Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 7 December 2019

The entertainment industry thrives on foreign labour

The never-ending search for the next pop star reveals uncomfortable truths about culture.
Is the next Justin Bieber living in Kazakhstan? JB Lacroix / Getty
Is the next Justin Bieber living in Kazakhstan? JB Lacroix / Getty

In case you were having a good day, just minding your own business and at peace with the world, let me ruin it for you: Justin Bieber, the pop star from Canada with the soft features and the breathy voice, is worth somewhere around $200 million (Dh734 million).

Actually, there’s no reason why he shouldn’t be that rich. He’s an international singing sensation, and ever since the early days of crooners like Frank Sinatra, skinny boys who can sing tend to make a lot of money.

But in the entertainment industry, there are only two kinds of people: those who were in at the beginning of a big career – agents, lawyers, managers, friends, parents, you name it – and those who weren’t. And everyone in the first category is busy jockeying for position, trying to catch the golden crumbs as they tumble from the superstar’s plate. But everyone in the second category is busy looking for the next big thing. Which means that right now, as you read this, there’s a small constellation of folks trying to find the next Justin Bieber.

I know, I know. But they’re still looking. As it happens, I think I’ve found him. But like all great discoveries, this one comes with a complication. There’s a skinny young singer from Kazakhstan, roughly Justin Bieber’s age, who is currently wowing them in Central and East Asia. His name is Dimash Kudaibergenov and he’s been winning singing competitions all over the region – often singing in pretty terrible, but acceptably terrible, French. I discovered Dimash Kudaibergenov the old fashioned way – through a series of Twitter retweets.

The complication, at least from the point of view of those of us who work in Hollywood, is that Dimash Kudaibergenov is called Dimash Kudaibergenov, although I have seen it written just as Dimash Kudaibergen, without the “ov” at the end, but that’s a perfect example of the problem: this young neo-Bieber has got a too-complicated name and he’s from an almost unpronounceable place and who knows if he even speaks English?

Hollywood, you see, still thinks that it decides – on the basis of California standards – who’s a star and who isn’t, and what an audience wants to see and what it doesn’t. But the world is becoming a more complicated place, with lots of choices and billions of non-English speaking people who are perfectly happy watching Dimash Kudaibergen on their phones without wondering how the executives in Los Angeles feel about that.

Last weekend, Warner Bros and Legendary released their hugely expensive Kong: Skull Island worldwide, and raked in a massive $142 million. As movie studios face a more competitive global marketplace, they place bigger and bigger bets on pictures such as Kong, spend more and more on the productions and, sometimes disastrously, on the marketing costs. Most entertainment industry veterans estimate that the total cost of Kong: Skull Island – when everything is totalled up and accounted for, like production, advertising, distribution, etc. – means that the picture will have to make somewhere around $500 million to break even.

That’s a lot of money. It’s about two and a half Biebers, if you want to get technical about it. And it’s a scary thing for movie studios because all of the important decisions about how much to spend and on what, precisely, were made in a tightly circumscribed area inside the city limits of Los Angeles, California. But the audience spans the globe, and represents moviegoers of almost every possible description, some of whom don’t really respond to gigantic apes, or (last week’s box office winner, Logan) ageing superheroes, or even live-action romances such as Beauty and the Beast, which opens worldwide this week. Some of those people, presumably, are just thrilled to watch Dimash Kudaibergenov on YouTube, and would very much like someone to make a movie starring him, even though his name is baffling to executives at Warner Bros and he probably doesn’t speak the language of Hollywood.

While Kong: Skull Island opened, as we say here in Los Angeles, big, it probably didn’t open big enough. To get the momentum required to recoup the magic number of $500 million, the picture really needed to make a bigger splash. To any normal business person in any normal business, that calculation should sound almost insane – $142 million is an awful lot of money, and a movie studio should be able to keep costs in line to put a picture on the road to profitability without requiring it to be a record-breaking smash. But Hollywood knows only one sure-fire way to make a lot of money and that’s, first, to spend a lot of money. What that means is, there’s a lot riding on a giant ape.

In the meantime, all over the world, little pockets of terrific content keep bubbling to the surface. There are television series in Turkey and New Zealand making their ways to North American audiences.

There are films and football matches originating in places that seem exotic to Hollywood executives, but increasingly less remote to North American television viewers. And the next Justin Bieber, I’m fairly certain, lives in Kazakhstan. Not for long, though. Eventually, everyone moves to Hollywood.

Rob Long is a writer and producer in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Updated: March 16, 2017 04:00 AM

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