Pirates of The Caribbean Vs. The Long Tail, Part 2

ML Jul 11, 2006

So, people are already comparing the record-breaking opening weekend of Pirates of the Caribbean with Chris Anderson’s book launch today that predicts the decline of the blockbuster. So, I’ll stay away from the ground that Stephen Bryant already covers. Others, including Chris himself, have commented on the irony of a book about the decline of the blockbuster becoming a blockbuster itself, already on Amazon’s Top-15 list.

So, I won’t comment on that either. And yet others are asking whether our personal niche interests are replacing water cooler talk, and therefore further isolating us from each other. That’s where the ideas aren’t yet fully explored, and that’s where I’ll comment.

First, it should be no surprise that blockbusters are not going away. I think Chris is exaggerating a bit in order to keep the buzz surrounding his book high. There’s nothing like predicting the reshaping of business and the word to force everyone to go read your book. But the same ultra-efficiencies that are brought to searching the long tail niche for your own personal interests are ALSO being brought to the blockbuster hits in the head. While Superman Returns received the hype-machine and had the extra head start of coming out on a Wednesday and having over a 50 year cultural fan-base to tap into, it was Pirates that grabbed the brass ring.

But seriously, as a newly minted member of the PR profession, I have a new appreciation for the power of “who you know” and control of the “means of production”. You cannot underestimate what a smart company can do when it has an understanding of and motivation to tap the same ultra-efficiencies that make tapping the potential in the long tail possible. You see this over and over when you see an industry that actually has its act together threatened. How often has IBM pulled its butt out of the fire? How often will it continue to?

But with Hollywood, there’s even more at play than a savvy industry with a proven blockbuster-producing formula. There’s the water cooler factor. What happens when that isolation factor kicks-in from being an excessive long tail consumer? You are increasingly distanced from others at work. Your cultural currency becomes less valuable. I read Digg for my daily fix of “geek currency”, to stay connected to the geek community. But ironically, the Geeks, who were most decidedly long tail dwellers have ascended into the head. And now there’s no story too small about what odd version of Linux runs on what strange device to not make the Digg homepage.

But what about cultural currency for non-geeks? What about the “crowd”? I’m currently reading The Wisdom of Crowds, and the question on my mind is if you added together what everyone thought was good, and took the average, shouldn’t that be the blockbuster? Probably, yes. And doesn’t that have just as much merit as worthy of consumption of a gem found in the tail, perfectly matched to your tastes? Most definitively!

Why?

Because it fulfills a basic human need, and namely that is a sense of belonging and community. You might call it the tribe mentality. I forget exactly which book it was, but I read a book that broke down the basic human motivations. Among them were the sense of belonging, learning, acquiring and defending. There was a fifth… I forget what. But you might say, the long tail appeals to our need to learn and acquire. It puts us on “the hunt” and creates a similar goal/reward dynamic as video games. And as we dig deeper, we enrich ourselves by learning and getting a sense of vicarious community.

But blockbuster hits on the other hand serve a different fundamental human need. They unify us. They give us a sense of tribal community. They give us lowest-common-denominator water cooler currency that spans culture, generation and interests. And that’s valuable, and almost ensures that the blockbuster hit has a lot of life left in it yet (forever?).

The examples are abound. Lost and 24 come to mind. If you missed it the first time around, the same ultra-efficiencies that make long tail consumption easy also make consuming “missed” hits easy. Between DVDs, iTunes and BitTorrent downloads, there’s a giant TiVo in the sky. Over time, it may even serve to make actual viewership of hits even bigger, though it probably won’t show up in the charts (who tracks BitTorrent other than the MPAA and RIAA?). Hits can become mega-hits over time, and no one would even know.

Anyway, that about covers my analysis of the battle between the blockbuster hits and the long tail niches. Similar to Stephen Bryant, I feel there’s just going to be more of everything. But the importance of blockbusters as cultural unifiers that serve a fundamental human need is going to intensify. We grab onto them like life preservers, keeping us from drowning in isolating bliss and abyss that is our own perfectly-matched custom tailored tastes within the long tail.

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