By Daniel Loria
’N Sync was at the height of its fame in 2001. The band was coming off of the best-selling success of its album No Strings Attached during a time when record sales still mattered. The accompanying world tour had also been a hit, spawning an Imax version of one of the group’s sold-out shows in Detroit. ’N Sync: Bigger Than Live was released in the giant-screen format in 2001 as a 48-minute concert film. The movie grossed $44,082 in its opening weekend and topped out its theatrical run at $1.8 million. By the end of the decade, ’N Sync would no longer be releasing albums, and the music industry would be turned on its head. Concert movies, however, would be entering a new age of financial viability.
The rise of digital media completely changed the music industry. A byproduct of that transition was the added pressure on recording artists to increase the scope and length of their tours, adding performances to mitigate the losses resulting from the steep drop in album sales. Musicians faced the same challenge that exhibitors have dealt with for generations: how to sustain an industry amid the rise of new home-entertainment technologies. Concerts sought to reconnect the public with the excitement and spectacle of live music.
The top five highest-grossing concert films of all time have been released over the past six years. The time frame directly aligns with the recession and postrecession era that followed the 2008 financial crash. The economic turmoil left families with a decrease in disposable income as the global economy struggled to reassert itself. A family outing to the closest venue for a big concert suddenly had the potential to become a burdensome expense. High ticket prices, transportation costs, parking, concessions, and merchandise could easily turn a family night out into an evening costing upward of $500.
Post-recession America has provided the perfect circumstances for concert films to find an audience. Families with children too young to attend live concerts and those who find it too expensive to attend the events can now enjoy a similar level of a concert’s excitement and spectacle at a fraction of the cost in their local movie theaters.
This isn't to imply that ticket sales for concerts have dipped since 2008, nor that concert films have in any way begun to supplant live music events. Concert movies have instead become a viable alternative for family entertainment and, for the first time in box office history, a potential source of significant profit for exhibitors, distributors, artists, and audiences.
Pop idols were born as soon as teenagers became a demographic of consumers with enough buying power to bring in profit for any company. If these artists could sell records, the assumption was that they could sell movies as well. The rise of the teenage consumer occurred throughout the 1950s, a period coinciding with the popular emergence of television and during the height of Hollywood’s studio system. This was a period when studios were in the business of making movies with a streamlined efficiency; studios had their own backlots, stables of screenwriters, and an ever-rotating talent pool of actors and directors on exclusive contracts. It didn’t really matter if Elvis could act or not, there was already a team on salary employed by the studio that could mold a project around the star.
These star vehicles saw minor changes as the film industry went through its own transformation over the subsequent years. The generations that followed came with their share of recording artists who attempted a transition to the silver screen. There are too many failures in this category to list, but several success stories have emerged, as in the case of artists like Barbra Streisand, Kris Kristofferson, Cher, Will Smith, and Mark Wahlberg. The most striking recent example comes with ’N Sync’s Justin Timberlake, who has spent the better part of the last decade on acting projects instead of a solo pop career that showed promise in 2006.
If the Spice Girls were formed in today’s media market, one has to wonder if something like Spice World would still get made. Pop stars have turned a corner thanks to the newfound box office viability of concert films; if the public loves to see these artists sing, does that mean they’re just as interested in seeing them act? A great Spice Girls concert can be a fun experience, even within a kitsch context, but a Spice Girls film can’t guarantee a good shelf life beyond a cult appreciation. Today’s concert films cut out the middleman of a screenwriter and rid themselves from the constraints of narrative cinema to give audiences a simpler product: pop stars doing what they do best.
Concert films are equally as enticing for producers and artists themselves. The entire shoot can be incorporated into an existing tour, requiring little extra effort or time from stars. No script development, no creative differences with directors, no time editing around a dramatic performance that doesn’t work on screen. The film’s theatrical release becomes a de facto global tour for recording artists without requiring any additional nights inside of a tour bus. The concert film has therefore become ingrained into a band’s marketing strategy. Morgan Spurlock, the documentary filmmaker of the product-placement satire The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, knows a thing or two about today’s nebulous line between a feature film and a marketing campaign. He is also the director and one of the producers of this summer’s biggest concert movie, One Direction: This Is Us.
