa queen Celia Cruz; and Miles Ahead, with Don Cheadle as trumpeter Miles Davis. WMG's Robinson succinctly sums up the climate: "Engaging stories, amazing music and well-put-together narratives will result in success," he says. "Simply: Get it right and the sky is the limit."

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 19 issue of Billboard.