Blockbusters: Why Big Hits and Big Risks Are the Future of the Entertainment Business by Anita Elberse - book review: 'Galácticos and Gaga prove bigger isn't always better'


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The Independent Culture


It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The advent of the on-demand age was supposed to mean that we could watch, read, listen and consume the things we really loved. Alas, the age of the blockbuster – which began with Jaws in 1975 – has become the central business tenet of not just Hollywood, but of the rest of the entertainment industry too.

Here, Anita Elberse, a professor at Harvard Business School, explains how – rather than adapt to Chris Anderson’s long tail of consumption, in which consumers entertainment markets are fractured into smaller units with long shelf-lives – consumers and thus content producers – are more in thrall than ever to giant releases launched with massive marketing campaigns. Rather than spend £10m on 10 movies and hope that one makes a massive profit, a studio is now more likely to spend £100m on one venture likely to succeed and hope it performs like Marvel’s The Avengers (which made £912m).

Marvel is one of the most key movers in these developments. Its Merrill Lynch-backed success in taking its characters into movies, led to its purchase by Disney. Disney is now helping to churn out the Thors, Iron Mans and Captain America sequels, prequels and reboots that dominate global box offices.

As Elberse points out, it’s not that much of a surprise to see Disney doing this. Its chairman, Alan Horn is a key proponent of blockbusterism. In the Noughties, by backing big-risk, high-reward franchises like Batman and Harry Potter, Horn turned Warner Brothers into the only movie studio history to make more than a billion dollars for 11 years in a row.

While her thesis is clearly proved. It’s also depressing. One of her examples of a successful blockbuster is Lady Gaga’s second album, Born This Way, which was launched with a Byzantine web of corporate tie-ins and enough marketing clout to ensure it cut its cloth. It’s not Elberse’s job to judge, but there’s no doubt that the album was limp compared to her first, The Fame, and was outsold massively by the slowburn success of Adele’s 21 – released on independent British label XL.   

Similarly, the point is undermined by the example of Real Madrid president Florentino Pérez’s Galácticos policy. By signing one of the world’s top players a season at a time, Pérez turned Real into one of the planet’s most revenue-generating sports teams. A blockbuster financial success, sure. But what is barely mentioned is that by doing it he helped turn a team who’d won three Champions League trophies in six years into terminal also-rans and Europe.