Universal Pictures Music Chief Mike Knobloch Talks ‘Pitch Perfect 3’ and How the Taylor Swift-Zayn Duet Happened

No pressure, but “Pitch Perfect 3,” which opens in 3,400 North American theaters and 15 international territories this weekend, only has to follow the world’s top-earning musical comedy, a status the franchise’s 2015 second installment reached when its $288 million gross crushed the $131.3 million earning by previous record-holder “School of Rock.”

Coming off a Grammy nomination for best song written for visual media with “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” the Taylor Swift-Zayn duet that helped propel “Fifty Shades Darker” into a $374 million global release, Universal Pictures film music and publishing president Mike Knobloch confirmed rumors about a Liam Payne-Rita Ora collaboration: “‘For You (Fifty Shades Freed)’ will make a big noise at the top of January on the single for the Feb. 9 film release.”

Knobloch, who joined Universal in 2010 after 13 years as executive VP of music at 20th Century Fox, has the inside track on what it takes to create a motion picture-propelled pop hit. Transitioning a film from one-off into the franchise column “doesn’t just happen accidentally,” Knobloch says. “There’s a strategic intention for music to be a value-add marquee driver.”

His department of 30 has helped implement that strategy on projects ranging from 2016’s animated “Sing,” which had more than 60 licensed cues (generating $632 million worldwide and a sequel due 2020) to the “Fast and Furious” series, which has translated to more than $1 billion at the box office over eight films that produced two RIAA platinum-selling and one gold album. With tune-filled tentpoles “Mamma Mia!: Here We Go Again” in July  and the November reboot “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” set for 2018, Knobloch shares his sound philosophies with Variety.

Pitch Perfect 3,” which has more than 40 sync licenses, and a lot of actresses performing a capella. Are the actresses doing the singing?
We don’t cheat voices. Whether it’s Anna Kendrick, Brittany Snow, Anna Camp, Hailee Steinfeld or Ester Dean – every one of the Barden Bellas are singing their own parts. There’s some movie magic, but whether they’re live on camera or lip synching, it’s their own voices. For “Pitch Perfect 3,” which was shot in Atlanta, we actually built a recording studio on a soundstage, so when the girls weren’t in wardrobe or rehearsals for choreography or whatever, the schedule during prep and throughout production was when they had a slot in their schedule they’d get pulled into the studio to work with our music producer. They’d come in and refine their parts, working with the a cappella arrangers and the rest of the team. So we had every actress’ voice recorded so by the time the movie was shot we were working with their own voices. And during post we’d sometimes rerecord or refine. But we have three movies of actresses singing their own tracks. You’d spot it from a mile away if Anna Kendrick’s speaking voice didn’t match her singing voice.  Also, lip synching gets really complicated, based on the shape of a person’s mouth and their breathing and things like that.

The soundtrack features the Bellas doing a cappella cover versions of everything from Sia’s “Cheap Thrills” to Dr. Dre’s “Let Me Ride.” How do you decide which songs make it into the film?
Building a great soundtrack all goes back to development, having a script and getting in there early and often to serve the needs of the film. It’s also a lot about getting on the same page with people: Music being incredibly personal, there’s never a shortage of opinions. “Pitch Perfect 3” was very collaborative. We have a pair of music supervisors, Julia Michels and Julianne Jordan, myself, the director Trish Sie, some very savvy producers, Liz Banks and Max Handleman, who have been there since the beginning. A lot of people get to chime in and there’s an art to collaboration, so it isn’t someone overruling someone else. A lot of thought went into conceiving the big production number for the finale, George Michael “Freedom 90.” We considered a lot of songs, and just kept refining the idea: Is it a song we can really do something with? Is there enough in the DNA of the song that we can take it to the next level?

You have both covers and original music in “Pitch Perfect 3.” Are there different objectives or challenges with each?
The reason you hear cover songs so much – from advertising to a slew of movies and TV – is you can very quickly and easily tap into somebody’s brain in a way that’s going to make the experience of what they’re hearing so satisfying – and  fun –  because it takes a nanosecond to trigger the emotion of “I love this song!” When you have an original song, that can be a tricky thing to do, because it’s a different part of the brain to learn an original song. It’s really hard to pull that off and make it nearly as satisfying and exciting as a cover: They do a specific thing and we try to curate them and execute them in a way that tells the story and that’s fun and works for picture. It’s a lot of boxes to check. 

There is quite a bit of complaining among music supervisors that soundtracks are a dying genre, if not dead. Aside from the element of surprise, what are the elements of a viable soundtrack?
Just because people are not buying a physical thing, or downloading its counterpart in zeros and ones, doesn’t mean they’re not consuming. Streaming is where the business has gone, and we have to adjust our mindsets. Accessing has replaced ownership. 

According to BuzzAngle, “Pitch Perfect 2” alone generated more than 800 million song streams, so clearly there is interest. But how do you turn that into revenue?
To move the needle on sales, you need a wow factor. Some movies that have a lot of music aren’t soundtrack-worthy. The era of “let’s release a soundtrack for every film, even a silly comedy that has three good songs and we’ll pad it,” that doesn’t exist anymore. I work with the best studio marketing team in the business and, per their high standards, nothing gets me more excited than we cook up something on the music side of a film and I run over and burst into their conference room and say “Guess who we got to do our big song!” and when you tell them the reaction is “Holy sh–!” That’s exciting and points toward worthy of a soundtrack and making music a big part of the strategy of what’s up on the screen. But very few things can get that reaction.

Logistically, how do you get those big names involved?
It’s so much about timing. To align an artist with a movie is almost an impossible thing. That narrow sliver of overlap between a big artist’s agenda and what we need to accomplish, in the timeframe in which we need to accomplish it – the science and math involved in that are intense. Artists today have to work really hard to build and manage their brand, and it’s all about “Is their brand aligned with our brand? Is it on-message?” The factors that led to Taylor Swift and Zayn doing “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” is an unreplicatable series of events. Luck and timing has as much to do with it as a smart, strategic creative plan. It was an opportunity that had we flinched it would have evaporated in a second.

How did it happen?
It came together fairly late in the game. If you’d asked me even a week before whether it was in the realm of possibilities I would have put on par with a snowball’s chance in hell. You have to recognize those opportunities when even a hint presents itself and jump on it. Initially we had Zayn, and Jack Antonoff and Taylor jumped into an intense co-writer collaboration and took it to a new level, and we knew we had our hit. it was one of those moments where the heavens part and a ray of light comes down and blinds you for a second. And from that collaboration to when we had a finished track – not just in the film, but on the radio – it was matter of, literally, days. The “What if we can get Taylor?” conversation took place on a Thursday, and on Monday we had a version of the song with Taylor on it. By the end of that week Taylor and Zayn had refined their parts, business affairs got the deal done, we cut it into the movie and came up with a plan with marketing. It takes a strong creative vision and tenacity.

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