Justin Bieber is being defended again, amid the settling tumbleweed of Believe's shockingly poor box office performance in the US.
Questions such as where were his fans over Christmas, why they stayed away, and what can be done to bring them back (?) are likely being asked by the star's management team and the film's backers.
Speaking to Esquire magazine, the concert-movie's director Jon M. Chu said of Bieber:
"He's not as perfect as he says he is, and he's not as bad as the paparazzi portray him to be. He's a kid."
Chu's defense was published in the magazine just three days after the singer's confusing retirement tweets on the eve of Believe's release, which led to accusations it was a tactic to drive mad-with-grief beliebers into theaters.
As it turns out, it didn't.
In response, Bieber's management put out a statement citing the singer's frustration over inflated media stories as his motivation for the said tweets, while Open Road CEO, Tom Ortenberg, (Believe's distributor in North America) told Wall Street Journal's Speakeasy he had no knowledge of Justin's tweets being a ploy to publicize the film and further insists they weren't.
In addition, Scott Manson, COO of Bieber's longtime manager Scooter Braun's company, Scooter Braun Projects, gave assurances the pop singer is "100%" not retiring and will be returning to the studio in 2014.
Moving on, the math for the second Chu-helmed Bieber feature is undeniable.
Believe promised to "answer everything" but has instead prompted headlines proclaiming the end of Bieber Fever. After opening to a what-the-heck $1.25 million in 1,037 theaters across North America on Christmas Day, the concert-movie took an estimated $3.1 million in its first three days, before pulling in an estimated five-day total of $4.277 million to rank 14th on the domestic box office chart.
By comparison, 2008's Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour debuted on 683 screens to $31.1 million. Similarly, in 2009 Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience opened to $12.5 million on 1,271 screens. Back in August, One Direction: This is Us debuted to $15.8 million before grossing $28.9 million. As it stands, Believe has traded places with Katy Perry:Part of Me as the worst opener for a concert-docu by a young pop artist among a recent clutch of titles. Perry's film bowed to $7.1 million on 2,730 screens in 2012.
While comparisons to 2011's also Chu-helmed Never Say Never are unfair --- that heavily marketed feature was backed by Paramount in 3,105 theaters to a $29.5 million US debut before banking nearly $100 million worldwide in a relatively non-controversial climate for the then 17-year-old --- there's no doubt the times are a-changing for the formerly widely adored Statford, Ontario boy cum teen icon, multi-millionaire brand, and (latterly) tabloid punchbag.
(Photo: 'Never Say Never' movie still/Paramount)
The New York Times' pop music critic Jon Caramanica observes in review: "Going forward, understanding Mr. Bieber - at 19, already a veteran pop star - requires seeing him as both an idol and a target, a child and a man."
Open Road executives point out the film cost under $5 million to make, with just $4.5 million spent on marketing. Doubtless DVDs, Blu-Rays, and overseas ticket sales will also boost the movie's fortunes. Jason Cassidy, marketing chief, told The Hollywood Reporter:
"It's a new model. We wanted to go straight to Justin's fans. Financially, we're going to be fine."
But, while that's good news for the distributor, it should be a bold red flag to Bieber and his team that a radical overhaul of their approach to his career is needed.
Despite diligent re-tweets on the singer's Twitter of fans trilling over their Believe experience, and numerous organized "meet-ups" by groups of beliebers, most of the Canadian's nearly 48 million Twitter followers (which most likely includes his over 54 million Facebook and over 12 million Instagram pals) didn't read the memo pumped out from Team Bieber and Believe social media accounts before the film's debut.
Did the parents of the superstar's predominantly young female fans refuse to subsidize or let their little darlings out of the house to watch a film about a superstar they probably see as a hellraiser after nearly a year of headlines telling them exactly that? Have casual fans made their own judgments and dropped out of the Belieber fandom, or have most simply grown up and moved on?
While some quarters of the press have gone so far as to call Bieber a "degenerate" after a video of him urinating into a restaurant mop bucket, a farcical exodus from a brothel, and accusations of anti-social conduct in his Calabasas, CA, neighborhood, his contention that some claims and stories recently reported aren't credible or are wildly exaggerated isn't an outlandish one.
Bill O'Dowd, CEO of Dolphin Films, Believe's producers, told Esquire:
"I'm sure he would take back some of the things he's done, but I don't know how we can expect a rambunctious young boy to stay in his hotel watching a movie and eating room service every night. I just don't know what people expected."
Perhaps that's the rub. Chu and Bieber's manager, Scooter Braun, previously admitted the singer's recent dramas and the press ferocity threw an unexpected curveball at Believe's original schedule and concert-film concept. But one unsatisfactorily answered "train wreck" query and an already seen paparazzi spat does not a documentary make. If Braun and Chu needed help defining "fluff," a big print dictionary would have come in handy.
As IQ's take on the film and most reviews note, the scant space given to tough questions and the negative narrative surrounding the star is a surprising waste of an opportunity. Crucially, the demographic the movie is tailored for didn't show up in large enough numbers to take in its looping Disney-esque messaging, Believe tour show footage, and gushing from dancers, musicians, and family.
So, where now for the embattled heartthrob and his team?
Ironically, Believe's failure to interest the masses is the best thing to happen to Bieber this year. There is weight behind the idea that if he is to sustain an adult career he can bring all of himself to, his team needs to drop the matinée idol PR / methodology they weaned him on, and they themselves seem unable to stop defaulting to.
The simple reason? The singer and the times have outgrown it. Now, his team's hand has been forced as a watershed is crossed.
That doesn't mean Bieber's team should stop publicizing his fantastic philanthropic record, including recent efforts such as his surprise trip to a Typhoon Haiyan-hit Philippines, and ongoing support for Make-A-Wish, Child Hunger Ends Here, Whitney Elementary school, and the Pencils of Promise organization. These are legitimately part of who Bieber is, and he has given time, effort, and money to these causes and others for years.
But what it does mean, is that the one-dimensional performer ghosted in Believe needs to stop being afraid to embrace those parts of himself he thinks will be publicly condemned --- because it's going to happen anyway. If a so-called professional sports writer can find value in writing about how Bieber drinks water or decimating the clothes he wears, why not just be free?
A normal teen --- who experiments with strip clubs, probably likes a joint, loud parties, any given wall and spray paint, has reason to apologize sometimes, yet can be brave enough to publicly cry over the death of a six-year-old from rare brain cancer; and write lyrics such as "Instigators like puttin' fire on propane," ("All Bad"), and "Maybe you could be the light that opens up my eyes/Make all my wrongs right," ("Change Me"), in an album (Journals) that addressed more of his wild year than Believe managed --- has just as much right and need to express himself as any other young person.
It may put off tweens and their parents but apparently they have already left the building. "A constant search for validation" for anyone - but especially an artist expressing a desire to grow and explore in his year off and beyond - starts by validating all of who you are.