Kelefa Sanneh reviews Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment by Anita Elberse, of Harvard Business School.
Her case studies are meant to demonstrate that popular culture remains big business, and that, in an increasingly complicated and unpredictable cultural marketplace, hits are more dominant than ever. The story she tells about the entertainment business resonates with a bigger story that people often tell about America, where Elberse sees “a winner-take-all dynamic” increasing the distance between the most economically productive citizens and everyone else. More efficient markets aren’t necessarily more diverse or more egalitarian, and perhaps there’s no reason that music or film or books should be immune from the forces of consolidation.
...YouTube, one of the Internet’s most miscellaneous destinations, has increasingly devoted itself to promoting its “Original Channels,” many of them tied to established stars or brands, like Jay Z or World Wrestling Entertainment...Elberse argues that the profusion of consumer choice only increases the pressure on big media companies to create grand spectacles that bring us together.
Double ouch. But not, in retrospect, surprising.
And, yeah, bring us together. That's a big one. Just what does that mean, bring US together? All of us? Is there a cultural cost? That's what Disney, the old man (Uncle Walt) and certainly the mega-corporation, is about: "It's a small world after all." There's a word for THAT version, Disneyfication, and its connotations are not good. And yet it really has to happen, bring us together.
Or does it? Is that really what the 1% wants? Do they really think they can ride herd on all of us? Maybe they'd be better off with a divide and conquer strategy and so set out to deliberately foster cultural segregation and difference. Hmmm…
Anyhow, Elberse tells how deals with blockbuster intent don't always work out that way, e.g. M-G-M's deal with Tom Cruise.
And then there's copyright:
For instance, movie franchises might be much less valuable if copyright protections didn’t last so long. In 1790, Congress enacted a law granting copyright protection for fourteen years, with an option for a fourteen-year extension; in the most recent revision, in 1998, Congress extended copyright protection to last a lifetime plus seventy years. (Works created by a corporation, instead of a person, may be protected for as long as a hundred and twenty years.) Similarly, the shape and the size of various online music-streaming services will be largely determined by the compulsory royalty rates set by the government, and by legal decisions about the relative value of different forms of digital musical consumption.
And there's this:
Horn, the Disney chairman, told Elberse that blockbusters were important precisely because they cost so much money. And Disney would have much less money to spend if Congress hadn’t extended its copyright protections. “Very few entities in this world can afford to spend $200 million on a movie,” he said. “That is our competitive advantage.” The long tail is real—and executives like Horn will pay whatever they must to stay out of it.
Tyler Cowen gets a plug:
Cowen is less troubled by the further enrichment of the already rich. He takes it for granted that America will be increasingly influenced by “labor-market polarization”: productivity will continue to increase, but an ever larger proportion of the gains will go to “a relatively small cognitive elite”—human blockbusters, economically speaking. Meanwhile, more and more workers will find themselves in various service industries, assuming they can find full-time work at all. According to Cowen, future citizens will agree that “America is one of the nicest places in the world.” He predicts that even those with stagnant or falling wages will have “a lot more opportunities for cheap fun and also cheap education.” The formulation “cheap fun” explains much of what makes people so excited, and so anxious, about the future of popular culture.
Sanneh ends with a vote for the consumer:
Each paid-for download, each Kickstarter donation, each movie ticket, each HBO subscription is an affirmative act, and a social one: a contribution to the cause, a vote in favor of Katniss Everdeen or some rookies on Bandcamp, a strike against the demise of whatever part of the entertainment industry still entertains us. Even Elberse’s blockbusting executives look vulnerable: they are producers in a consumers’ paradise, forever scrambling to adjust to the public’s changing whims. And so Elberse must reassure them, and reassure us, that big hits and big business aren’t going away. Once upon a time, we worried about what popular culture was doing to us. Now, more and more, we worry about what we’re doing to it.
H/t Tyler Cowen.
And check out my old review of Art De Vany, Hollywood Economics: How Extreme Uncertainly Shapes the Film Industry. All culture industries are like that, because that's how culture is. This story ain't over yet, Jack.