Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail” analysis of the film business began as an article in Wired Magazine in 2004, and became so influential that he published a bestselling book elaboration in 2006.
YouTube and its cousins have offered the widest spectrum of accessible distribution that films have ever enjoyed.
Mainstream producers in the 1950s tried to lure spectators to the theater with new gadgets like 3D….
... and wide screen presentations.
Producers also offered more adult subject matter.
By the late 1960s, seeds sown in the independent movement from a decade earlier began to take hold. New directors like John Casavetes, Bob Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, and Arthur Penn, who directed Bonnie and Clyde, provided a brief golden age of mainstream independent cinema in the United States.
And then came a killer shark ...
... and a Jedi knight…
... and finally, a rich man in a black cape.
In the second half of the 20th century, comedies and dramas like Animal House were seen as commercially viable properties ...
... though the spectacle would gain a larger and larger share of the box office.
by Jonathan Eig
Long ago—so long, in fact, that few alive still can recall it—there was a mighty giant who ruled in benevolence over a grateful populace. All was good in the giant’s land, even in times of economic turmoil and armed conflict. The giant stood firm and the people were content. Then came a usurper. It came invisibly through the sky, with charismatic leaders who went by the menacing names of Uncle Milty and Hopalong and Lucy. And the giant, fearful for his domain, responded as best he could. He used his formidable power to literally stretch the dimensions of the world, to bring color to the colorless, to part the seas and span the globe.
What do you think? Could I sell that story to Hollywood studios today? They are constantly on the lookout for the epic battles of unreal characters. This is the age of spectacle and wonder. This is the CGI call. The way camera captures all our motions. This is the eve of the fall.
A brief historical overview
It has been ten years now since Wired Magazine’s Chris Anderson first published his essay “The Long Tail” in which he described a new world order for filmed entertainment. With affordable avenues for distribution multiplying day by day, Anderson argued that the era of the blockbuster was over. Easier access to distribution would empower filmmakers of all styles. No longer would the deep pockets of Hollywood studios control what we could see.
It’s a nice theory.
There has been much analysis already as to the accuracy of Anderson’s prediction. Five years ago, writing for Reuters, Yinka Adegoke began an essay with “Far be it for us to be the umpteenth person to assail Wired editor Chris Anderson’s much quoted and yet much maligned book, The Long Tail …” [open endnotes in new window] Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse’s recent analysis in Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment suggests that though the tail Anderson foresaw may have indeed grown longer, it has also grown thinner. That means there are more products available, but only a miniscule part of the population is exposed to most of them. With technology changing at such a rapid pace, it is unwise to make any bold pronouncements about what the landscape will look like ten years hence. But we can ask one very pertinent question about the last ten years: Regardless of whether the long tail is thriving or is a myth, are the movies getting better?
I want to look at the current state of U.S. cinema and discuss crucial cracks in infrastructure that have led to a decline in quality, and which, if left unchecked, may have disastrous consequences in the not-too-distant future.
It is useful to look back at Hollywood in the years after WWII when considering the current state of affairs. Throughout the 1920s and ‘30s, U.S. film had ruled the world. Of all the leading film producing nations before WWI, America was the one country that was not devastated by the Great War. Hollywood studios took advantage of that situation, and by the eve of 1939 U.S. film held dominion. The product was homogenized. Producers, more than directors or screenwriters, influenced the artistic output. The studio system may have muted individual expression, but as an economic model, the system worked magnificently. However, trouble was lurking. Despite getting a temporary reprieve during the early ‘40s, as soon as the war ended the U.S. Justice Department essentially declared the major studios monopolies and forced them to sell off distribution and exhibition pieces of their empires. The economic model began to crumble. At the same time, the Red Scare led to blacklisting which sucked much of the artistic vibrancy out of a frightened industry. But the big blow came from the usurper—television.
Hollywood initially laughed off the new medium, but as the ‘50s went on, it became increasingly obvious that television was no laughing matter for the film industry. Television set ownership increased some fiftyfold throughout the decade. People were staying home to watch their Westerns. Hollywood had to respond.
