Though they are both musical biopics backed by major Hollywood studios and (at least partially) directed by Dexter Fletcher, “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” from a box office perspective, are faulty comparisons.
That’s an important distinction to note as Paramount’s “Rocketman,” centering on the life and times of Sir Elton John, begins its theatrical run in North America and beyond. After the fantasy musical kicked off with a solid $25 million at the domestic box office, some commentators faulted “Rocketman” for debuting to half of what “Bohemian Rhapsody” made in its inaugural weekend. “Rocketman” likely won’t achieve the stratospheric ticket sales that Fox’s homage to Queen, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” managed last year. It doesn’t need to in order to become a financial success.
After launching last November with $51 million in the States, the Oscar-winning “Bohemian Rhapsody” went on to collect a staggering $903 million worldwide. “Rocketman” cost roughly $40 million to make, a figure that doesn’t account for global marketing costs. While that could add tens of millions to the price tag, it’s still a relatively modest number at a time when major studio movies routinely cost more than $100 million to produce. That kind of economizing means that “Rocketman” doesn’t need to gross close to $1 billion to be a hit. To be sure, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” with a price tag near $50 million, could have earned a fraction of its box office haul and still be deemed a big winner.
But “Bohemian Rhapsody” had some advantages that “Rocketman” doesn’t. Love it or hate it (and “Film Twitter” hated it), “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a more traditional “how-we-wrote-this-song” biopic, with a PG-13 rating that made it all the more accessible to Queen fans young and old. The well-reviewed “Rocketman” takes a different approach, infusing fantastical and musical elements, while refusing to shy away from John’s struggles with addictions.
“The rating makes a big difference,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst at Comscore. “It allows them to delve into personal territory that you can’t do with a PG-13 movie.”
The R-rating means the filmmakers offer up a frank depiction of sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. It also could discourage certain viewers, especially ones who might not be thrilled to see Elton John snort lines of cocaine and downing bottles of scotch to quell his anxieties, from checking out the film. There are other reasons why the movie will struggle to be embraced in certain foreign territories. In Russia, gay sex scenes were censored from the film and more conservative moviegoing markets like China likely won’t screen “Rocketman” at all.
Dergarabedian commends Paramount for not “sugar coating” the movie to avoid an R-rating. “It shows they weren’t looking at the bottom-line money,” he said.
“Bohemian Rhapsody” also benefitted from a prime fall release date, allowing it to play in theaters well throughout the holidays. “Rocketman” was positioned at the beginning of summer as counter-programming against big-budget superhero and monster fare. The strategy seems to be working, but it will still need to keep attracting fans during one of the most competitive times of the year for moviegoing.
From a financial perspective, “Rocketman” won’t live up to the grosses of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But it still could hit a few high notes at the box office.