While doing this work, Elberse kept bumping up against a popular new idea: the long tail. According to Chris Anderson, who developed the theory in a 2004 Wired article, then in a 2006 book, the Internet makes it easier than ever to produce, distribute, and buy products—and this freedom would transform customer behavior. With evangelical fervor, he wrote of an end to the era of bland, one-size-entertains-all popular culture. A typical mass-market “demand curve” slopes from left to right, graphing the fall-off in popularity from the megahits in the “head” to the less trendy “tail,” which represents the many products with a relatively small audience. The Web, Anderson predicted,would empower us to reach beyond the high-volume head of the curve to the long and ever-expanding tail, where people would increasingly create and consume products better suited to their personal tastes.
Anderson’s book itself became a blockbuster, and his theory became a key framework for understanding the cultural marketplace. But Elberse was skeptical from the start. “I remember thinking, this just does not jibe with the underlying data I’ve seen for the industry,” she says.
No one disputes that the Internet gives consumers many more choices—just compare your local bookstore’s selection to Amazon’s. But when it comes to what most of us actually buy and read, Elberse argues, there’s little evidence that we’re taking advantage of the immense variety out in that tail. Perhaps the best example comes from digital music. From 2007 to 2011, the number of unique songs that sold at least one copy, largely through iTunes, exploded from 3.9 million to 8 million. But in 2011 nearly a third of those songs sold only one copy—a percentage that keeps increasing every year. And 94 percent of the songs sold fewer than 100 copies.
The long tail, it turns out, is a pretty lonely place. Instead, more and more fans are moving to the head, where the blockbusters reside. In 2007, 36 songs sold at least a million copies. But by 2011, more than a hundred songs sold that many. Put another way, a mere 0.001 percent of the available songs was responsible for 15 percent of all sales. “Every time new data come out,” Elberse says, “we see more demand shifting to the head.”
In “Blockbusters,” Elberse shows how Warner Bros. has capitalized on this trend. After a strategy shift in 1999, the studio began committing an unprecedented chunk of resources to a mere handful of movies. In 2010, for example, Warner Bros. put a third of its production budget and nearly a quarter of its marketing budget into just three of its 22 movies: “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1”; “Inception”; and “Clash of the Titans.” It worked: Those three generated more than 50 percent of the studio’s worldwide box-office.The blockbuster strategy doesn’t always work—for Warner Bros., it’s led to disasters like “The Green Lantern” and “Speed Racer”—but over time, Elberse demonstrates, the approach consistently produces the highest returns. Last year, Warner Bros. became the first studio in history to earn $1 billion or more for 12 straight years, and Elberse has uncovered the same pattern in other fields. When a music executive described one of Lady Gaga’s albums, he invoked the Hollywood model. The release, he said, had been orchestrated like “a movie blockbuster in the summer months, like ‘Avatar.’”
For entertainment executives , the blockbuster strategy makes a lot of sense. But what about for the rest of us? Do big movies succeed because they’re what we want, or because the studios invest lots of money in pushing them on us? Elberse wrote her dissertation on that question, creating models that accounted for a movie’s budget, its stars, the number of theaters, the quality of the reviews, and more. She found that both factors were at work. “Success is a combination of supply and demand forces,” she says.
In other words, a big part of any blockbuster’s appeal is that we simply like blockbusters. And here we’ve changed less than you might think. In fact, Elberse says, the work that best explains today’s consumers isn’t Anderson’s “Long Tail” but the far less seductively titled “Formal Theories of Mass Behavior,” a 1963 book by sociologist William McPhee.
Elberse first learned about McPhee’s book when an emeritus professor at Harvard mentioned it during one of her presentations. When she checked the title out at the campus library, she saw it hadn’t been borrowed since 1973. McPhee constructed a series of experiments where people evaluated 12 different entertainment options. What he found was that most fans of pop culture were fairly light consumers—they didn’t consume many products, but when they did they preferred the biggest hits. The heavier consumers (the film buffs, the music junkies) were more likely to dip into what we now call the long tail. But McPhee also found that they were less likely to enjoy those obscure items. Even movie buffs liked blockbusters, he observed—and most of the long tail just wasn’t that good.Continued...