Sun McElderry

There’s No Business Like Bieber Business

We’ve had some time to get acquainted with Web 2.0 and its progeny. Slowly but surely it’s all starting to make sense. Digital tools are immersing consumers in deeper and more meaningful brand experiences. We’re rolling with the shifting platforms. We’re getting glimpses of how technology enables products to respond rapidly to market movements, especially when that product is content. This being said, no one could have predicted that a teenager — albeit an extremely charismatic one —  and a handful of social media accounts would add up to the next ROI-rich media revolution.

Back in college, when everything still seemed possible and the Internet was hardly a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, my roommate and I would sit around imagining ways the future could be improved (with or without our help).

Me: “Dude, what if you released two or three different versions of a movie, and people started discussing it and realizing they hadn’t all seen the same thing? Or, like, what if there was a way the audience could actually see themselves in the movie?”

Josh: Yeah, that would be crazy, man. Don’t you have some studying to do or something?

It’s a conversation that came back to me when Paramount and their upstart, low-budget InSurge division confirmed yesterday they will take the unprecedented step of releasing a “fan cut” of their Justin Bieber documentary/concert film, Never Say Never, to theaters — just three weeks after the premiere of the original. Their motivations: staving off the precipitous drop-off in grosses concert films typically see and extending the narrative that Justin’s output is directly shaped by his fans’ input (in this case, Facebook and Twitter polling about what they wanted to see included).

However one feels about enduring 105 minutes of tween shrieking once — let alone twice — the studio’s decision to reboot screens nationwide with alternate performances and new footage is a remarkable demonstration of the way in which technology has only recently enabled and incentivized an increasingly rapid deployment of content in response to audience sentiment. That’s because it’s the low cost and high speed of digital reproduction, distribution, and marketing that is making this experiment possible.

In effect, not only will there be multiple, simultaneous versions of a movie experience (the new cut will play only in 3D while the original will remain in 2D theaters), but the audience will also be able to see a reflection of themselves on those screens.

That the content breaking this ground is powered by the coo and coiffure of the Biebs, who wasn’t particularly close to being born when the first Web browser was developed, and who was himself discovered on YouTube, is fitting. It’s his generation, after all, that may be best suited to take Paramount’s proposition in stride.

“A play like this is perfect for an audience with a short attention span and a deep enough appetite, like Millennial teens who’ve never lived in a world without this kind of speed and brevity,” says Joe Neumaier, film critic for the New York Daily News, who considers the venture a test foray into what has long been problematic ground for studios.

“The movie industry is a ship that doesn’t turn quickly. Look how slow they were to respond to the pirating issue. How to anticipate audience wants and respond rapidly is more of a TV model, and more specifically, a Web model,” he continues, the newsroom quietly clicking away behind him as he speaks into the phone, as if to underscore his point that most content doesn’t require three years or better to produce. “But DVD sales are declining and the industry is still uncertain about video-on-demand as they wrestle with the question of, ‘Do we want to get this onto iPads and other devices at the same time as theatrical release?’ So this idea is kind of a half-way point to that.”

Even without the new cut, Never Say Never is on track to major success at $51 million gross and counting, having bucked the second-weekend slump typical of its predecessors. Whatever the ultimate publicity and sales impact of this decision, though, it’s hard to overlook the mark Bieber’s brand managers are making on the media business, much of it through free social exposure (a fact rather unfortunately reiterated this weekend when Twitter alerts that Bieber had — gasp! — trimmed his bangs significantly out-trended discussion of the historic events unfolding in the Middle East).

Consider that the film went from in-house concept to completion in just six months and $13 million, and it’s also hard to overlook the signs that with this announcement (along with other recent phenomena like the Old Spice video tweet responses), content and marketing deployment are inching ever closer to taking place in real-time even as they’re being customized for multiple audiences. You can believe that producers of film, television, and Web content will be taking note.

All of which might make this a good time to take a look at how your own content programs can be more responsive. And if you can’t quite find the right model yet, just keep your eyes open: you can bet there are college kids sitting around right now dreaming of ways of telling stories that won’t sound so crazy a few years from now.

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures