Warner Bros. Discovery’s Elvis swept the VOD ratings charts over the weekend, topping Vudu, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube and Amazon. The acclaimed and buzzy Austin Butler/Tom Hanks flick, which is almost sure to be a major awards season player, debuted on PVOD ($20 to rent or $25 to buy) this past Tuesday but still dropped just 34% in North America to bring its 52-day total above $141 million. It’s a few days away from passing Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood ($142.5 million from a $41 million debut) to become the biggest-grossing, in domestic earnings, straight drama (all due respect to Universal’s World War I-set actioner 1917) since Fox’s Bohemian Rhapsody ($216 million) and WB’s own A Star Is Born ($215 million) in late 2018.
That those two are musically inclined melodramas is likely no coincidence. In pre-Covid times the live-action musical, be it the genuine article (The Greatest Showman, Les Misérables, Pitch Perfect 2, La La Land, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again, etc.) or a musical-centric biopic (Straight Outta Compton, Walk the Line, Rocketman, Bohemian Rhapsody, etc.), was among the safer sub-genres in a rapidly changing theatrical landscape. In a world where audiences only show up for an event and for marquee characters (that can mean Venom, Michael Myers or Freddie Mercury), a splashy rock-n-roll melodrama centered on a known rock star is a nice hybrid of the two. Moreover, the music biopic often appeals to older and irregular moviegoers who don’t care much about Marvel/DC superheroes.
In the Heights, Respect and West Side Story weren’t hits, but their $24-$38 million domestic finishes towered above most studio programmers in 2021. The one relatively successful adult-skewing programmer of 2021 featured Lady Gaga, a rock star and pop culture icon, as a real-life femme fatale. House of Gucci earned $152 million global on a $75 million budget, not great but not bad for a Covid-era programmer and a recent non-007 MGM release. Likewise, Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-winning A Star Is Born, neither a straight-up musical nor a rock-centric biopic but certainly a film with similar flavors, earned $424 million worldwide on a $37 million budget amid WB’s ass-kicking 2018 line-up. And that’s not even counting the various animated musical (or musically inclined) blockbusters like Frozen, Sing and Coco.
Even at $150 million, a musically inclined Joker 2 co-starring Lady Gaga seems smart. It might not get anywhere near Joker’s gross since that was partially due to a slew of late-2019 biggies (Wonder Woman 1984, No Time to Die, Sonic the Hedgehog, etc.) being sent to 2020 and giving it the whole field until Frozen II in mid-November. But when a $65 million, R-rated drama wins Oscars and grosses $1.073 billion worldwide, you green-light a sequel and hope you don’t roll Alice Through the Looking Glass. A likely less-than-ideal scenario is that the Joaquin Phoenix/Lady Gaga musical melodrama ‘only’ grosses $530 million (–51% like Secret Life of Pets 2) and becomes an HBO Max smash as the Little Monsters rewatch their favorite musical numbers.
That David Zaslov name-dropped Elvis during the big shareholder call implies that his alleged recommitment to emphasizing theatrical isn’t just about DC flicks and that at least some of the alleged over/under 20 annual theatrical releases will be relative studio programmers. That the Baz Luhrmann-directed flick, which has earned $262 million on an $85 million budget and may flirt with $300 million by the end, isn’t arriving on HBO Max anytime soon is an encouraging sign that the 45-day window need not be set in stone. There has been little cannibalization of theatrical by the PVOD marketplace. Still, the theatrical-to-streaming pipeline is less clear-cut, especially if Peacock and Paramount+ become as commonplace as Disney+ and HBO Max and consumers become conditioned to wait.
Elvis is A) an encouraging sign that some of the older, irregular moviegoers that powered Top Gun: Maverick to (eventually) $700 million domestic might become less irregular and B) more evidence that Warner Bros. is more than Batman and Harry Potter. It’s another less-conventional event film that WB’s marketing sold into a mainstream smash, like (relatively speaking) Magic Mike, Gravity, American Sniper, It, Crazy Rich Asians, Joker and Dune. It’s another example of how WB isn’t always on fire overall just because they keep getting negative ink for the DC Films melodramas. Anyway, it’s a well-reviewed, well-liked leggy theatrical hit that will end up with just under 3.5x its budget and isn’t slowing down even as it dominates the VOD charts. In other words, it’s an old-fashioned hit.