They Are the Champions: Why ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ Is an Unlikely $900 Million Smash

The Oscar-winning music biopic broke the rules to outgross the sequels for "Guardians of the Galaxy" and “Spider-Man."
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
"Bohemian Rhapsody"
20th Century Fox

Bohemian Rhapsody” (20th Century Fox – its final blockbuster) has passed $900 million in total gross worldwide. That makes it the sixth-biggest 2018 release overall — placing it ahead of recent hits like “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Batman v. Superman,” and “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.” The film’s final push came from its current modest play in China (in a gay-free truncated version, which apparently presumes audiences don’t mind major plot holes).

It also is #4 among 2018 releases in foreign sales. At $685 million, it stands behind only “Avengers: Infinity War,” “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom,” and “Aquaman” in popularity. That remarkable placement makes it the most surprising success of last year. Let’s look at some of the unusual aspects of its reception.

Foreign Made It a Massive Hit

“Bohemian Rhapsody” certainly was a domestic success, with a $216 million gross that makes it the 10th biggest film of 2018. It’s also the lowest North American number among the very top international hits. As of now, “Rhapsody” scored 76% of its take overseas. With some territories still playing, it will end up with the highest foreign share. (One exception: local Chinese smash “Detective Chinatown 2,” which is #9 among all non-domestic performers and saw nearly all of its gross in its home territory.)

At the moment, “Bohemian Rhapsody” has edged “Venom” and “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” among the top 10 films for combined grosses, and soon will edge another big international hit, “Ready Player One.” Generally, the norm remains closer to a 2/3-1/3 foreign/domestic split.

"Bohemian Rhapsody"
“Bohemian Rhapsody”20th Century Fox

It’s Not a Franchise or a Sequel

The other nine films in the top 10 are six sequels and three franchise-related films (“Black Panther,” “Venom,” and “Aquaman” all part of Marvel or D.C. Comics). In other words, it’s the pre-fab assembly-line product (which doesn’t preclude superior creative results) that studios prefer. They all were familiar, safe, and easy to market. A musical biopic is hardly a new genre, but at this level of success it qualifies as the year’s biggest anomaly.

It’s Not Obvious Blockbuster Material

Back in ancient times (that is, pre-Spielberg and -Lucas) nearly all of the biggest hits stemmed from contemporary characters and a dramatic arc that reflected a recognizable life trajectory. Among the biggest hits of 2018, only “Bohemian Rhapsody” qualified as such.

Of course, Freddie Mercury and Queen may not be typical people. Still, the drama was rooted in human problems, without fantasy characters or superpowers. By today’s standards, that’s thinking outside the box.

O_163_wem_1360_comp_v003_01,1159 2 – L-R: Gwilym Lee (Brian May), Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor), Rami Malek (Freddie Mercury), and Joe Mazzello (John Deacon) star in Twentieth Century Fox’s BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY. Photo Credit: Courtesy Twentieth Century Fox.
“Bohemian Rhapsody”Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Even the Studio Didn’t Expect This Much Success

“Bohemian Rhapsody,” despite major production issues stemming from director Bryan Singer’s removal, reportedly cost $52 million. Of the top 10 hits, the next least-expensive is “Venom,” which cost over $100 million. (Again, the exception is “Detective Chinatown 2,” with an unreported budget but likely a fraction of the others.)

Studios have learned that, despite the inherent risk of spending $100 million-$250 million on a film, the payoff is worth it. Irrespective of initial budget, any wide release requiring tens of millions in marketing costs, studios often regard a $50 million budget as a bigger risk than a film with a much higher bottom line.

No Stars, and Few Critics

The relatively few non-sequel/franchise films that score big also scored critical approval and major stars. For 2018, that includes “A Star Is Born,” “A Quiet Place,” and “Crazy Rich Asians.” “Bohemian Rhapsody” is different. Its Metacritic score of 49 is similar to recent disappointments like “Dumbo” and “Alita: Battle Angel.”

20th Century Fox anticipated this, keeping it under wraps until just before release. It debuted initially in British territories, thought to be prime centers of interest and saw a strong response — including the U.S., which at $50 million was at least $15 million better than expected. It topped the strong debut four weeks earlier of another music drama, “A Star Is Born,” which had festival acclaim, strong reviews, and stars. That made the stronger “Rhapsody” start one of the biggest surprises of last year.


There Was Precedent

“Mamma Mia” was an anomaly in 2008. Unlike “Rhapsody,” it was an adaptation of a stage show, it was a fiction and it was populated with names like Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, and Pierce Brosnan. Like “Rhapsody,” it was critically scorned and featured familiar classic European pop songs from the 1970s and 1980s. And at their core, a central appeal for both films stemmed from reviving these tunes in a way that didn’t try to tell a story so much as create a concert-level experience. (And, to continue their parallel, “Mamma Mia!” was a disproportionately foreign success, with 76% overseas gross.)

We could soon see history repeated with Paramount’s “Rocketman,” the retelling of Elton John’s breakout years in the 1970s. It covers similar ground to “Rhapsody,” has a lower budget (reported at $40 million), stars Taron Egerton as a rising star (but not box-office proven), and includes a performer’s initially closeted life as an plot element. The director is Dexter Fletcher, who came in uncredited to salvage “Rhapsody” after Singer’s departure.

Unlike “Rhapsody,” however, it is confirmed as an out-of-competition presentation at the Cannes Film Festival. That could suggest confidence in the film’s critical reaction. Or it could mean, as with “Rhapsody,” it won’t be make-or-break for its success.

If “Rocketman” does work, assume many more musical biopic recreations to follow suit.

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