The Race to Make an Elvis Movie Heats Up
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.
Of the four Presley projects, only one, based on Peter Guralnick's Last Train, is set up at a studio. The Fox 2000 project remains in active development, as it has been for many years, but does not have a cast or a green light. Benaroya's Elvis & Nixon has the benefit of a strong group of players: Bana, also an executive producer on the film, is a known commodity, and the project is being directed by Cary Elwes, who co-wrote the script. The comedy is a retelling of Presley's 1970 White House meeting with Nixon.
Benaroya says Elvis & Nixon, with a budget of less than $10 million, has not faced some of the problems that could be endemic to a full-scale biopic. "We are not trying to tell the story of Elvis," he says. "We are trying to tell a very funny moment in his life." Production will take place mostly in Louisiana and is slated to begin in first quarter 2012. Benaroya adds that distributors and sales agents have shown strong interest: "We got three or four inquiries from big-name foreign sales companies, saying: 'We saw this announcement. If you aren't working with anyone, you've got to come talk with us.' "
The Identical, a $3 million indie project from City of Peace Films, is taking a surprising approach: the faith-based route. City of Peace president Yochanan Marcellino says the script, adapted by Space Cowboys scribe Howie Klausner from a play about an Elvis impersonator, focuses on Presley's interest in gospel music and his religious roots. The project will star Ryan Pelton, an actual Elvis impersonator. Marcellino says plans call for Identical to include licensed Presley music -- a combination of covers and original recordings -- but he declined to discuss negotiations with rights-holders.
Countless Presley songs have been licensed for films. Memorably, 2001's Ocean's Eleven included "A Little Less Conversation"; the following year, a techno remix made the song a hit decades after its initial release. Licensing the King's music for a film about him also could lead to a mega-selling soundtrack album, though film soundtracks require separate negotiations. Ellie Altshuler, an entertainment attorney who specializes in intellectual property at Fox Rothschild, says that while the Presley estate has licensed music for feel-good projects like Viva Elvis, it hasn't for others. "It boils down to controversy and shying away from portraying Elvis in any bad light," she says. "Viva is purely entertainment and highlights the glories of Elvis." Ultimately, the ability to bring a Presley project to fruition rests on many factors, perhaps including a bit of luck.
"It is always complicated with such an estate, especially when you have music rights involved. There are several parties who need to get what they want," says CMG's Korkis. "But Elvis is one of the more popular and recognizable names on the planet, and I am surprised that there has not been a film made about him."