Entertainment Weekly


Stay Connected


Advertise With Us

Learn More

Skip to content


How a biopic's real-life subject can influence its box-office success

Posted on

They blow into theaters each awards season like so many autumn leaves: biographical movies “based on a true story,” giving the real-life exploits of non-fictional protagonists newfound importance in pursuit of Oscar gold. The 2015 season is no exception. But it is notable for an uptick in prestige films about still-living subjects.

That means all of them — the money managers portrayed by Christian Bale and Steve Carell in the financial drama The Big Short (Dec. 11), Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (played by Seth Rogen) in Oct. 9’s Steve Jobs and Lance Armstrong, whose bicycle doping scandal gets the biopic blow-up in The Program — are capable of actively stumping for or irreparably disparaging the films about them with a few well-publicized comments. “It can give your movie an undeniable boost,” says a Hollywood awards-campaign veteran. “But if [a subject] says, ‘It didn’t happen that way,’ you can get blown out of the water.”

At the Sept. 26 New York Film Festival premiere of The Walk, Robert Zemeckis’ drama about Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope tiptoe between the Twin Towers, the French daredevil gave the 3-D movie a welcome boost. “It brings the viewer on the wire with me,” said Petit, who’s played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in The Walk. “It’s a special work because of the way the camera invites you to walk by my side.”

And Dr. Bennet Omalu, who uncovered an epidemic of brain injuries suffered by NFL players, is equally supportive of the sports drama Concussion (Dec. 25), in which he is portrayed by Will Smith. “I was deeply impressed by how accurately and honestly Concussion tells my story,” Omalu tells EW. “I’m looking forward to doing whatever I can to support it.”

It’s the response studios hope for, but not what they always get. Journalist Jon Krakauer repudiated last month’s Everest, which chronicles an ascent that killed eight climbers, calling it “total bull” in a recent interview with The Los Angeles Times. The film features Krakauer as a character but is not based on his 1997 bestseller about the experience. “Anyone who goes to that movie and wants a facts-based account should read Into Thin Air,” he told The Times. 

Likewise, the Robert Redford starrer Truth (Oct. 16), about the scandal that derailed CBS anchorman Dan Rather’s career, faces dissent from those closest to it: Network CEO Les Moonves and his staff were reportedly heard a few months ago calling it “half-truth.”

Of course such public disavowals can cut both ways. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s 2010 complaints about The Social Network — “A lot of it is fiction,” he told Oprah — did nothing to keep it from three Oscars. Julian Assange, meanwhile, repeatedly criticized The Fifth Estate, the 2013 film about his co-founding of WikiLeaks, even writing an open letter badmouthing it to star Benedict Cumberbatch. Perhaps not coincidentally, Estate fizzled at the box office and was named 2013’s biggest box-office flop.   

To judge by the rollout of Spotlight (Nov. 6), a dramatic potboiler about Boston Globe journalists’ Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Hollywood may have finally learned that real people can provide the best case for their cinematic counterparts. Its distributor Open Road flew the Globe reporters and editors to the Toronto International Film Festival in September and the Online News Association conference in Los Angeles last week, making them an integral part of the movie’s promo push.

“It’s an ode to good journalism, an ode to the importance of investigative reporting and a reminder to the people who’ve been abused who have not yet come forward and might do so because of this film,” says Globe editor at large Walter Robinson, who’s played by Michael Keaton. “That’s what has us motivated to speak about this whenever anybody wants.”