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3.0 out of 5 stars Whither the Long Tail?, 25 April 2014
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This review is from: Blockbusters: Why Big Hits - and Big Risks - are the Future of the Entertainment Business (Kindle Edition)
If you're the sort of person who sees only one movie a year, that movie is unlikely to be Dersu Uzala.

If you are a movie executive that piece of learning ought not to seem radical or new. It certainly isn't a function of the information revolution, and would have been as true when Derzu Uzala was released in 1976 as it is today. Yet it is the intellectual cornerstone of Anita Elberse's provocative new book "Blockbusters" which, while dismantling the New-Age canard of the Long Tail is otherwise far less overwhelming than the commentariat seems to believe.

The blockbuster hook is simple: if you are a global media conglomerate like Warner Brothers or Real Madrid, you are better betting the farm on a small number of "blockbuster" projects than diversifying your resources and "managing for margins" a portfolio of smaller projects. Elberse compares Warner, who did this, which NBC TV, who did not, and reaches her conclusion.

Her false premise is to suppose that, in plumping for yet another Harry Potter movie, Warner Brothers really is "risking big". As a matter of fact, it isn't. It is goosing its scale, but risking small: the five films on its annual slate will all be totally formulaic (those that are not remakes or sequels are in tried-and-true genres), will rely on well-established stars and directors, and will deploy immense production resources to deliver superficial fireworks without challenging norms or demanding any great commitment from viewers.

Warner targets precisely the sort of person who sees only one - or five - movies a year, because that's how many it makes.

Some all-but-self-evident assumptions:
*The marginal return on each additional movie ticket you sell tends (but never quite gets) to 100%: All other things being equal, the more people see your movie, the greater your profit margin will be.
*Most filmgoers see a given film only once.
*More filmgoers see five movies a year than see 50.
*Those filmgoers who see only five films won't be seeing Derzu Uzala.

If you take these assumptions as good then, if your movie studio has the requisite resources, it is only sound business sense to make your movie one of the five movies that almost everyone will go see. Likewise, if you don't, reset your priorities and your target demographic accordingly. But expect that your revenues will be accordingly constrained. There are only so many swine before whom to cast your pearls.

This is, as Elberse notes, of a piece with refocussing business strategies adopted by Apple, GM, Fender and other resurgent business lines: don't try to be all things to all people; clear out your inventory, figure out what you're good at and hit that channel relentlessly. Quit wasting time at the periphery.

Leave the tail, that is, for those poor toilers who have no option but to target it. But make no mistake: these toilers are vital to your ecosystem, and without them the big fish could not do what they do: the small guys discover and nurture new talent, do the research and development and build reputations of up-and-comers to the point where, for a Warner Brothers, they become safe enough to bet the house on. Even though she intimates this, Elberse's theory asserts not that only blockbusters should be made, but that *blockbuster-sized studios should only make blockbusters*: everyone should focus at the top of their own segment of their market.

This is really only sound common sense.

The question which Elberse doesn't address is what effect this has on the statistical distribution of film budgets. If every producer applies a blockbuster strategy in its own segment, this will tend to make the head taller and fatter, and the tail skinnier and, at the limit, shorter. And so it transpires: According to the Financial Times, in 2000, 1 per cent of artists accounted for 71 per cent of pop music sales. Last year, the same proportion accounted for 77 per cent.

Perhaps Elberse's theory, which owes nothing at all to the digital revolution, suggests the anointed few are getting smarter, and are hitting their channels more clinically than they used to. But down the tail lurks a much more interesting question: what happened? How was Chris Anderson so wrong? How is it that, all things being considered, the infinite time and choice vouchsafed by digital revolution has led to us exercising fewer choices?

Olly Buxton
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