Ever-increasing choice was supposed to mean the end of the blockbuster. It has had the opposite effect
NOVEMBER 20th saw the return of an old phenomenon: the sold-out cinema. “New Moon”, a tale of vampires, werewolves and the women who love them, earned more in a single day at the American box office than any film in history. The record may not stand for long: next month “Avatar”, a three-dimensional action movie thick with special effects, will be released (see picture). This film’s production budget is reportedly $230m, which would make it one of the most expensive movies ever made. “Avatar” will be a great disappointment if its worldwide ticket sales fail to exceed $500m. Yet it is a reflection of how things are changing in the media business that such an outcome is unlikely.
There has never been so much choice in entertainment. Last year 610 films were released in
This is not what was predicted by one of the most influential business books of the past few years. In “The Long Tail”, Chris Anderson, editor-in-chief of Wired, a technology magazine (and before that a journalist at The Economist), argued that demand for media was moving inexorably from the head of the distribution curve to the tail. That is, the few products that sell a lot were losing market share to the great many that sell modestly. By cutting storage and distribution costs, the internet was overturning the tyranny of the shop shelf, which had limited consumers’ choices. And, by developing software that analysed and predicted consumers’ tastes, companies like Amazon were encouraging people to wallow in esoterica. Such companies did not just supply niche markets—they helped create them.
“The Long Tail” set off a lively debate. Professors at
“Both the hits and the tail are doing well,” says Jeff Bewkes, the head of Time Warner, an American media giant. Audiences are at once fragmenting into niches and consolidating around blockbusters. Of course, media consumption has not risen much over the years, so something must be losing out. That something is the almost but not quite popular content that occupies the middle ground between blockbusters and niches. The stuff that people used to watch or listen to largely because there was little else on is increasingly being ignored.