Elvis producer Gail Berman on Oscar chances and box office results

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After Warner Bros. executives approved the risky decision to fund their $90 million look at the life of Elvis Presley with a little-known actor playing the swinging rocker, producer Gail Berman picked up her phone. She wanted to capture the moment for Austin Butler, the man who would have beaten Ansel Elgort and Miles Teller to land the kind of role that can make a career.

“I needed to take a picture of all these people sitting down after I made a decision that would mark a major change in Austin’s life,” Berman says. “It was wonderful that they saw from his screen test how good he was and were ready to support him on this journey.”

The studio’s bold bet on Butler paid off. The young star garnered Oscar buzz and critical acclaim for “Elvis,” in which he chronicles Presley’s rise to the top of the charts, as well as his struggles with addiction and personal issues. The film also became 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 worldwide, an impressive figure for a film without Super hero. Credit, Berman says, must also go to Tom Hanks, who plays Presley’s sleazy manager Col. Tom Parker, and director Baz Luhrmann, the Australian author behind “Moulin Rouge!” and “Romeo + Juliet,” which injected his trademark sizzle and sparkle into the proceedings.

“People love Tom and there was all this excitement about Austin as a new star,” Berman says. “And everyone was so excited to get back in theaters and see something that was rated well, so a lot of things came together to push this over the top and make it Baz’s No. 1 domestic movie.”

Yes, that’s right, “Elvis” topped not only “Moulin Rouge,” but also “The Great Gatsby,” which starred none other than Leonardo DiCaprio. Berman says Luhrmann’s background in crafting pop-leaning stories helped boost business.

“Branded entertainment isn’t just about having superheroes,” says Berman. “Directors are brands. Baz Luhrmann’s brand appeals to an adult audience. They know “Gatsby”, they know “Moulin Rouge”, many of them remember and love “Strictly Ballroom”. Baz is one of the few filmmakers to have that kind of connection with viewers.

The hit “Elvis,” along with 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 , are not out of the usual cinema.

“I’ve done a lot of movies for young people and I’ve done a lot of movies for old people,” says Berman, who co-founded The Jackal Group after holding high-profile roles at Fox Broadcasting and Paramount. “People will show up if there’s something high quality to see.”

“Elvis” also benefited from patience. In the wake of COVID, studios have drastically reduced the time movies are exclusively in theaters. Most studios release films on demand between 17 and 45 days after their theatrical premiere. “Elvis” had an exclusive theatrical run for over 60 days.

“We had a longer window, which allowed the film to catch on and allowed people to appreciate reviews and word of mouth to grow,” Berman says. “It allowed her to gestate.”

It also allowed young audiences to catch up with the film. Berman says the first ticket buyers were older and grew up listening to Presley’s music. Over the weeks, a new generation of fans decided to discover the film.

Luhrmann may be a highly regarded filmmaker, but he was only nominated for one Oscar and that was for producing “Moulin Rouge!” Will ‘Elvis’ finally get him a Best Director nomination?

“He did a terrific job directing this movie,” Berman says. “I would like that to be recognized.”

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