Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘American Sniper

The long tail of everything

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The long tail

Yesterday, I noted that we’re living in a golden age for podcasting, and it isn’t hard to see why. If there’s a sweet spot for production and distribution, we’re in it right now: with the available software and recording tools, it’s easier than ever to put together a podcast at minimal cost, and just about every potential listener owns a laptop or mobile device capable of streaming this kind of content. Many of us are more likely to spend an hour listening to a show online than reading an article that takes the same amount of time to finish, perhaps because we can do it while driving or washing the dishes, or perhaps because the ratio of effort to entertainment seems more attractive. And the podcasts themselves—at least the ones that break through to draw a large audience—are better than ever. No matter what your interests are, there’s probably a show just for you, whether it’s a retrospective commentary on every episode of The X-Files or interviews with obscure supporting actors or advice on your career in customer support. And if you can’t find the podcast of your dreams, there’s nothing stopping you from jumping in and making it yourself.

Of course, in reality, the universe of podcasting looks like most other forms of creative expression: a long tail with a few big blockbusters at one end and thousands of niche offerings at the other. Serial may rack up five million downloads on iTunes, but it’s the outlier of outliers, and efforts by media companies to create “the next Serial” have about as much a chance of succeeding as the looming attempt by movie studios to make the next American Sniper. Both are going to inspire a lot of imitators, but few, if any, are likely to recapture the intangible qualities that made either such a success. In the meantime, for most podcasters, the medium doesn’t make for a viable day job—which only means that it’s like every other medium ever. Its relative novelty and low barriers to entry make it alluring in the same way that blogging or self-publishing once were, but it doesn’t make doing it for a living any easier. It simply creates another long tail parallel to, or embedded within, the traditional one, with a handful of breakout hits holding out the promise of success for the rest. Getting in on the rightmost side of the curve has never been simpler, but making it to the left is as hard as ever.

The author's library, temporarily unshelved

This is part of the reason why I’ve never been attracted to self-publishing, which looks at first like a way of circumventing the gatekeepers who are keeping your book out of stores, but really only pushes the same set of challenges a little further down the line. And the long tail is as close to a constant as we’ll ever see in any creative field, no matter how the marketplace changes. (Or, to put it another way, distribution won’t change the distribution.) It exists for the same reason crack dealers are willing to work for less than minimum wage: lured in by the promise of outsized success or recognition, people will spend years slaving away in community theater or writing short stories for nothing, when a job that offered less enticing rewards would have lost their interest long ago. Going in, we’re all irrational optimists, and we’ll always be more likely to compare ourselves to the few famous names we recognize while ignoring the invisible tail end. On the individual level, it’s a flaw of reasoning, but it’s also essential for keeping the whole enterprise alive. Without that subterranean world of aspiring artists who are basically paying for the privilege of doing the work they love, nothing big would ever emerge.

And each part of the curve depends on every other. It’s often been said that blockbusters are what make the rest possible, whether it’s Buzzfeed financing serious journalism with listicles about cats or The Hunger Games enabling Lionsgate to release the twenty smaller movies it distributes each year. And it’s equally hard to imagine anyone trying to make art for a living without the psychological incentive that the outliers provide. Yet the long tail is also what props up the success stories, and not just for companies, like Amazon, that bake it into their business models. On a cultural level, art is a matter of statistics because its underlying factors are so unpredictable: a masterpiece or great popular entertainment is so unlikely to emerge out of pure calculation that we have no choice but to entrust it to chance and large numbers. The odds of a given work of art breaking out are so low that our best bet is to increase the pool of candidates, even if any individual player operates at a net loss. That may not be much consolation to the writer or podcaster whose sphere of concern is limited to his or her life. But that’s a long tale of its own.

