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Leave it to Bieber: Filmmakers look to 'Bieber Fever' to Cure what Ails them

06/14/2010 08:37 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Just four years ago, Justin Bieber was an average 12-year-old kid living with his single mother in Ontario who often posted clips on YouTube of her son performing covers of Ne-Yo and Aretha Franklin. In just a few short years, his numbers have skyrocketed and the dozens of videos of him online have been viewed tens of millions of times. His new album, "My World 2.0" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and continues to top the sales charts. In fact, the entire nation, from Ellen to SNL to the White House, has been swept up by Bieber Fever.

So what does Bieber's story mean for the next Quentin Tarantino?

The modern day music and film industries face similar problems. Both are seeing an explosion of content as technology lowers barriers to shoot and edit a feature film or to record and mix a professional album without substantial cost. At the same time, there are fewer art house theatres (limiting the potential for theatrical distribution) and major record stores like Tower and Virgin have closed their doors. Significantly, in terms of aftermarket sales, the traditional physical outlets and shelf-space are shrinking. On average, studio films cost tens of millions of dollars to produce, not including associated promotional costs, and according to an IFPI Report, it costs labels about $1 million to break a new artist in major markets. There are now six major film studios and four major record labels, and all have either eliminated or cut back on specialty divisions and instead spend limited budgets on fewer, but more universally-appealing projects and talent.

Artists in both industries, however, are finding that big budgets and powerful studios are no longer major barriers to succeed and earn a living by their passion. Justin Bieber and other musicians across the globe are proving to all content creators that global promotion and distribution is possible, if not guaranteed by way of three important industry trends ...

User-Generated Distribution

Now that content is overflowing, there simply isn't enough money for industry professionals to spend millions of dollars marketing it all. There are inexpensive options online for creating DVDs and CDs in bulk to sell on your own website and at festivals, premieres, and performances; and many artists are selling their content themselves through major online retailers like iTunes, Amazon and even Netflix. The digital nature of the content opens the door for all filmmakers and musicians because the ability to share your content is no longer about where you live and who you know. Once you create it, you can immediately share it online and in effect create your own "virtual" theatre or venue. Ultimately, there will be new economic models that emerge on how best to monetize this type of distribution and this too will depend on the quality of the content and ability to connect buyers and sellers in the most cost efficient way.

Micro-Niche Marketing

Artists in the music industry are maximizing micro-niche marketing opportunities. According to Billboard Boxscore, live performances are an important revenue stream for artists and a record-breaking $4.4 billion was reported in box office revenues from live shows in 2009, a figure that actually pales in comparison to the payoffs they receive from building a strong fan base at these performances. Participation in film and music festivals of all varieties is becoming increasingly more vital - not simply from a sales or awards perspective - because filmmakers must start to develop a passionate following of fans eager to spread the word about the film to their globally-reaching online communities. Proactive self-marketing is important to the bottom line because there is no better advocate for a film than the filmmaker, even after a distribution deal is concluded. The creators of Paranormal Activity, which cost $15,000 to make but grossed $7 million, credit grassroots marketing on college campuses for the film's unexpected box office success.5 Filmmakers can and should build fan bases through festivals, unique screenings and any venues - both online and physical - where they can create a community vested around one interest: their content.

Social Networking

Social networks are powerful fan incubators. Once you find your support system through niche marketing, activate them in online communities where they will talk about your music or film. The more positive things you have out there about yourself, the more you will attract supporters and investors. According to Billboard, Bieber's "One Time" didn't fully take off until he posted it on YouTube for his 40-million-strong subscriber base. The marketers behind Paranormal Activity used social networks to mobilize supporters, and even used Eventful.com to encourage viewers to demand the film be shown in their area.

Because of these trends, artists in both industries are now changing the definition of success. Not all are plotting a catapult to Bieber's (or Avatar's) superstardom. To them, success isn't about a multi-million dollar music contract or having McDonald's create toys out of your movie characters. It's about making a living by doing what you love and creating content that others love too. A few examples include Pomplamoose, who according to NPR, sold over 100,000 songs online in 2009.6 John Vesely of Secondhand Serenade told Mercury News he was earning up to $20,000 a month from online downloads and merchandise sold out of the home before he signed with a label.7 As Bieber and other musicians set the example, filmmakers can compensate for diminishing traditional promotion and distribution opportunities by utilizing digital tools to connect their content with the right audiences.