Where Have All the Blockbusters Gone?

Last Updated Sep 13, 2010 5:37 PM EDT

If recessions are good for anyone, they're supposed to be good for the entertainment business as shattered, dispirited citizens take refuge from the real world by losing themselves in books, movies and magazines. This time around, however, the recession surge has run against the riptide of secular, technological change. Digitization continues to change the way viewers consume media even as their appetite increases.

Domestic movie ticket sales peaked in the U.S. in 2002, the trough year of the dotcom boom blowback. Following that pattern, 2009 saw a 5% pop from the previous year. In 2002, Spiderman was the driver of sales; last year it was Avatar.

This year, the NYT reported last week, was a blockbuster-less summer -- despite record temperatures and plenty of double-dip jitters. Many films performed solidly, but none turned into blockbusters with opening weekends that can drive moviegoers like lemmings:

Some studios were burned over the summer by pushing too hard to "eventize" movies. Walt Disney Studios, for instance, trumpeted May 28 in enormous red lettering on virtually every piece of advertising for "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." The goal was to blast the film's opening date into the minds of consumers, but instead the tactic drove expectations so high that "Prince" was quickly branded a bomb despite selling $330 million in tickets at the global box office.
Consumers still have a yen for entertainment but it does seem that their consumption habits are shifting.There's no evidence that what ails the summer box office is the tablet computer, or even the monster plasma screen at home, although we are beginning to see trends that validate Chris Anderson's famous thesis about the Long Tail.

Anderson speculated as the country came out of the last recession that blockbuster hits would lose their importance and a broader, deeper selection of cultural content -- distributed nearly without effort -- would take its place. Over the last five years, it didn't seem that Anderson's predictions would come true.

Opening up distribution had the reverse effect. Free content flooded the web but produced few sustainable revenue streams to fertilize or sustain hundreds of thousands of blooming content producers. The top of the entertainment food chain -- books, movies and magazines -- redoubled their emphasis on the familiar and sure-fire. Entertainment became a steady diet of celebrity profiles, comic book franchise movies and brand name authors.

Barnes explains in the Times story that top 3 movies were all franchise installments:

The No. 1 movie of the summer had no stars, at least on screen: "Toy Story 3" topped the North American box office with over $405 million and had a global total of over $1 billion. "Iron Man 2" was second, with $312 million ($622 million total), and "The Twilight Saga: Eclipse" was third, with $298 million ($655 million total).
As the Twilight books and movies show, even when new talent and fresh ideas came to the fore, the magnifying effect of the new media where everything is visible from everywhere means few successes remain anything but hits. If the Long Tail was true, it seemed, there was a divide between hits which were the content consumers would pay for and the Long Tail, which was content that got distributed for free (the subject of Anderson's second book.)

At least, that's the way trend was running. As another story that ran on Labor Day shows, however, there are beginning to be signs that the Long Tail may eventually make room for small or medium-sized players to make money.

Jenna Wortham drew attention to the multi-media musicians behind the "Bed Intruder Song," which had made the leap from pop culture curiosity to the Billboard Hot 100. With 91,000 sales on iTunes, the Gregory Brothers are hardly in Justin Beiber's league, but they're making money and gaining prominence. How far can they take it and how long will it last? Who knows. But the Gregory Brothers are hardly the only ones to cross the divide from free to revenue generating.

Bieber himself was a hybrid success story, having been discovered on You Tube but managed and promoted by serious players in the music business. Lucas Cruikshank, the annoying kids sensation who records videos as Fred Figglehorn, built himself into the first You Tube channel with 1 million subscribers and then produced a movie for Nickelodeon. The Annoying Orange -- whose creators sell a range of t-shirts -- seems to be moving toward a merchandising strategy for monetizing that phenomenon.

No one is saying that this kind of success is easy to replicate or offers a legitimate opportunity that is more reliable than a lottery ticket. But it does show that Anderson's predictions might just need time to come true, as more and more content creators become comfortable being the masters of their own digital destinies and monetization channels like iTunes become more accessible to those creators.

What the Long Tail lacked was an agreed-upon method for selling digital content. The Gregory Brothers show us that consumers are gravitating toward Apple's solution. The company's latest push into making iTunes easily viewable on television sets opens up the movie business to a further assault on attendance. Now all iTunes needs is a homegrown hit.

Image via Flickr user x-ray delta one, CC 2.0