When Elberse read McPhee’s findings, she recognized them instantly. “I still remember the feeling of, ‘Oh my God, he described it back then,’” she says. She’s replicated his model in all sorts of modern settings—for example, in the user queues of Quickflix, an Australian version of Netflix. But Elberse also believes it makes intuitive sense. “It’s really not fun to have seen a movie that you want to talk about and you can’t find anyone else who’s seen it,” she points out. “It’s much better to say, ‘Did you watch yesterday’s “Scandal” episode? Oh my God, can you believe...’”
Elberse’s findings about the profitability of big hits has reassured those inside the industry who had feared the long tail would end their businesses. “Throughout the 2000s, there was a lot of questioning and concern,” says James Diener, the president of Maroon 5’s record label (and a subject for one of Elberse’s early case studies). Elberse’s models “demystified, even within the music industry, what was often mysterious to us,” Diener says.
Elberse expects the strategy to keep working: “I don’t really see a saturation point anytime soon,” she says. But to some that sounds worrisome. At USC Spielberg didn’t just question the durability of blockbuster strategy—he questioned its impact on quality, too. “You’re at the point right now,” the director said, “where a studio would rather invest $250 million in one film for a real shot at the brass ring than make a whole bunch of really interesting [projects].”
One hears echoes of Spielberg’s concern across the entertainment industry. Sub-blockbuster commercial products—what book publishers call the “midlist”—are where a lot of the best popular art has traditionally emerged. That space has also nurtured and supported artists before they started producing hits. Jonathan Franzen, to take only one example, wrote two slow-selling novels before his breakthrough “The Corrections.” Yet with bigger profits coming from blockbusters, today’s companies now have less incentive to invest in music that’s not obviously Top 40, or in TV shows that try something new. As a Warner Bros. executive told Elberse, “because technology is shrinking the pie, at least in the foreseeable future, we’ll have to make fewer smaller movies.”
Elberse can point to a few sound business reasons for making smaller movies, even in a blockbuster age. Smaller movies help movie studios preserve their relationships with movie theaters and maintain a flexible schedule. They’re the best place to try out new concepts or actors. “You don’t want to do your R&D in a blockbuster,” Elberse says.
But she also notes that, in the end, the cultural products that thrive are up to us. “In a way it’s our fault for not going to the movies more often,” she says. “Would I prefer to see ‘Lincoln’ over ‘Iron Man 5’? Yes. But is that representative of the general population? No. There’s clearly an enormous group of people out there who find tremendous value in these blockbuster movies.”
Craig Fehrman is working on a book about presidents and their books. E-mail email@example.com.