After Warner Bros. executives signed off on the risky decision to bankroll their $90 million look at the life of Elvis Presley with a little-known actor portraying the hip-swinging rocker, producer Gail Berman reached for her phone. She wanted to immortalize the moment for Austin Butler, the man who reportedly beat out the likes of Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller to land the kind of role that can make a career.
“I needed to take a photo of all these people sitting around after they made a decision that was going to mark a major change in Austin’s life,” says Berman. “It was wonderful that they saw from his screen test just how good he was, and that they were ready to support him on this journey.”
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The studio’s bold bet on Butler paid off handsomely. The young star has earned Oscar buzz and rave reviews for “Elvis,” in which he charts Presley’s rise to the top of the charts, as well as his struggles with addiction and personal problems. The movie has also become an unlikely box office juggernaut. Despite debuting in late June, at the height of popcorn season, “Elvis” has grossed nearly $150 million domestically and more than $276 million globally, an impressive figure for a film that is superhero-less. Credit, Berman says, also has to go to Tom Hanks, who portrays Presley’s shady manager Col. Tom Parker, and director Baz Luhrmann, the Australian auteur behind “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet,” who injected his trademark sizzle and sparkle into the proceedings.
“People love Tom and there was all this excitement about Austin as a new star,” says Berman. “And everyone was so anxious to get back in theaters and see something that was well reviewed, so a lot of things came together to push this over the top and make it Baz’s No. 1 domestic film.”
Yes, that’s right, “Elvis” has now outgrossed not just “Moulin Rouge,” but also “The Great Gatsby,” which starred none other than Leonardo DiCaprio. Berman says Luhrmann’s track record of creating pop-inflected stories helped drive business.
“Branded entertainment isn’t just about having superheroes,” says Berman. “Directors are brands. Baz Luhrmann’s brand is attractive to adult audiences. They know ‘Gatsby,’ they know ‘Moulin Rouge,’ many of them remember and love ‘Strictly Ballroom.’ Baz is one of the few filmmakers that has that kind of connection with viewers.”
The success of “Elvis,” as well as Sony’s literary adaptation “Where the Crawdads Sing,” another commercially successful adult drama that premiered this summer, shows that older crowds, previously written off during the pandemic, haven’t gotten out of the moviegoing habit.
“I’ve done a lot of films for young people, and I’ve done a lot of films for older people,” says Berman, who co-founded The Jackal Group after top jobs at Fox Broadcasting and Paramount. “People will show up if there’s something high-quality for them to see.”
“Elvis” also benefitted from patience. In the wake of COVID, studios have dramatically cut back on the amount of time that movies are exclusively in theaters. Most studios are releasing films on-demand between 17 days to 45 days after they premiere in theaters. “Elvis” had an exclusive theatrical run that was more than 60 days.
“We had a longer window, and that allowed the movie to catch on and enabled people to appreciate the reviews and for the word-of-mouth to grow,” says Berman. “It allowed it to gestate.”
It also allowed younger audiences to catch up with the film. Berman says the initial ticket buyers were older and grew up listening to Presley’s music. As the weeks went on, a new generation of fans decided to check out the movie.
Luhrmann may be a much-loved filmmaker, but he has only been nominated for a single Oscar and that was for producing “Moulin Rouge!” Will “Elvis” finally land him a best director nomination?
“He did a tremendous job directing this film,” says Berman. “I’d love to see that recognized.”
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