The Race to Make an Elvis Movie Heats Up

5:00 AM PST 11/11/2011 by Daniel Miller
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Illustration: Edwin Fotheringham

Amid the decades-old detritus of failed projects, four new movies about the King of Rock 'n' Roll hope to navigate the tricky waters of music rights and a complicated estate.

CKX, which owns the Idol brand and in June was purchased by private-equity firm Apollo Management for $509 million, has shown that it is not afraid to sue to protect Elvis rights. In February, it filed lawsuits in U.S. and U.K. courts against individuals it accused of copyright infringement and illegal sales of Presley's music and footage that features him. CKX also has filed separate lawsuits against a record label and a music publisher, seeking allegedly unpaid fees and royalties.

The company has a financial incentive to maintain the image of an almost cartoonishly feel-good Presley whom many fans remember, meaning it likely would not endorse a warts-and-all biopic (and with only a minority interest, Presley's daughter doesn't have the final say on issues such as licensing). According to first-quarter 2011 CKX filings, Graceland alone generated revenue of $5.2 million, compared with $4.4 million brought in by royalties and licensing. Indeed, Presley trails only Michael Jackson among dead-celebrity earners, according to Forbes, which says Presley brought in $55 million from October 2010 to October 2011 (Jackson brought in $170 million). Much of Presley's take came from Viva Elvis, the Cirque du Soleil show in Las Vegas that launched in February 2010, as well as music sales.

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There's a sense that the clock is ticking on the singer's resonance as many of his fans grow older, but the Presley brand still has the global reach of a superhero or other franchise film source material. "It's an extremely strong brand -- it has a ton of value," says Phillip Korkis, a licensing executive and legal counsel at CMG Brands, a Los Angeles-based intellectual property rights-management firm that handles branding for James Dean, Bettie Page and others. "I don't think Elvis' value has waned over the past decade. Fans recycle; new generations come. It's a lasting name."

Still, one veteran producer says pulling off a Presley film is a tricky proposition. "A biopic about Elvis is a gargantuan challenge, and that's probably why there hasn't been one," says the producer, who notes that even determining which segment of Presley's life to focus on is a challenge. "This would seem to be a difficult life story to figure out how to tell."

That Presley hasn't gotten the big-screen treatment is ironic, considering he starred in 31 narrative films during his career. And there have been telefilms, including the Jonathan Rhys Meyers starrer Elvis (2005) and a 1979 project with Kurt Russell -- both more traditional biopics. Some of the planned film projects aren't going that route, in part because a less conventional approach could make everything from licensing to storytelling easier. "You have to pare it down and do it with care," says Benaroya.

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Ricki Landers Friedlander, producer of Fame & Fortune, says his project focuses on the relationship between bodyguard Sonny West and Presley from West's perspective, which includes darker facets of Presley's life. "This guy had a window into Elvis' world -- the movies, the women, the accelerated weight gain, the prescription medicine," says Friedlander, who believes the blessing of CKX is not needed for his $15 million-budgeted film. Instead of licensing compositions owned by CKX, Fame could use songs sung by Presley that belong to others or are in the public domain, a tactic employed by the 1994 Beatles film Backbeat, which relied on standards the band covered. Elvis, for example, covered ballads like "Danny Boy" and gospel songs.

And even if the estate grants approval, industry experts say that licensing music by an artist like Presley could start at about $100,000 and top out at roughly $1 million per song. DreamWorks' 2010 comedy Dinner for Schmucks featured the Beatles' "The Fool on the Hill" -- at a reported cost of $1.5 million. CKX has no standard licensing fees.

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