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Why the Music Industry Is Betting on Biopics and Documentaries For Its Next Revenue Burst

Streaming brought the industry back, so what's next for labels and publishers looking to rake in major revenue? Taking artist catalogs to the big screen for music-driven documentaries and biopics…

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.


Monaco has some stiff competition. During the next year, some 11 biopics, biodocs — as in documentaries — and high-concept films about music artists and fabled eras of industry history are set to debut at theaters and on TV and streaming services, with at least another 14 screening that are at film festivals, looking for distributors or are in production or development. With a few exceptions, they all have licensed synch rights from music publishers, record labels or both. Although these projects will screen in the wake of Bohemian Rhapsody’s success — the film has grossed almost $1.1 billion globally, according to IMDbPro (the source for all box-office totals in this story); won four Academy Awards; and generated almost 2 billion on-demand streams since November, according to Nielsen Music — virtually all were in production before it hit the cineplex.

Among the projects is the May 31 arrival of Paramount’s Rocketman, a surreal look at the life of Elton John; Pavarotti, Ron Howard’s documentary about the famed tenor (June 7); the documentary-style (but not strictly factual) Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, which recounts the singer-songwriter’s fabled mid-1970s tour (June 12 in select theaters and on Netflix); Yesterday, which stars Himesh Patel as the only man on Earth who remembers The Beatles (June 28); and, in August, Bend It Like Beckham director Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, in which Bruce Springsteen’s anthemic music — but not the artist himself — drives the story of a Pakistani teen in working-class Britain whose discovery of The Boss fuels his dream to become a writer.

The exciting, inspirational — and, sometimes, tortured and debauched — life stories of musicians and songwriters have long attracted filmmakers, and the advent of video streaming services Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime has ratcheted up the demand for documentaries that were once almost solely the province of HBO. But as Chris Aronson — former 20th Century Fox president of distribution, who played a key role in Bohemian Rhapsody — also notes, it is strongly driven by music-industry economics in the streaming age. “Biopic territory is pretty fertile,” says Aronson, because declining CD and digital download sales indicate that “any additional revenue streams that they can generate with their catalogs is going to be welcomed.” In other words, labels and publishers are feeding this boom to bolster their bottom lines. And musicians are seizing upon it to expand their artistic horizons — and their fan bases.



This year, Universal Music Group — which has been steadily developing documentaries since 2015 — is behind five such films. Along with Pavarotti, there is the docuseries Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men (a Mass Appeal production) that premiered May 10 on Showtime; Hitsville: The Story of Motown, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Detroit label; The Apollo, about the hallowed 106-year-old Harlem theater; and a documentary about the groundbreaking ’80s girl group The Go-Go’s that also will debut on Showtime later in 2019.

Universal Music Enterprises president/CEO Bruce Resnikoff, who works with UMG’s head of film/TV development and production David Blackman, says that the goal is marketing an artist through as many avenues as possible. UMG owns Pavarotti’s record label, Decca, as well as Motown; Universal Music Publishing Group [UMPG] administers Wu-Tang Clan and a number of Go-Go’s hits. While The Beatles promoted their music through the films A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, Resnikoff says, “there was never a concerted effort to take an artist’s brand and use all media to extend the brand so that you have a film story, a music story and a lot of aftermath uses” — such as merchandise — “all tied together.” UMG-owned Bravado, for instance, has been working with John’s Rocket Entertainment to develop global merchandising, branding and retail licensing tie-ins for Rocketman. Live Nation produced films about Lady Gaga and Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records that tied into tours its concerts division orchestrated for both. Apple Music released over a dozen music-related documentaries on its subscription streaming service in 2018 (some of which it funded) featuring behind-the-scenes footage of P!nk, Ed Sheeran, Kesha and Future — in some cases reportedly spending millions for exclusive streaming rights that would presumably draw subscribers. And MTV has hired Sheila Nevins, the award-winning former head of HBO’s documentary division, to launch one of its own.

The volume of biopics and docs entering the market belies the fact that they can be demanding to produce. “Putting together a biopic is like organizing a box of snakes,” says Jeff Jampol, who manages the estates of The Doors, The Ramones, Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. If original songs are to be featured in the film and on the soundtrack, then synch licenses must be obtained from both that act’s label and publisher, and, for artists that are no longer living, permission from their estates. Securing life rights — permission to tell an artist’s story — optioning books or magazine articles and procuring archival footage also can be among the many production hurdles.


