Legacy Rights Make Business Might
Classic rock rights-holders guard gates as cred-seeking biopics come knocking
Two of the biggest films of the fall season — “A Star Is Born” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” — are centered around music. “Straight Outta Compton” introduced N.W.A.’S music and story to a whole new generation. Netflix and Hulu and Showtime are filled with music documentaries and biopics, many about figures who are hardly household names (millions know Bert Berns’ songs, but how many know who he is?). There’s little question that we’re in an unprecedented time for music and screens.
As during any boom time, players are casting a careful eye on what they own, what they want, and how much they can charge or pay for it — not to mention whether a project is consistent with their artist’s business and (sorry, we’ve gotta use this word sooner or later) brand.
These topics and more will be explored and unpacked at the In the Zeitgeist — Music Documen- taries and Biopics panel at Variety’s Music for Films summit. What is attractive to an estate or rights-holder and makes them want to become involved in a film or TV project? Conversely, how can rightsholders present an artist or catalog in a way that makes it seem ripe for such a project? Lending their expertise will be manager Deborah Mannis- Gardner, owner/president of DMG Clearances and music supervisor of “The Defiant Ones”; estate manager Jeff Jampol; music supervisor Jonathan Mchugh; John Ottman, editor, “Bohemian Rhapsody”; and Heather Parry, president of production, film and television at Live Nation Prods.
Key to any successful project is a level of authenticity that still manages to deliver a strong story. Jampol, who works on both sides of the business as a producer and as manager of the estates of the Doors, Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, the Ramones and others, says, “There are three things we keep in mind regarding these projects and our artists’ legacies: Are we protecting it? Are we moving it forward? Are we keeping it credible?”
Such considerations, of course, are in the eye of the beholder, and the rights holder controls the credibility of most musical projects: If a biopic about a cer- tain artist does not include any music by that artist because the producers could not procure the necessary clearances — as was the case with the 2014 Jimi Hendrix biopic “All Is by My Side,” which starred Outkast member Andre Benjamin — the film suffers both commercially and critically. Unlike, say, an unauthorized biography, the refusal of music rights connotes disapproval of the project by the subject or its representatives. Whether that disapproval is justified is also subjective — witness the dispute over “A True Testimonial,” the 2002 documentary of Detroit pre-punk pioneers the MC5, which was laboriously produced and screened, only to be held from release due to a dispute over the music that still has not been resolved, 16 years later.
How does one avoid such worst- case scenarios? Variety’s panel of experts will unpack these questions and more on Oct. 30.
The N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” couldn’t have been made without extensive attention to rights clearances.
There are three things we keep in mind regarding these projects and our artists’ legacies: Are we protecting it? Are we moving it forward? Are we keeping it credible?”