Written by nevalalee

January 27, 2015 at 10:32 am

American box office

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Bradley Cooper in American Sniper

My online reading habits have shifted immeasurably over the past two decades, along with the nature of the web itself, but there are two sites that I’ve visited on a regular basis for at least fifteen years. The first is the New York Times. The other is Box Office Guru. This isn’t the slickest or most useful box office site around; Box Office Mojo is considerably more polished, with greater access to raw and adjusted numbers, and its commentary is a little more nuanced. The former site’s basic design hasn’t changed much since the days of Geocities, and its predictions are no more or less accurate than those of its peers. But I’m oddly fond of its voice, which tends to strike a balanced note between the killjoys at Box Office Mojo and the less critical coverage at other entertainment sites. Its founder, Gitesh Pandya, forecasts and analyzes returns with the air of an enthusiastic hobbyist who has absorbed just enough industry jargon—”laugher,” “kidpic,” “funnyman”—to be endearing without being grating, and I’ll sometimes go back to read his old columns just to relive memorable box office stories from the past. (“The upcoming holiday weekend activity, strong word of mouth, and award consideration should all contribute to a prolonged domestic run that could see Titanic reach $150 million.”)

You could argue, of course, that treating the weekly box office returns as a kind of horse race has had a damaging effect on the types of movies Hollywood is willing to make, which emphasize brands and franchises that generate gargantuan opening weekends rather than playing to steady audiences over time. Still, the media’s coverage of the results is more a symptom than a cause, and the structural reasons for placing so much weight on a movie’s initial performance—the studio’s cut of profits is greatest early on, with a larger percentage going to theaters as the run continues—would be there either way. What’s more amusing is how personally you can start to take numbers in which you have no stake whatsoever. Last summer, I kept checking to see if Edge of Tomorrow would creep past $100 million, and I was unreasonably cheered when it did, as well as chagrined whenever subsequent stories would casually refer to it as a flop. (When you factor in the international numbers, it did fine.) And whenever a movie exceeds or falls short of expectations to a dramatic degree, I read the ensuing think pieces as closely as if they were talking about my own finances. I probably have a better sense of the box office at any given moment than I do of my own checking account.

Chris Hemsworth in Blackhat

This past weekend brought two stories on opposite ends of the spectrum: the incredible performance of American Sniper and the resounding failure of Blackhat, both of which are movies I want to see. Blackhat’s failure to launch isn’t particularly surprising; Michael Mann is probably the weirdest director around who still qualifies, almost on a technicality, as a mainstream filmmaker, and the film’s release in the dumping ground of January was hardly a good sign. But it’s no exaggeration to say that American Sniper’s astonishing $100 million opening is the most unexpected story of its kind in more than ten years, or since The Passion of the Christ similarly blew past all predictions. Inevitably, we’ve seen a flood of analysis as to what happened: it’s because the movie had a great trailer, or got an awards bump, or saw widespread support from the heartland, or featured the right star, or came from a director whom audiences like and respect, or was brilliantly marketed, or appealed to patriotism, or was just an excellent movie with a good story. Yet one or more of these factors are true of multiple films each year, and few see this level of success. It’s a case, as Thomas Pynchon puts it, of all the delta-qs lining up just right. And the fact is that nobody really knows, at least not to the extent that it can be replicated—which isn’t to say that Hollywood can’t be expected to try.

The result is that American Sniper went from being the lowest-grossing Best Picture nominee to the highest in just two days—and we’re already living in a bizarro universe when the most commercially successful film in the bunch was briefly a movie by Wes Anderson. And maybe the only real takeaway is how far such numbers can be abstracted from any real meaning. A single movie won’t make or break a studio; they can certainly destroy individual careers, but any development executive is likely to get fired sooner or later, and when you stand back, the details start to blur. Hollywood accounting is so obscure that a blockbuster may never break even on paper, while a flop might actually make money, once you factor in the fees that the studio essentially pays to itself. Box office returns are fascinating because they feel like the place in which the risks involved in artistic production are exposed in their starkest form: the outcome of years of work on the part of hundreds of creative professionals is decided in the course of a day. Or so it seems. But if the judgments passed there feel permanent, time is the great leveler, here as everywhere else. A movie of enduring interest will survive for those to whom it really matters, and nobody cares if, say, The Godfather Part II was seen as a “disappointment.” And no one remembers the numbers. Except, maybe, for me.

Written by nevalalee

January 20, 2015 at 10:27 am

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