“Sometimes it becomes people’s life obsession to make a film against the odds, and as an objective person viewing this, you know they are never making this fucking film,” says Jampol. There have been numerous “productions by proclamation,” he explains, for a Joplin biopic, with P!nk, Michelle Williams and Amy Adams among the names mentioned for the starring role. Yet none of these projects materialized. (Jampol says he’s still hopeful Joplin’s story will be made.)

Sometimes, having all of the necessary rights isn’t enough. One producer, who requested anonymity, says his company invested millions in a Rick James biopic before abandoning it because the subject matter was too dark. (James, who died in 2004 at age 56, struggled with cocaine addiction and spent two years in prison for beating and, in one case, sexually assaulting two women on different occasions.)

“There are many elements that have to come together,” says Aronson. “If everyone who has a music-based story to tell thinks they are going to blow it out of the park like we did with Bohemian Rhapsody, well, that is a tough road.”


In 2015, Sony Pictures Classics had Oscar dreams for I Saw the Light, for which Sony/ATV had opened up its Williams catalog for the first time in 50 years, licensing over 21 songs. Tom Hiddleston starred and actually sang them. The film, which cost a reported $13 million to make, grossed just $1.8 million at the box office.

It will be interesting to see whether Rocketman will perform on par with Bohemian Rhapsody at the box office. “I hope that the appetite is there,” says Aronson. The picture is rated R (eliminating a big portion of the under-18 crowd) and features Taron Egerton singing John’s songs (as opposed to lip-syncing, which Malek mostly did in Bohemian Rhapsody). Early results are promising. The film, which obtained licenses from both UMG’s recorded-music and publishing divisions, got a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival on May 16.



What makes an effective biopic? Entertainment lawyer John Branca, who has represented clients involved in the production of such music biopics as Ray, about R&B great Ray Charles, as well as the Chuck Berry documentary Hail! Hail! Rock ‘N’ Roll, says it’s one in which “moviegoers come away liking and identifying with the subject of the film more than when they sat down to watch it” and which then “translates to increased streaming and other revenue.” Biopics that portray the lives of deceased artists can be “very effective tools for introducing that artist’s work to a wider audience,” adds Branca. But those that aren’t able to secure the rights to use an artist’s songs may not pay off.

When Jimi Hendrix’s estate did not grant permission for his songs to be used in the 2014 film Jimi: All Is by My Side, which starred OutKast’s André Benjamin as the guitar legend, producers resorted to using songs written by The Beatles and other artists. The film has grossed $599,840.

An analysis of Nielsen Music data by Billboard indicates that biopics and docs do result in streaming and sales bumps in the weeks following their releases — even when the project in question bombs. In the six months following the debut of Bohemian Rhapsody, on-demand streams of Queen’s music more than tripled compared with the six months prior to its opening — from 588 million to 1.9 billion. Sales were even stronger, with tracks jumping from 527,000 to 1.9 million units and albums rising 483%, from 184,000 to 1.1 million units. That amounts to nearly $18 million in revenue versus the $4.4 million that Queen’s catalog had earned in the preceding six months, Billboard estimates.

Hollywood's Blockbuster Bet on Biopics and Documentaries | Billboard

During the six-month period before the release of Amy, UMG’s documentary about Amy Winehouse, the late artist’s catalog logged 54.8 million streams and scanned 168,000 downloads and 59,000 albums. In the six months that followed the film’s release, streams of her catalog rose nearly 69% to 92.6 million, track downloads grew 56.4% to 263,000 scans, and album sales jumped 163% to 157,000. Those sales increases were remarkable in a year when industrywide sales fell 21% and 6%, respectively. Amy also was the highest-grossing documentary of 2015 and won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 2016.

Even Williams’ catalog experienced a modest bump in the six months following the opening of I Saw the Light. Streams grew 35.3% to 22.1 million — generating approximately $119,000 — compared with the 16.4 million streams ($88,000) that the artist’s catalog racked up in the six months prior to release.

Films also can expose artists to new audiences. When Working Title Films co-chairman Tim Bevan approached Sony/ATV to ask for the once unthinkable — permission to license Beatles songs for Yesterday — he was pleasantly surprised that the publisher opened up the catalog. “Their reasoning was that anything that could get Beatles songs to a younger, new audience is worth pursuing,” says Bevan.


With so many variables in play during the production stages — the film’s budget, how badly a studio wants a particular song — it’s hard to predict how much revenue labels, publishers and artists stand to gain when things go right. According to industry insiders, publishing synch licenses for an artist’s entire catalog range anywhere from $200,000 to as much as $10 million for a megastar act. That price can double if the original recordings are used because publishers and labels tend to charge the same amount.

