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alex beam

A blockbuster tale

istockphoto/thelongtail.com;globe staff illustration

Back in 2004, I read Christopher Anderson’s famous Wired magazine article, “The Long Tail,” later turned into a book of the same name. Anderson hit on an interesting idea: Because so much creative content — book, movies, and music — was being digitized, and could be stored cheaply, commerce had changed radically. So, instead of a video store offering 2,000 titles, you could create an online movie store — call it Netflix — with tens of thousands of titles.

Anderson argued provocatively that the “long tail” of lesser-viewed content, like my favorite Brazilian coming-of-age classic, “Macunaima,” would eventually wag the commercial dog. He meant that the real money for online retailers would come from selling previously unavailable, esoteric books, movies, and music to legions of happy buyers.

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I was a believer. I’ve never had much use for what Anderson called “the tyranny of lowest-common-denominator fare . . . brain-dead summer blockbusters and manufactured pop.” At the time I was patronizing a West Coast mail-order videotape store that sent me cheap surfer movies, for $3 apiece, including postage. I’ve always loved abebooks.com, where I bought my privately printed copy of “The Fate of the Persecutors of Joseph Smith,” and other oddball fare.

And it wasn’t just me. When Anderson’s book came out in 2006, Google executive Eric Schmidt said that “Anderson’s insights . . . continue to influence Google’s strategic thinking in a profound way.” Netflix founder Reed Hastings ranked Anderson’s book on a par with “The Tipping Point” and “Freakonomics.”

Then the worm started to turn. “I would like to tell you that the Internet has created such a level playing field that the long tail is absolutely the place to be,” Schmidt himself said two years after his initial swoon: “Unfortunately, that’s not the case . . . The truth is that the vast majority of revenue remains in the head.” In practical terms, this means that Netflix will make a lot more money off “Mission: Impossible III” than “Macunaima”; Amazon will sell a lot more James Patterson than James Boswell, and so on.

Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse has just published a book that goes a long way to cutting off the “long tail” at its root. “Actual data on how markets are evolving tell a much different story than what Anderson predicted,” she writes in “Blockbusters: Hit Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment.” Basically, she says there’s no money in selling esoteric content. “The importance of individual bestsellers is not diminishing over time,” she writes. “Instead, it is growing.”

Anderson says he’s familiar with Elberse’s past work, and wonders if she’s addressed the success of YouTube, which launched after his book appeared. “YouTube . . . has become the strongest evidence for the Long Tail I could have imagined,” he wrote in an e-mail.

Elberse does write about YouTube, which she says is pouring money into branded channels curated by kitsch culture icons like Jay-Z and World Wrestling Entertainment, which are gobbling up bandwidth previously reserved for user-generated content. Similarly, Netflix is bankrolling big hits like the political series “House of Cards,” starring Kevin Spacey. “Once again,” she writes, “blockbuster and superstar brands are carrying the day.”

Not every day, thank heavens. This summer witnessed the spectacular box office meltdowns of such sure-fire blockbuster movies as “The Lone Ranger,” “The Internship,” “White House Down,” and the locally bred dog, “R.I.P.D.” My favorite movie, Joss Whedon’s “Much Ado About Nothing,” grossed a measly $4 million, about one-hundredth the take of the summer’s biggest hit, “Iron Man 3.”

Whedon, who directed last summer’s $600 million popcorn smash, “The Avengers,” doesn’t need a Harvard Business School professor to tell him where the money is. Two nights ago, ABC launched his whack’em, smack’em series, “Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.” Not my cup of tea; I was watching “Blood Surf,” the notorious C-list horror pic, streaming on Netflix. Long live the long tail!

Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.
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