The studios responded by trying to offer the viewing public the types of experiences television could not yet duplicate. This was the era of presentational innovation—or gimmickry, depending on your particular tastes. The previous major innovation in the presentation of movies—the advent of synchronized sound in the late ‘20s—had come shortly after another new medium, radio, began challenging movies for audience share. In the ‘50s, color film became standard. Early forms of 3D were rolled out. Wide screen formats were aggressively marketed. And in terms of content, bigger and more lavish movies became common. The Production Code, which had been putting a damper on adult content in U.S. film since the early 1930s, was still in effect, but its impact was waning. Sex—and not just procreative sex between husband and wife—found an increasingly friendly home on the Hollywood screen, whether salacious (as in the case of Mark Robson’s soap opera Peyton Place, 1957) or sophisticated (as in the case of Richard Quine’s very adult romance Strangers When We Meet, 1960). Far from retrenching, the major studios began spending more than ever to convince the U.S. viewer to get off the sofa and come to the theater.
And it worked. At least until it didn’t.
It’s an oversimplification to say that U.S. filmmakers gave up on well-crafted stories and complex characters in favor of spectacle. But it is clear that the emphasis shifted. More value was placed on the spectacular, whether it was in a period piece or a musical. More emphasis was also placed on derivative work—work that was based on previously established material that offered producers a safer proposition. Representative blockbusters of the decade included Peter Pan (a youth-based spectacle from J.M. Barrie’s stories and stage play) and The Ten Commandments (remade by the same man, Cecil B. DeMille who had scored a major hit with it in the silent era). As studio monopolies weakened, a new crop of independent producers, often using United Artists as a distributor, emerged. Some of their movies, like the Aldrich & Associates The Big Knife (directed by Robert Aldrich in 1955) and the Hill-Hecht-Lancaster production of Sweet Smell of Success (directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Burt Lancaster in 1957) seemed to enjoy turning a scathing eye toward the mainstream entertainment industry with small, well-crafted screenplays and minimal visual extravagance.
Meanwhile, at the studio level, relatively less emphasis was placed on developing original dramas and comedies that could appeal to an adult audience. What followed was a brief period of success, and then the doldrums. The ‘60s. The Deadball Era in baseball. Even the Yankees weren’t any good. And by almost every metric, U.S. films hit new lows as well. The overall artistic quality fell off dramatically. The period of studio neglect—of failing to develop original adult stories—caught up with the industry in a major way. Alexander Mackendrick, though only 45, was essentially done as a feature film director after Sweet Smell of Success, in part because he didn’t have the support of a studio behind him. Robert Aldrich would align himself more closely with the studios and make a series of successful movies after The Big Knife, but by the mid-1960s, when he was not yet 50, his career as a director of note was also largely over. Things got so bad in the early part of the ‘60s that film critic Danny Peary, when putting together his popular collection of “Alternate Oscars,” had to simply leave 1963 as a void, concluding there were no “best pictures” that year. For 1965, he had to turn to a Polish director filming in England (Roman Polanksi’s Repulsion) to find the only movie he considered worthy.
Things began to turn around late in the decade. Economic disaster is a great motivator and the creaky old studios were desperate to find a way to speak to the new generation. They were open to experiment. Mark Harris’ excellent book—Pictures at the Revolution—chronicles the 1967 Oscar race for Best Picture in which two stodgy old school relics met up with two new and exciting pictures. History would rank the new-school films, Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, far higher than the old-school entries, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Dr. Doolittle. This seemed to usher in an era of intriguing new movies throughout the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Then came the dual punch of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and the blockbuster era was born. You might say that over the last forty years, a battle has raged on in the U.S. film landscape between those blockbusters and the smaller, more indie-oriented style of film. If Chris Anderson was correct in 2004, then we should be seeing the smaller films flourishing. They can’t be expected to outdraw studio-backed blockbusters, but could more accessible avenues of distribution, combined with more affordable methods of production, actually allow for more diverse types of films to play a major role in the industry? And more importantly, can the overall crop of movies, large and small, get better?
I do not dispute the underpinning of Anderson’s analysis. There is no question that the industry has changed. But I, like Adegoke and Eleberse among others, have difficulty sharing his optimism. Major studios are more dependent today on spectacle (such as the Marvel comic franchise) and on derivative stories (see Tak3n) than at any point in film history. As Time Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes said back in 2009, the success of The Dark Knight resulted in the following takeaway: “The obvious thing we’re going to take from (the film’s success) is more Dark Knight.” This lack of innovation at the top of the food chain has disastrous implications. No matter how many Lena Dunhams (Tiny Furniture, 2010)or Cary Fukunagas (Sin Nombre, 2009) emerge, it is highly likely that at some point they will become engulfed by a system that seems intent on recycling unreality.