Then there are life rights. Attorney Joe Carlone, who negotiated Sublime’s deal with Interscope Records for the 2019 biodoc named after the band, says life rights are not essential and boil down to an agreement by the artist not to sue, as the First Amendment offers broad leeway to any production’s freedom of expression. When those rights are secured, it’s usually as part of a 12-month option bundle that includes name and likeness, the commercial promotion of the film and a promise to not shop the story around. Compensation for those rights can range from a few thousand dollars upward. Another insider says that for biopics depicting superstars, those rights can run into the tens of millions if the act negotiates a back-end deal.

Biodocs are produced on much smaller budgets, and Carlone says labels typically lay out $1 million-$3 million to finance them, but the returns from the production can be profitable for all parties. After the label recoups its initial investment, it is typically entitled to an additional 20% off the top of the profits, he says. The remainder is usually split 50-50 between the label and producer pool, which includes the director, producer, writers and the artist. Profits depend on how the project is distributed. Carlone says Netflix buys documentaries outright but will dole out bonuses if certain benchmarks are met. Profits from theater and TV releases are dependent on ticket sales and syndication deals.


Of the three major music companies, UMG has been the most aggressive when it comes to creating music-related video and film content. UMG’s PolyGram Entertainment, relaunched in 2017, functions like a typical film/TV production company, albeit within the world’s largest music company. Blackman, who heads it, reports to both UMG executive vp Michele Anthony and UMPG chairman/CEO Jody Gerson, both of whom can expedite deals where Universal talent is concerned. Though PolyGram’s output has, so far, been documentaries, it is developing feature films as well as scripted and unscripted projects.

PolyGram gives UMG another advantage: Its film participation is not limited to collecting licensing fees. The Pavarotti and Go-Go’s films are fully financed by PolyGram (and Decca Records, in the case of the former), so if they are successful, UMG will benefit on the back end as long as the documentaries continue to be shown.

BMG, often referred to as the fourth major, founded its film department in 2014, which now numbers five people and is led by Berlin-based executive vp group strategy and M&A Justus Haerder. The company produced and, in some cases financed entirely, five documentaries that were released in 2018, including the Joan Jett documentary Bad Reputation, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, and Rudeboy: The Story of Trojan Records, which was done in conjunction with the famed reggae label’s 50th anniversary. (BMG owns the Trojan catalog.) BMG also wholly financed Echo in the Canyon, a documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene that was released on May 24, and David Crosby: Remember My Name, which is scheduled to hit theaters on July 24. (BMG produced the latter documentary as well.)  “We are growing in ambition and will announce a series of high-profile pictures, further television and digital activities, as well as a new docu-series over the coming year, ” says Haerder.

At Sony/ATV, Monaco says his team is handing out to filmmakers and TV producers A Guide to the World’s Greatest Song Collection — a 275-page color “pitch book” that highlights the cream of the publisher’s 3 million-plus song catalog — “to inspire ideas that we might miss.” He adds that Sony/ATV’s strategy moving forward is to help develop an annual slate of biopics instead of a handful. On the label side, Sony Music Entertainment brought Tom Mackay on board in 2017 to exploit Sony Music content through film/TV partnerships. A number of projects will see the light of day this year, according to an insider.


Warner Music Group, meanwhile, is testing the waters of what may be the next step in the biopic evolution. In 2017, WMG hired former MGM executive Charlie Cohen to head its TV and film division and, in March, hired the Ridley Scott Creative Group’s former head of entertainment, Kate Shepherd. In addition to financing and producing a documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene and docuseries on Aretha Franklin and Wiz Khalifa, the division has been handing over directorial control to its talent. Sia recently co-wrote and directed her first feature, primarily financed by WMG, an as-yet-untitled musical film starring Kate Hudson and Maddie Ziegler. It will be released this year, as will K-12, a film written and directed by singer-songwriter Melanie Martinez, who also stars in it. Atlantic Records staked more than $1 million to finance the project, which was shot in Budapest.

Both artists were first-time feature directors, but luckily, they were naturals, says Cohen: “There was no moment of terror” during production, he adds, and both delivered their projects on time and on budget — perhaps paving the way for a new wrinkle to these types of films. Autobiopic, anyone? 

Additional reporting by Ed Christman.

UPDATE: This story has been corrected to note WMG’s involvment with a currently untitled documentary about the Laurel Canyon music scene — not Echo in the Canyon, which was financed by BMG. 

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A version of this article originally appeared in the May 25 issue of Billboard.