32 million dollars and counting: What's behind the boom of pop star documentaries?
In early 2019, Hollywood trade mags reported that Apple TV+ had paid a hefty $US25 million ($32 million) for the rights to Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry, the Grammy-winning Gen Z phenomenon documentary, beating out numerous distributors.
But the film's director, Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler, is playing coy, echoing Apple's claims that the figure was inaccurate.
Is it possible they were paying more? It might be,' he says, enticingly.
However many multi-millions are in the precise price tag, it demonstrates the astonishing current demand for the pop star documentary, a once-niche genre that has experienced a streaming war boom. Suddenly, every pop star seems to want to be in one, and every streamer wants to purchase one.
While film classics such as D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967), the Gimme Shelter of the Maysles brothers (1970), and Alek Keshishian's In Bed With Madonna (1991) have once defined film school curricula on the genre, the trend has surged in the past decade after hit releases including Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011) and Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012), which offered fly-on-the-wall peeks in the past decade.
The genre blew up. Lady Gaga's got one (Gaga: Five Foot Two; 2017). Taylor Swift does have one (Miss Americana; 2020). K-pop Blackpink superstars have one, too (Blackpink: Light Up the Sky; 2020). With the new release of a Showtime docu-series charting his life, even a relatively minor artist like divisive rapper Tekashi 6ix9ine has one.
The current rate for the genre seems to be $US25 million for the world's biggest stars, which is also the amount that blockbuster director Peter Berg reportedly copped from Amazon for his upcoming four-year-in-the-making Rihanna documentary.
Cutler, who has been making documentaries for 30 years, most notably The War Room (1993), which followed the presidential campaign of Bill Clinton in 1992, and The September Issue (2009) about Vogue editors Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington, says that the demand for the genre is higher than it has ever been thanks to the impact of streaming.
In the past, we could not quantify the success of these movies because the outlets could not provide that achievement. And because any desire did not translate into success, we could not quantify the desire. But then Netflix came along and suddenly the appetite of the audience had a place to go,” says Cutler.
I remember running into [Netflix chief executive] Ted Sarandos at Sundance and saying to me, 'Dude!' Room of War! It's one of the most successful of our movies.' This was when DVDs were still being mailed out by Netflix. And he was like, 'I tell you, that's the thing about documentaries.' And as Netflix grew, it developed the capacity for the audience's appetite to find an outlet and the ability for buyers to recognize that.
"Then Netflix started to compete. So, does Netflix want to buy the documentaries? Well, the way Amazon does, the way Disney+ does, the way Apple does... All of a sudden, you have six, seven, eight premium buyers right now. The marketplace is therefore very healthy! There was no marketplace when I started. It was hard and challenging. For US$100,000, we sold The War Room.
Of course, an idea skewered half a decade ago in Andy Samberg's prescient mockumentary Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping - the perception that these films are often blatant promotional products or used by record labels to actively maneuver the persona or image of a pop star. Of course, with saturation often comes an underwhelming product, perhaps even nefarious.
When Justin Bieber: Seasons was released on YouTube in January 2020 (the online platform reportedly paid US$20 million for the honor), the music site Pitchfork savaged the doco series as "propaganda of redemption." Wired suggested the movie was 'pointless in the Instagram era' when Swift's Miss Americana was released that same month.
"While such films follow a clear formula to "humanize these larger-than-life, exaggerated personalities," Dr. Sarah Keith, senior lecturer in media and music at Macquarie University, says, they "also make really good business sense.
Musicians, going back to Elvis movies in the '50s, have always been really saleable properties in films. It's good business because there is a ready-made audience for a well-known pop act,' she says, noting that Eilish has 76.4 million Instagram followers - a treasure trove of potential new Apple TV subscribers.
However, when a film is produced, or commissioned, by the artist's own label, the line can become blurred, such as with The World's A Little Blurry, produced by Eilish's label, Interscope Records.
Cutler understandably bristles with questions about the integrity of the film for a veteran documentary with a solid reputation as his own.
I made my deal with [Interscope]," he says, "that I had the final cut. "I've got to get the final cut. Without a final cut, I can't make a film. You don't want to see a movie that has been edited by Interscope; you want to see a movie that I've edited. "And Interscope, they're very pleased that they have a film I've edited because I've edited it!" he says, noting the prestige that the film lends to his filmmaking pedigree.
Listen, records are made by Interscope; they're great at it. Interscope finds and develops her career with Billie; they're amazing at it. And I'm making documentaries. They understood, [Interscope] got it.
Despite the fuzzy spectre of self-interest around the genre, Keith agrees that all parties benefit from the transaction in some way: filmmakers get intimate access to an often inscrutable, big-name subject; pop stars get the reputational esteem that a cinematic focus by a respected filmmaker affords; fans get the sense they’re peering behind the pop star facade; streamers get the shot to turn a willing audience into countless new subscribers; and record labels get their all-important artist promotion.
Pop star docos have also become another logical revenue stream for artists and labels in the ever-fractured music industry, says Keith.
Music revenue has passed through the floor over the last 20 years, since [the pandemic] live music revenue has passed through the floor. So the new revenue stream is truly licensing - not only lending your music to stuff like ads and movies, but artists promoting or sponsoring or starring in stuff. For the music industry, this is just where, increasingly, the money comes from.
In other words, expect a continuation of the trend.