The smaller, more indie-oriented films have indeed won the awards. The blockbusters and the remakes and the sequels have won the box office. It should not come as a great revelation that bigger, more-spectacle oriented movies, or that sequels to popular movies, do better at the box office than smaller scale original works. The bigger movies cost more. You would hope they earn more back. Historically, major film producers have been willing to spend big bucks on extravagant projects because the potential return is so great. The red ink from many failed movies can be washed away with one mega-hit. If you look at the top ten lists for virtually any decade, it will be dominated by spectacle-oriented films. But in past decades, even mainstream studios offered a more balanced and diversified roster of films. Therefore, if you go a little deeper into box office returns—say, the second ten in a given decade—a disturbing trend emerges.
In the 1960s, that second ten had a fairly even mix of spectacle and story. Big budget spectacles like Cleopatra and 2001: A Space Odyssey were balanced by dramas like the aforementioned Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and Bonnie and Clyde. Even the top ten, which was skewed toward big-budget musicals, included Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Graduate.
The 1970s, which witnessed the brief resurgence of original drama and comedy, was a gold mine for fans of those types of movies. The top ten boasted four original movies not primarily based on spectacle; The Sting, Animal House, The Godfather, and Smokey and the Bandit. A little something for everyone. And the second ten was almost entirely comprised of similar, non-blockbusters. Only The Towering Inferno, Jaws 2, and Airport could be called out-and-out spectacle blockbusters.
Moving into the 1980s, blockbuster culture was clearly on the rise. And sequels were also gaining support in the board rooms of the major studios. Even so, original comedies Beverly Hills Cop and Back to the Future cracked the top ten, and the second ten was again dominated by original adult-oriented fare like Tootsie, Rain Man, and Fatal Attraction. By the end of the decade, the major studios had essentially cast their lot with spectacle. “Packaging” and “franchises” were the concepts of the day. The symbolic knockout punch came in 1989, when Time-Warner rolled out the new Batman franchise. The blockbusters had won.
The 1990s, though clearly within the recognized era of the blockbuster, had three top ten movies—Forest Gump, The Sixth Sense, and Home Alone—which were not initially conceived of as blockbusters. The fact that they all did exceptionally well should not erase the fact that they were developed as original stories (or in the case of Forest Gump, adapted from a novel), primarily based on plot and character. Special effects may have figured into them, but they were not what we would consider special effects movies. The second ten had a few movies—Mrs. Doubtfire, Ghost, and to a certain degree Saving Private Ryan—that were conceived of in terms of plot and character as well. Private Ryan clearly has a great many effects, but I consider it an original story in which effects played an important, but not a defining, role.
As the millennium turned over, non-spectacles and non-sequels all but vanished from the top of the box office lists. Amongst the top twenty films of the new century’s first decade, you would be hard-pressed to find a title that is not primarily dependent on spectacle, or is not a sequel. Often, it is both. The closest you can come to an exception would be movies like The Passion of the Christ or the first Harry Potter film, neither in the top ten. There are some very good movies in that top twenty—movies which boast good plotlines and intriguing characters. Movies like The Dark Knight and The Return of the King. But it needs to be pointed out that unless you really stretch the definition, for the first time in its history, Hollywood did not produce a single top twenty original movie in the broad genres of drama or comedy. So far, in our current half-completed decade, that trend has continued. There is not a single original adult-oriented story not predicated upon spectacle amongst the box office giants. There have been movies based on comic books (The Dark Knight Rises, 2012) and cartoons geared towards kids (Frozen, 2013). There have been movies about dystopian rebellions (Hunger Games, 2012)and movies about superheroes (Marvel’s The Avengers, 2012). And there have been sequels galore—provided they were about dystopian rebellions and superheroes (Hunger Games Catching Fire, 2013, Toy Story 3, 2010, Iron Man 3, 2013). But where are the economically successful suspense stories (like The Sixth Sense) or the comedies (like Tootsie) or the dramas (like Kramer vs Kramer)? If they exist at all, they are being drowned out by an ever-increasing flood of Fast & Furious Despicable Iron Men. Pt. 3.