Hollywood persists with biopics despite perils

Thu Oct 1, 2009 10:18pm EDT
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By Jay A. Fernandez

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - When DreamWorks announced in May that it planned to make a movie about Martin Luther King Jr., it took less than 24 hours for the prestige project to hit a speed bump.

Two of King's children disputed a third's authority to speak for the estate, and soon enough King's own words came to mind: "All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."

Granted, putting someone's life story on film hardly compares to the struggle for civil rights. But the biographical movie is a uniquely frustrating beast. Discovering a fascinating life story is the easy part, but acquiring the appropriate life/film/art/music rights, appeasing relatives' and audiences' expectations, persuading financiers to ante up and actually making money on the project can be as arduous a task as universal equality.

This is why, despite their undeniable magnetism at awards time, few true biopics ever make it to the big screen. However, that never has stopped anyone from trying.

In DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg's case, he acquired King's life rights and access to his intellectual property and speeches, but the threatened legal action and King family infighting could affect the project. For its part, DreamWorks says it is undeterred and confident differences will be worked out. "We remain committed to pursuing a film chronicling Martin Luther King's life provided that there is unity in the family so we can make a film about unity in our nation," the company has stated.

There are at least three dozen biopics lining the benches of major studios, though not all are actively being developed. Those swelling ranks might be a function of our 21st century addiction to celebrity, but just as few finished products will make it onto a screen as 30 or 50 years ago. Musicians remain a popular target because of the built-in ancillary boost from their soundtracks.

Currently, producers and studios are pushing personages as diverse as Kurt Cobain, Abraham Lincoln, Nina Simone, Marilyn Monroe, Liberace, Hugh Hefner, James Brown, Theodore Roosevelt, Lance Armstrong, Ian Fleming, Joe Namath and Milli Vanilli toward a green light.

"We always have liked stories that are about the triumph of the human spirit," says Howard Baldwin, who produced the 2004 Oscar nominee "Ray," about Ray Charles, and is working on projects about hockey icon Gordie Howe and Redwoods-saving activist Julia Butterfly Hill. "So, if we do a biopic, it's usually going to be about that. Somebody that's able to overcome obstacles and triumph is a good story."   Continued...