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Monster hits continue to survive the Internet age

Despite endless choices, book, film, music industries can't escape blockbusters

by Jennifer Rankin

The Observer

A monster lays waste to America’s cities, smashing skyscrapers and tearing up passenger trains. It’s the familiar tale of Godzilla, a mutant lizard last seen rampaging through cinemas in 1998 and now back on the big screen.

Godzilla, which was made for an estimated $160 million and opened this weekend, marks the start of the Hollywood blockbuster season — another entertainment beast that never dies.

Summer blockbusters may be as predictable as holiday traffic jams, but a recent book from a Harvard Business School professor throws light on why the format endures — from books and film to TV and music.

In “Blockbusters,” author Anita Elberse shows that big-budget films matter more than ever to Hollywood studios. In 2010, about 70 percent of Warner Brothers’ revenues came from its four most expensive films — “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I” (budget $250 million), “Inception” ($175 million), “Clash of the Titans” ($125 million) and “Sex and the City” ($100 million) — while the four with the smallest budgets contributed next to nothing. “The entertainment industry is moving more towards a winner-take-all-market,” she writes in the book.

In the U.K. too, a studio’s biggest hit will account for a quarter of its total box-office takings. The blockbuster remains the multiplex monster, despite a surge in the number of films coming to screen. Since 1993, the number of new releases per year has almost quadrupled, to around 800, according to researcher Rentrak.

“There are always 12 or 15 films trying to push you off screen,” said Lucy Jones at Rentrak. While 20 years ago a film could become a hit through word of mouth, it could now lose its screen space after one bad weekend.

The phenomenon is not restricted to the silver screen. The average main street bookstore may stock thousands of titles, but the profitable inventory is just 10 or 20 books. And Spotify reported in January that 1 in 5 of the 4 million songs on its music-streaming service had never been listened to. This is the flip side to a celebrated study from 2008, that found that just 52,000 tracks or 0.4 percent of the catalog of online music stores accounted for 8 out of 10 downloads.

Over on the small screen, viewers have more choice than ever before about what they watch and when, but the ritual of gathering around the box is as strong as ever.

“Big is getting bigger,” said ITV’s director of television, Peter Fincham, who has overseen a creative revival with programs such as “Downton Abbey,” “Broadchurch” and “Britain’s Got Talent.” “There was a time, when you only had a three or four channel environment, when a certain — quite large — audience would watch your output whatever it was because there wasn’t much choice. Now, when there’s an enormous amount of choice, you need to raise your game to get that big audience, but that big audience can be bigger than ever.”

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. A best-selling 2008 book by Chris Anderson convinced many for a time that the reign of the blockbuster was drawing to a close. “The Long Tail” argued that the mainstream was going to be “shattered into a zillion different cultural shards,” as fickle consumers “scattered to the winds” using the Internet to find the books, films and songs that met their unique tastes.

Modestly claiming to be a preview of 21st-century economics, the book predicted that the Internet would transform buying habits, giving consumers access to an unlimited choice of songs, films and books. The blockbuster was not going to become extinct, but it would no longer be a colossus bestriding the cultural landscape. Instead, “a mass of niches” would be the new cultural and economic force.

But Anderson was wrong, said Andrew Bud, a co-author of the 2008 music-streaming study. “The Long Tail” was very plausible and well-argued, he said, but ignored the fact that popularity is infectious: “Choices in music are not determined by availability; choices in music are determined by social forces. People listen to the things that (other) people listen to.”

Paul Ormerod, an economist who has studied social networks, argued that people change their behavior when faced with a stupendous number of choices.

“They are more likely to copy and emulate people whose judgments they trust. In this model something starts to become popular not because of its objective qualities, but because it is already popular.”

Any YouTube visitor knows this. Ormerod tested his theory by noting the most popular photograph on Flickr every day for six months.

“A lot of the time it was something like a dog on a skateboard wearing a woolly hat. Thousands of photographs like that are uploaded every day, but one becomes popular, and people look at it simply because it is trending.”

The same dynamic drives people to click on “most-read” lists on newspaper websites. “They think an article must be interesting because other people find it interesting.” Or as Alan Giles puts it: “The signpost ‘blockbuster’ makes something easier and more reassuring.”

Giles was chief executive of HMV and managing director of Waterstones until 2006, a time when both firms struggled in the face of competition from Amazon.

“You would crave for sales not to be so dependent upon best-sellers but the reality is that a very significant proportion of the demand is for a handful of best-sellers.”

Professor Joseph Lampel of Cass Business School in London sees another factor at work. When executives think they have the next James Bond or Harry Potter on their hands, all kinds of signals are sent around the organization.

“Something that looks like a blockbuster is much more likely to be funded and supported. Everyone buys into this formula, and if it fails no one gets blamed.”

In contrast, a quirky, low-budget film with unknown actors is less likely to be funded. “And if things go wrong you are more likely to be told your gut instinct was wrong,” he said.

So blockbusters succeed because they are blockbusters. But Lampel has a warning for the big studios, as marketing budgets and salaries spiral in the pursuit of bankable stars.

“They are authors of their own misfortune. The blockbuster formula is based on ingredients that are supposed to deliver superhigh profits. So they bid up the price of those inputs.”

He said studios are playing an unwinnable game. “They are investing more and more to get less and less. And they have to invest more and more because everyone else is investing more and more.”

But the Internet is also turning consumers into critics like never before. Online reviews and peer-group websites could give the lay consumer more voice and greater ability to influence their peers, Giles said — although only if these websites can avoid manipulation by interested parties.

The power of the trendsetting hipster may already be evident on Spotify. Unpublished research by Will Page, Spotify’s director of economics, has found that the service gives more playtime to artists outside the megabucks stratosphere. While the top 400 digital album downloads in the U.S. make up a third of demand, on Spotify it is just over a quarter. This suggest that streaming services can be good news for a middle-class of bands, he said, such as British indie act Alt-J, winners of the 2012 Mercury prize.

“Many people called them unknown, yet they weren’t unknown on Spotify.” Social media and shared Spotify playlists can turn a little-known artist into a sensation almost overnight. “You’ve always had weird, unpredictable ways of producing hits, but the movement from zero to hero, rags to riches can be that much faster now,” Page said.

Whatever the formula, the alchemy of a hit will always be mysterious, from the sadomasochism romance being read on every commuter train, to the cozy drama about a royal speech impediment that fills cinemas, to a galloping horse dance set to music about inequality in the Seoul housing market.

“The accidental blockbuster is the holy grail of the cultural industries,” said Lampel. “And it is also impossible to replicate.”