The success of recent music documentaries owes a lot to the rise of reality television as well. Live music had been a staple of network TV for years before the introduction of MTV shifted recording artists to cable television. The pop band explosion of the late ’90s used MTV’s popular after-school talk-show/music-video-countdown “Total Request Live” as a launching pad. The show was filmed at MTV’s Times Square studios with sweeping shots of screaming teenage fans holding homemade signs in support of their teen idols. TRL was cancelled in 2008 as MTV began to focus more on unscripted reality series like The Hills, the successful spin-off to the wildly popular Laguna Beach.
By that time, music performances had moved back to network television thanks to the success of Fox’s American Idol. The show came on as a summer replacement in 2002 and became a national phenomenon. Music performances on network television dominated watercooler chatter around the nation. Fox would continue to bank on this renewed interest in musical performances with Glee in 2009. That show went on to get its very own big-screen concert film in 2011, Glee: The 3D Concert Movie finished a limited release in North America with $11.8 million.
The Disney Channel took a cue from this trend when it premiered Hannah Montana in 2006. The show launched the music career of its star, Miley Cyrus, by focusing on the story of the day-to-day life of a tween pop star. It was only a matter of time before Cyrus became a star in her own right, free from her fictional alter ego. Disney banked on the popularity of the Miley Cyrus/Hannah Montana phenomenon with the 2008 film Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert. The movie broke records in limited release, grossing $65.3 million during its North American run. The Cyrus vehicle still holds the highest opening weekend of all time for a concert film with a $31.3 million debut.
Hannah Montana & Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert included an appearance by another band featured in Cyrus’ television show, the Jonas Brothers. The boy band trio would release a concert film of its own the following year, Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience. The project managed to become one of the most successful films in the genre after grossing $19.1 million in North America.
The success of these Disney releases motivated other studios to seek out similar projects of their own. Michael Jackson’s untimely death prevented the King of Pop from embarking on a comeback world tour. The rehearsal footage was edited into a concert documentary and released by Sony only four months after the singer’s death. This Is It grossed $72 million in North America and became the highest-grossing concert film of all time in the global box office, making $261 million worldwide.
It was only going to be a matter of time before other pop stars joined the act. Justin Bieber: Never Say Never was released in North America in 2011, becoming the highest-grossing concert film of all time domestically with a $73 million total in North America. Paramount distributed the 3D concert film, which went on to finish its theatrical run with a $98.4 million global cume.
The release of One Direction: This Is Us will come as an interesting closing chapter in a turbulent summer for Sony. The company will be hoping that One Direction: This Is Us can become its safest bet of the summer season: the band comes with an established legion of global fans, particularly the types of fans who go to movie theaters with their parents.
It makes sense that both the music and film industries are relying on spectacle to compete against emerging home-entertainment technologies. Exhibitors have been down this road before and are used to tapping into audience trends in their programming. It’s becoming easier to find screenings of live events simulcast in movie screens around the country, bringing a range of events from performances by New York’s Metropolitan Opera to the latest Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight to a theater near you.
Live events have the potential to become an important alternative for exhibitors. Speculation abounds in the cable television industry about a future where cord-cutting becomes commonplace, bringing down the subscriber count in the pay-television business. This provides an interesting opportunity for exhibitors, who could offer live events on a big screen at a fraction of the cost of a cable subscription or pay-per-view package.
While concert movies haven’t reached the blockbuster box office level of studios’ summer tentpoles, they provide the industry the simple alternative to produce a film with built-in audience awareness and a loyal fan base without going anywhere near the inflating budgets of recognizable franchises. The concert film’s box office revival is a testament to the resiliency of the silver screen amidst a changing media landscape.
New technology in the entertainment industry is discarding old business models as fast as it is creating new opportunities. Exhibitors have been able to thrive throughout all the changes in the film industry by consistently innovating and connecting with audiences’ tastes and viewing tendencies. Concert movies could be the first step for the big screen to go live in the near future.
A version of this article originally appeared in the August issue of BoxOffice Magazine.
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