One Direction: This Is Us made $18 million over the Labor Day weekend. That means the One Direction movie did better than the Katy Perry movie and significantly worse than the Justin Bieber movie, which--fanbase-wise--seems intuitively right to me. But it's not a lot of money for a movie. It's $5 million less than Planes, Disney's poorly performing kind-of-sequel to Cars, made. It's $12 million less than John Carter of Mars.
Which is to take nothing away from One Direction; their movie cost $10 million, and it sells itself, so they're already making money. This is probably right in line with TriStar's projections. But in terms of absolute dollars it should be a humbling reminder to the internet as a whole: Fandom isn't everything.
Among its many other blessings and curses and blessing-curses, the internet has presided over the geekification of everything. Everything can be obsessed over, and so everything is obsessed over. The currency is hashtags and forum posts and single-use Tumblrs, fanfiction and fanart.
Everything reduces to fandom: If you visit a tech website you'll find that the most devoted users are not people who are fascinated by technology but people who have gone full-on sports-team in the course of rooting for Apple's iOS or Windows Phone or Android. The biggest cultural phenomena of the last decade--Harry Potter, say, or The Avengers--are worlds that can be geeked-out on and overthought.
In music, which has always inspired intense connections between artists and listeners, it's facilitated yet another teen-idol rebirth. Justin Bieber has 44 million followers. One Direction is going on 15 million. Even *NSYNC has picked up 226,000, despite having broken up several years before Twitter was invented.
People talk about this like it's the end of the monoculture: Big country-wide and shows everybody watches are dead, long live cheap, niche-targeted reality shows.
For all that, though, One Direction was outgrossed, over the Labor Day weekend, by The Butler, which was in its third weekend. All the Directioners in America couldn't beat a well-received drama with really good word of mouth.
When I was an undergrad I was an extremely gung-ho internet-is-the-future advocate (and a veteran geek), and I will never forget the pandemonium in my college town theater on Snakes on a Plane's opening night. This was geek vindication: We would turn a stupid Hollywood action movie into a phenomenon that was successful and smart because it was a stupid Hollywood action movie.
My friends and I piled into a couple of cars and drove out there Friday night, and the theater was totally packed, like we'd expected. And all of us loved it--we laughed at all the moments we'd told the rest of the internet we were going to laugh at, and we repeated all the lines we already knew, and you can rest assured that everyone in the city had had it with these snakes on this plane.
Despite all that--despite everyone in Columbia, Missouri seeing Snakes on a Plane the night it came out--it made all of $15 million that weekend.
There are limits to fandom. (Just ask everyone who loved Pacific Rim, too.) No matter how big your fanbase is, how much your niche will do to prove their intense love for you, a fandom will always lose out to a coalition of people who kind of like political dramas or movies where things blow up.
For music fans, this is ultimately good news. Now that fandoms are more intense than ever, they do us the favor of supporting really good bands who were never going to hit it big; it's possible to make a living as a cult band while being a cult band now, where 10 years ago a cult band was a band that earned recognition after they went bankrupt and broke up and one or two of them died, probably.
But a hyper-devoted fanbase, the One Directions of the world, can only take you so far. The Avengers was both a hugely devoted fanbase and a fun movie people wanted to watch. To reach the next level a brand has to be combined with something of substance.
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It's not that the best music will always win out--that's obviously not true. But whatever you thought of her music, the best-selling album of the last five years wasn't from Bieber or One Direction or even Lady Gaga; it was from Adele, who was most notable for just being really competent. Something well-crafted--something that appeals to people as music and not the new One Direction thing--can still reach an enormous audience, even if nobody out there is sleeping in bedsheets with your face on them.