LOS ANGELES — Multiple movie studios passed on the opportunity to make “Rocketman,” an R-rated musical fantasia about Elton John’s hedonistic breakthrough years. Too gay. Too expensive. Too reliant on an unproven star.
But one film company, the down-on-its-luck Paramount Pictures, saw the audacious project as a chance to prove something to both Hollywood and Wall Street — namely that, to borrow a reference from Sir Elton, it’s still standing.
Now comes the moment of truth.
“Rocketman” will arrive in theaters on May 31 as perhaps the most ambitious movie of Hollywood’s summer season, a four-month period that typically accounts for 40 percent of annual ticket sales and relies overwhelmingly on franchises. Starring Taron Egerton and costing an estimated $120 million to make and market worldwide, “Rocketman” trails glitter — a million Swarovski crystals adorn the costumes and eyewear — and depicts gay sex, a first for a major studio. Mr. Egerton, 29, known for the “Kingsman” action comedies, did all of his own singing, reinterpreting classics like “The Bitch Is Back.” There is intricate choreography (one stylized scene finds an entire London neighborhood dancing in formation) and an orgy musical number set to “Bennie and the Jets.”
Depending on its box office performance, “Rocketman” could have wide ripple effects. Paramount has delivered nine consecutive quarters of improved financial results for Viacom, its corporate owner, but a turnaround is still tenuous. A big hit — and one that’s not a sequel, spinoff or reboot, at that — would provide a morale boost and send an important message to Hollywood’s creative community and Viacom investors: that even in the age of Netflix and Marvel, Paramount can deliver.
The stakes are also high for Mr. Egerton. His previous movie, Lionsgate’s big-budget “Robin Hood,” was a critical and commercial bomb. If this one fizzles, Mr. Egerton’s leading man opportunities may vanish. Dexter Fletcher, who directed “Rocketman,” is also hoping for a career-making moment. Mr. Fletcher, who also acts, has never had a breakout success as a filmmaker, although he earned points in Hollywood for finishing “Bohemian Rhapsody” after the credited director, Bryan Singer, was fired.
In some ways, almost every major studio has something riding on “Rocketman.” Movies built around song catalogs have become white hot in Hollywood. Baz Luhrmann is working on an Elvis Presley movie for Warner Bros. Sony recently bought the rights to “Once Upon a One More Time,” described as a fairy tale fueled by Britney Spears songs. Universal is developing a Madonna biopic called “Blond Ambition.” Celine Dion, David Bowie and Judy Garland films are on the way from smaller studios.
Turnout for “Rocketman” could either heat up or cool down studio interest. Right now, film executives are dreaming of finding another “Bohemian Rhapsody.” The Queen bio-musical collected a jaw-dropping $908 million worldwide last year and won four Academy Awards, including one for Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury.
“It will be interesting to see how broad the ‘Rocketman’ audience will be — whether it bridges the gaps,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore, which tracks box office data.
Heterosexual men are typically the hardest audience for musicals to reach. “Bohemian Rhapsody” overcame that hurdle, but no one is exactly sure why. Some longtime movie marketers point out that Queen anthems like “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions” are sporting event mainstays. “Or it could be that these movies are hitting on multiple levels: biopic, jukebox musical, an anchor performance, a little documentary even,” Mr. Dergarabedian said.
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