The year's not over yet, but 2015 has already given us two box office flops for the ages not named Fantastic Four. This weekend, Jem and the Holograms, the Jon Chu-directed adaptation of the beloved '80s cartoon, came in with a measly $1.3 million from over 2,000 screens. It joins We Are Your Friends, the Zac Efron EDM vehicle as two modestly budgeted 2015 music-centric features that nonetheless fell far short of the low financial bar they needed to clear. (It made about $1.7 million in its opening weekend; both films cost about $5 million to make.)
There is always much more information to be gathered from a box office failure than a success, and even more to be gained from the failures of two films that have so much in common. Granted, WAYF was an R-rated poor-man's (literally) Entourage that worshipped at the church of the drop, and Jem was a PG-rated film aimed squarely and solely at pre-teen girls. But they were coming from essentially the same place: both followed the rise of a musician in the YouTube era, who must balance the temptations of Big Time Hollywood with what Really Matters (friends, family, artistic integrity).
That particular music movie structure feels like a cliché for a reason: it's been done a lot. And that might be what ultimately crippled Jem and WAYF: they are built off classic, reliable tropes in an era in which the realities of making it as a musician are anything but. Both films courted an internet-savvy teen audience, but forgot the cynicism that that demographic requires.
The real-life Jerrica would ditch her friends in a heartbeat
Let's put aside, for the moment, the fact that Jem shot itself in the foot by reinventing the property past the point of recognition, and thereby losing a huge chunk of nostalgic grown-ups who otherwise might have shown up on opening weekend. What we have been given is far more of a YouTube movie than a Hasbro one. Jon Chu had been trying to get a Jem adaptation made for over a decade; he only found his greenlight once he found a way to pitch it as an ode to social media dreamers (and get that low-key Justin Bieber tie-in). But read any real-life account of how teens are building their brands and selling themselves on social media, and it's a far cry from the idealism of Chu's film. I couldn't help but think that the real-world Jerrica Benton would be happy to abandon her bandmates if it meant getting a record deal and a trending music video. And her bandmates would probably understand — business is business, as any teen with a growing subscriber base knows.
Likewise, We Are Your Friends builds up to a ridiculous climax in which our struggling DJ protagonist (Efron) is only able to crack through the crowded dance music marketplace by composing a song "from the heart" — i.e. one that sampled recordings of his buddies and sounds from his humble San Fernando Valley upbringing. It stuck out as fantastical in a film that otherwise aspired, albeit unsuccessfully, to be the Saturday Night Fever of EDM (i.e. depressing as shit). But the dance music contingent the film was ostensibly courting knows that the real-life version of Efron's character would need to get a sponsorship deal from Pepsi or Doritos, then break through via ad placement. Then, maybe, he could get that Vegas residency and look forward to a future of churning out builds and drops for crowds of clueless tourists shelling out $1,000 for bottle service.
Teens may love the music industry, but they don't think it's magic
That both of these films made it to the theater in the idealistic shape that they did shows that Hollywood underestimates how much young people know about the music industry — and how disillusioned they are with it even as they throw their dollars at it. It's very fair to assume that there's some Bieber-camp propaganda behind Jem — it's an attempt to reinforce the feel-good half of Justin's origin story (the people's star, plucked from Canadian obscurity!) just as he makes his big comeback push. But we have proof that audiences are far more willing to eat up the darker version of that story — 2014 sleeper hit Beyond The Lights delivered the over-the-top, yet sufficiently angsty pop star narrative that felt more resonant with our times (its protagonist, played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, tries to kill herself in the first act — being famous is hard!). And Fox's Empire continues to bring in huge ratings by playing with the nefarious dealings of a major record label — where the bottom line (and sweet, sweet vengeance) trumps family values more often than not.
There's still room for a YouTube era A Star is Born — and a Saturday Night Fever of EDM, for that matter. But anyone who tries to helm such a project needs to give their target audience a little more credit. Market research may show that teens are enamored with social media and pop stars and the prospect of making it in the music industry, but they don't think it's magic — modern day music coverage saturation has seen to that. We're aware now, more than ever, of the army of people behind every hit, and for every immaculate YouTube conception, there are five Ke$has. And there's no way Jerrica Benton would have time to run around town on a robot scavenger hunt — she has a brand to maintain.