If you’re a 16-year-old boy you’re probably pretty happy these days with your choices at the multiplex. However, for the rest of us, things are not so rosy.
It’s safe to say that most Hollywood fare is aimed straight at your paperboy. Sure, there are independent movies, foreign fare and a few decent studio films each year, but for the most part today’s cinematic offerings consist of sequels, live-action comic book features, action flicks, special effect fests and horror movies made on the cheap, along with some romantic treacle for date night.
The coin of the realm is the blockbuster.
In her new book, “Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment” (Holt, 307 pages), Harvard Business School Professor Anita Elberse highlights how major content producers build their strategies around the pursuit of megahits. Television, music, international soccer and opera are just a few of the areas she looks at. Cameos sprinkled throughout the book include LeBron James, Lady Gaga and Jay Z, as well as a host of entertainment executives and Internet visionaries.
One of the takeaways from “Blockbusters” is the fact that when it comes to the public’s taste nobody knows anything, to quote screenwriter William Goldman. That 1980’s maxim still holds, only the stakes are higher than ever. Today, it can cost upwards of $300 million to produce a so-called “event movie,” and a third of that or more to market it. Misses hurt more than ever. When the Disney film, “John Carter,” flopped last year, the company suffered a $160 million write-off, according to The Economist.
Sobering data like that might advocate for a conservative approach. However, Elberse states that blockbusters, despite their risk, bring the highest returns and, conversely, are the safest bets. Her findings are drawn from research along with interviews with studio executives who have had success chasing megahits.
Elberse looks at Warner Bros.’ strategy of identifying a few projects each year in which to invest huge amounts of money and resources with the hopes of creating a handful of blockbusters. When successful, these hit movies are so profitable they cover for any big-budget miscues and also pay for the rest of the studio’s less costly output. The result of this event film strategy during the past decade was a highly profitable for Warners. “In a good year, a major studio is happy to bat .500. The real goal is overall profitability,” says Alan Horn, former head of Warners and apostle of the blockbuster approach.
The author contrasts this with the opposite tact taken by the television network, NBC. Executives there went through a phase when they didn’t spend the money to attract big-name stars and likely hit projects, keeping tight budgets on the development and production of its shows. By 2010, Elberse writes, this practice had nearly run the network into the ground.
Page 2 of 3 - Of course, it’s hard to create a systemized approach to selling to such a fickle public as ourselves, and there are points throughout the book where the reader may beg to differ with Elberse. For instance, in that same December 2013 Economist article, the writer points out that bigger and bigger budgets have had the not insignificant effect of many unemployed studio executives. The article states: “The past 18 months have seen more executive turnover than usual: four out of the six main studios have seen change at the top.” Meanwhile, Rich Ross, the studio head behind “John Carter,” soon after it retched at the box office, got his walking papers.
The strategy is not foolproof, evidently.
However, Elberse has done her homework, talking to those on the front lines and crunching numbers as she takes us behind the scenes of various industries where, as they say, content is king. And while “Blockbusters” is an engaging read, the book is dispiriting in some ways. It can feel a bit like a backstage journey through our cultural dystopia, sort of like sending a sausage lover on a tour of the Jimmy Dean plant. The machinations of today’s entertainment companies are ugly and cynical, with little regard for artistry. This isn’t news. Entertainment is big business and has been for a long time. My even mentioning aesthetics here is almost naïve. Still, to see how many our favorite films, music and books are conceived, developed and marketed as mere products leaves me cold.
This isn’t Elberse’s fault. She’s just the messenger. The lousiness of much of today’s movies, television and music is beyond the scope of her book.
Elsewhere in the pages of “Blockbusters” is a key observation about we as audience members and consumers. It seems everyone likes to be in the big tent. The crowd around the water cooler wants to see the big film, read the hot new book and be able to discuss the latest hit on television. Add to this our celebrity-obsessed culture, and you start to see how the blockbuster mentality has taken root in the world of entertainment.
Elberse also looks at why despite the digital revolution and the supposed democratization of content creation we still turn primarily to name brands and celebrities. She chronicles YouTube’s attempt to support up-and-coming talent through the development of personal channels. Our brand loyalty and celebrity worship, however, got in the way of this plan.
In “Blockbusters,” Elberse’s job, and she does it well, is to explain how the entertainment business really works and how decisions are made as to what ends up in our local theaters, bookstores, stadiums and earbuds. In the end, the answer boils down to something we probably expected all along. I think another maxim from a previous decade says it best: “Follow the money.”
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