Why Music Biopics And Docos Remain Box Office Gold

26 February 2024 | 10:41 am | Christie Eliezer

Last week, Sam Mendes, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Apple Corps Ltd announced that they would embark on releasing an unprecedented four movies about The Beatles.

The Beatles 'Get Back' documentary

The Beatles 'Get Back' documentary (Source: Supplied)

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After Queen’s biopic Bohemian Rhapsody and Taylor Swift’s The Eras Tour concert movie set new box office records and critical acclaim in their respective categories, it was inevitable that there would come a project that would have the freedom to set new boundaries.

This came with the announcement last week by British director Sam Mendes, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Apple Corps Ltd about an unprecedented four The Beatles movies.

Each of the four will have the perspectives of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, with the narrative built on interconnected stories.

Set for theatrical release in 2027, people behind it promise it will be ground-breaking and reflect what today’s audiences want at the cinema.

The Beatles movies have usually been box office gold. Through the years, A Hard Day’s Night (1964) clocked up US $11 million from a $529,000 budget ($5.26 million in today’s money). Help! (1965) made for $1.5 million ($14.6 million and generated $12.1 million.

Dozens of documentaries and 18 biopics have been made about the Fab Four. 

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These included Ron Howard’s The Beatles: Eight Days A Week – The Touring Years (2016), Martin Scorsese’s four-hour George Harrison: Living In The Material World, Lennon and Michael Epstein’s John & Yoko: Above Us Only Sky (2018), Backbeat (1994) about guitarist Stuart Sutcliffe, Nowhere Boy (2009) about Lennon’s adolescence, The Beatles And India (2021) and Peter Jackson’s three-part eight-hour Get Back (2021).

Even Danny Boyle’s musical romantic comedy Yesterday (2019), about a songwriter making a career out of singing Beatles music, made $154.6 million from a $41.3 million budget. It generated $2.5 million in the first week in Australia.

In recent years, Hollywood has been slammed for its flow of celebrity biopics because they’re rushed, cheap and have no artistic ambition beyond gratifying ready-made audiences.

But when they are done well and with creative scripts, they attract huge crowds. Bohemian Rhapsody and Elton John’s Rocketman, for instance, weaved fantasy and state-of-the-art tech around a narrative of tormented souls and the star-making machinery, rock history moments, inspired acting, and successful song catalogues.

Bohemian Rhapsody made $910.8 million from a production spend of $50–$55 million, while Rocketman’s box office kerching ka-ching was $195.3 million after costing $40 million to make.

There’s been talk of a Bohemian Rhapsody sequel for five years, but Queen are deliberately taking it as long as it needs to ensure all the puzzles fit. 

While the first one ended at Live Aid, the second one could follow Queen’s final tour, which peaked in August 1986 at the Knebworth Festival in England before 200,000 fans and trace the hushed-up events around Freddie Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis and death.

Alternatively, it could be a prequel, looking at Mercury’s early life in Zanzibar and boarding school in India, and moving to London aged 18 and suffering institutionalised racism and homophobia.

Bohemian Rhapsody additionally helped Queen’s earnings jump 4.3% to $50 million in 2022, with profit alone at $27.4 million.

At the time of his death, the late INXS manager Chris Murphy was working on a fantasy-themed movie about Michael Hutchence, alongside a Broadway musical around INXS songs, to increase the band’s streams and sales and attraction from advertisers and sync brands.

Sam Mendes’ project indicates it could be a genre-defining one. The two surviving Beatles and the widows of the others have insisted to him that the stories have to be true, warts-and-all, with all subjects put on the table.

A budget has not been announced for it, but at this early stage, it suggests they’re reaching for greatness. “I’m honoured to be telling the story of the greatest rock band of all time and excited to challenge the notion of what constitutes a trip to the movies,” Mendes said in a statement.

Tom Rothman, head of Sony Pictures Motion Picture Group, which is handling the finances and global distribution, said, “Theatrical movie events today must be culturally seismic. Sam’s daring, large-scale idea is that and then some.”

Continued Success

Music biopics and documentaries continue to be financial successes, led by two of the world’s biggest female superstars.

Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour, released last October, had by January 2024 pulled in $261.6 million globally – making it both the highest-grossing concert film of all time and the highest-grossing documentary. 

It opened in more than 8,500 cinemas across the world, with many of its first showings selling out within minutes.

The critically acclaimed release showed what impact a movie or doco can have on streams and record sales. Swift’s On-Demand Audio streams grew by 52.6% in the US and 42.5% globally. 

Her Total On-Demand Streams (audio + video) jumped 44% in the UK, 27.6% in the Philippines and 29.9% in Mexico.

Renaissance: A Film by Beyoncé from late last year, about how she developed her Renaissance World Tour, has passed the $44.4 million threshold, and counting.

In America, it was projected to gross $17–20 million in its opening weekend. Instead, it shot past $11.6 million on its first day and debuted with $22 million. In Australia, it opened as the sixth most popular movie of that week.

Baz Luhrmann’s made-in-Queensland Elvis (2022) is a textbook guide on how a movie can redefine an icon as Elvis Presley to younger generations.

It opened in the US with a higher-than-expected $30.5 million. It went on to gross $150 million, with Presley streams up 67%. 

The soundtrack went to #1, while the 2002 compilation Elvis: 30 #1 Hits returned to the Top 40.

In America, Elvis became the third highest-grossing music biopic ever. At the top spot is Bohemian Rhapsody, with an American turnover of $216.6 million. At second spot is NWA’s Straight Outta Compton (2015), which had $161.1 US gross and worldwide takings of $201.6 million.

Globally, Elvis topped $284 million, marking it as the #2 musical biopic after Bohemian Rhapsody. In Australia, it had the second-highest opening for an Australian-made film in box office history, taking $6.74 million in the first weekend and made $55.4 million all up.

50% of the Australian audience were aged under 44, and 56% were female.

The Voice’s Ego

This month, Poppy Stockell’s feature on John Farnham, Finding The Voice, continued its success story, taking a major win in the AACTA (Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts) awards on the Gold Coast.

Released last year, Finding The Voice became Australia’s highest-grossing feature documentary of all time with a $4.5 million take. 

It is also the fourth-highest-grossing feature doc ever released in the Australian market, behind US-made releases, including Michael Jackson’s This Is It, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling For Columbine.

Ego: The Michael Gudinski Story, about the Mushroom empire founder, which was the sixth biggest-grossing Australian movie in 2023 and bowed to $206,134 from 182 screens, also had a win at the AACTAs.

Bob Marley: One Love, out this month, has in its first weeks already made $81 million worldwide from 11 markets – including Australia, where it moved $2 million in its first week.

US analyst David A. Gross told Tag24, "This is an excellent opening for a musical biography.” British actor Kingsley Ben-Adir plays the icon and Lashana Lynch his wife Rita. Son Ziggy Marley is one of the film's producers. 

Gross added One Love was clocking in much better with audiences than with critics, suggesting that many couldn’t understand the fans’ deep cultural ties that Marley represents.

Marley’s records have long continued to find new audiences. Last May, Is This Love surpassed 100 million streams on YouTube.

A film about the Bee Gees is in development, with Bohemian Rhapsody producer Graham King working on the biopic with Robin Gibb's son RJ. Bradley Cooper has been approached to play Barry, and Rami Malek to feature as Robin.

"When I saw him play Freddie, he reminded me of my father during the Bee Gees’ Massachusetts period [1967],” RJ said.

Continued Obsession

So why the continued obsession with music biopics and documentaries?

According to data analysts Luminate, concert films “have the ability to bring music fans together and allow them to still experience a concert if they did not have the chance to see it in person.”

In a deeper dive, “Movie theatre-goers are 70% more likely to have attended a live concert in the last 12 months when compared to the general US population.

“In addition, live concertgoers are 76% more likely to go to a movie theatre in the next three months.” 

Dennis Bingham, of Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, explained the constant attraction in his book Whose Lives Are They Anyway?

We continue to watch biopics, he wrote, "so as to plumb that mystery of humanness, the inability completely to know another person, and the absolute importance of knowing them and ourselves.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly listed Yoko Ono as the director of Above Us Only Sky. This has been amended to list the documentary’s director Michael Epstein.