I went to go see Episode III this past weekend (a little late, I know). First of all, I would have to agree with Jason Calacanis. It was clearly a step up from 3 consecutive Star Wars disappointments. It might have a tough time unseating the original or Empire, but the visuals were just stunning and the story line actually held together pretty well. (The love scenes were still rather comical, but thankfully they were few and far between.) But what I kept thinking about during the opening sequence was how big movies like this will always appeal to very large swaths of humanity. I kept thinking that blockbusters are going to be even bigger in a long tail world.
With all this talk of the citizen’s media and “millions of markets of thousands,” it’s easy to assume that mass media is just going to fade into irrelevance. The future is in personalized media, right?!? I’ve been guilty of this myself. I focus a lot of attention on how long tail distribution will eventually sap the existing mass market of a good portion of its audience (which it will do). And in doing so, it would seem that the head would need to shrink in volume over time as the tail grows (which it will also do). But I would also argue that content at the very tip (especially in the rarified air that Episode III finds itself) will continue to motivate millions (and perhaps billions) of consumers to invest a significant amount of their time and attention (and maybe even their cash.) to participate. If anything the tip will be more pronounced.
This would seem counter intuitive. If people are becoming more interested in niche content, why would the number of people watching the most popular titles still increase? On an individual basis, time and attention reinvestment is a zero sum game. To dedicate more time and attention to podcasts, for example, you’ll probably just drop your time and attention investment in terrestrial or satellite radio. In the developed world, you would be hard pressed to argue that individuals have the capacity to consume more content than they already do. From movies to video games. From CNN to Fox News. From terrestrial radio to satellite. All of these content sources are merely trying to steal a slice of your time and attention pie from other sources. While the shift to long tail content is a much broader phenomenon than the shift from terrestrial to satellite radio, the effect is the same. As people consume more niche content, their consumption of mass market content should fall.
However, it’s also true that no matter how much more targeted my consumption of movies has become and how much less time I dedicate to mainstream content, I will still make time for a certain small selection of movies that millions of other people find interesting. Long tail distribution mechanisms may help me find my little content club, but it does not kill the allure of the mob. (It actually just makes the formation of the big mobs around bad content less likely.)
The problem is that closed network distribution distorts the behavior of the mob. Word of mouth on good titles travels slowly (especially when the movie is released on a handful of screens - or not at all) and $100 million of marketing veneer can manufacture demand for a truly horrible film (anyone else watch Van Helsing?) Mobs can be fooled in to coalescing around nothing special, or slow to form around the truly exceptional. But in an open network environment, word-of-mouth travels at the speed of light and marketing veneer becomes increasingly transparent. The mobs still form; but they form more rapidly and reliably around quality content. They grow more precipitously, peak more spectacularly, and eventually fade more slowly than in traditional closed networks. Rather than rely upon the 4,000 billboards they saw on the way to work, consumers will wait for their friends, their favorite reviewer, or even (gasp!) their computer to tell them that they might find the show interesting. But once the feedback loop gets going and the network reaches a tipping point, the resulting mob can quickly launch content into the stratosphere of popularity (JibJab’s “This Land” being a classic example).
Regardless of our individual idiosyncrasies, or our individual taste in movies, we are still social creatures. We all like to share some common experience. We’re all curious about what the guy next to us finds so engaging. If a small crowd formed around a street performer, we might stop to see what’s going on. If the crowd grew to ten thousand, your curiosity would likely get the best of you. If the crowd grew to ten million, you’re going to have to find out what the hell all the commotion is about. All the intelligent recommendation tools in the world won’t stop something from becoming a spectacle when enough people pile on. It won’t stop the formation of the mob, and the hyper-efficient mobs of open network distribution will make the blockbuster bigger than ever.