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The Race to Make an Elvis Movie Heats Up

This story first appeared in the Nov. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Forget leaving the building. When it comes to movies, the King of Rock 'n' Roll hasn't even arrived. For years, Hollywood players from American Idol creator Simon Fuller to billionaire producer Steve Bing have tried to make a biopic about Elvis Presley. The singer -- whose superstardom dovetailed with an abusive relationship with manager "Colonel" Tom Parker, a rocky romance with wife Priscilla Presley and battles with drugs that contributed to his 1977 death from a heart attack at age 42 -- would seem perfect fodder for the big screen.

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But a handful of key issues stand in the way, from the narrative challenges presented by Elvis' complicated and at times dark personal story to working with CKX Inc., the company that controls Presley's music, image and other intellectual property.

While films about Presley's contemporaries -- think 2004's Ray, about Ray Charles, or 2005's Walk the Line, about Johnny Cash, each made with the artist's blessing -- have been released to critical and commercial success, a biopic about perhaps the most iconic music figure of all time remains unmade.

That could be changing. Despite the challenges, four unauthorized Presley projects are in varying stages of development. Each tackles the topic differently: Bing's project, set up at Fox 2000 and based on the biography Last Train to Memphis, is expected to be a traditional biopic; The Identical has a faith-based bent and centers on an Elvis impersonator; Fame & Fortune is adapted from a memoir by a Presley bodyguard; and a project financed by producer Michael Benaroya (Margin Call), titled Elvis & Nixon, centers on an encounter between the singer and the president.

"You have a lot to overcome in terms of meeting or beating people's expectations," says Benaroya, whose project has cast Eric Bana as Presley and Danny Huston as Richard Nixon.

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Elvis & Nixon isn't the only Presley project to attach notables: In January, it was announced that Young Guns scribe John Fusco would adapt Last Train for Fox 2000, and in September, John Scheinfeld, writer-director of the 2006 doc The U.S. vs. John Lennon, signed on to direct Fame & Fortune for RLF Victor Productions. The moves suggest that Hollywood remains very much interested in Presley. In the right hands, the role would be coveted by A-list actors. But securing the King's music can be like checking into Heartbreak Hotel.

Some filmmakers hope to license Presley's music from Sony BMG, which owns the singer's recordings. But the famously tightfisted CKX, which acquired 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises from Presley's daughter, Lisa Marie Presley, for $100 million in 2005, must approve all uses. (EPE owns at least a share of most of the more than 700 compositions Presley recorded.) Given CKX's fierce protectiveness of the Elvis image and the cost of licensing music, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per track, others aren't even bothering to use Presley songs.

"CKX has not been asked for any licenses to Elvis Presley's music by any of these film projects, nor has it granted any," says a spokesman. The company declined further comment.

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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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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.' "

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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."

Email: Daniel.Miller@THR.com
Twitter: @DanielNMiller