From ‘Furious 7’ to ‘Fifty Shades,’ Music Supercharges Universal Movies

Wiz Khalifa Album Sales
Tim Mosenfelder/Getty

2015 was a year to remember for Universal Pictures, both at the box office and, more unusually, on the pop charts. With “Straight Outta Compton” and “Pitch Perfect 2” dominating cinemas while driving music sales all the while, the studio was responsible for the two biggest music-driven films of the year. And that harmony extended throughout the slate, with “Furious 7” and “50 Shades of Grey,” which notched three Top 10 pop hits between them.

Behind all of these projects was Mike Knobloch, Universal’s president of film music and publishing. The exec says the studio’s emphasis on music has been palpable since he came on as one of Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley’s earliest hires when she was named in 2009.

“Culturally, under Donna’s leadership, music has always been high on the food chain,” Knobloch says. “Everything from ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Les Miz’ to ‘Straight Outta Compton’ and ‘Pitch Perfect’ and music-driven non-musicals like ‘50 Shades.’ If you just look at the slate, I think we have more musicals and music-driven films than all of our counterparts combined.”

The soundtrack to “Pitch Perfect 2” topped the U.S album chart in May, while “Straight Outta Compton” was buoyed by Dr. Dre’s companion piece, “Compton: A Soundtrack,” which hit No. 2 on the week of the film’s August release. (The soundtrack for “Jem and the Holograms” just entered the Top 100 of the album chart, though the pic’s utter box office failure may present to steep a hill to climb.)

But perhaps the most impressive music success stories to come out of Universal this year are also its earliest. In February, the soundtrack to “50 Shades of Grey,” issued on Republic Records, reached No. 2 on the album chart and sent two singles into the top 10: The Weeknd’s “Earned It” (No. 3) and Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do” (No. 3). The “Furious 7” soundtrack (Atlantic Records) did one better and summited the album chart in March, with its Paul Walker-tribute “See You Again,” by Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth, topping the singles chart for 12 non-consecutive weeks.

Coupled with the 2013 success of Universal’s “Despicable Me 2” (which launched Pharrell’s all-conquering “Happy”) and Disney’s “Frozen” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” soundtracks, these smashes seem to suggest a resurgence of the form, though Knobloch is skeptical. “I’ve been asked questions like, ‘Does this mean that soundtracks are back?’ Not in the sense that all the sudden it’s 20 years ago, no. The era of being able to release a soundtrack with the film’s key art on the cover and just assuming that if the movie does well people will pay money for these songs … it just doesn’t work like that.”

Besides, Knobloch stresses that the type of foundation-laying and customization that powered these soundtracks is hardly something that can be re-created by formula. On “50 Shades,” for example, Knobloch and music supervisor Dana Sano strove to create a “bespoke collection of music” specific to the film, from original songs to catalog music to the slowed-down reworking of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” that jump-started the film’s marketing blitz.

“There was a real in-the-trenches effort to reach out to artists, from established artists to people we had never heard of,” he says. Falling in the middle of that spectrum was the Weeknd, who commanded a devoted fanbase but had yet to experience real crossover success.

“(You have) an artist that just oozes sexuality and feels so well matched for the material, he’s in exactly the right point in his career trajectory, he’s excited about it … there’s so many things that just aligned in such a right way,” says Knobloch.

Both “Earned It” and Goulding’s “Love You” were launched in the lead-up to the “50 Shades” theatrical release, helping drum up buzz for the film in a way Knobloch says was “a throwback to the function of soundtracks long ago, when they really helped open a film.” For “Furious,” however, the release of “See You Again” was held until after the film’s release, and the process of commissioning the music was even more intense.

Partnering with music publisher APG, Knobloch convened a songwriters camp on the Universal lot, screening an unfinished cut of the film for the publisher’s tunesmiths and explaining exactly where certain songs were needed, then sifting through the submissions. The hardest beat to nail, he knew, was the film’s emotional climax, which served as a remembrance of Walker.

Knobloch and company decided on the song by Puth and co-writers Andrew Cedar and DJ Frank E nearly a year before the film was scheduled for release, then added a rap verse from series veteran Khalifa, and spent months fine-tuning.

“It’s a tough thing to be a guy in a suit telling an artist, ‘We love what you did, can you do it again differently?’ But we did that literally for months. From very early on the song revealed itself as something special, and then it was months of systematically refining it to make it absolutely perfect. It became an inseparable part of the experience of that film.”

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