Of long tails and fat middles: plenitude and the production of contemporary markets


Francois Truffaut defined a great movie as a perfect blend of truth and spectacle. Now it’s become bifurcated. Studio films are all spectacle and no truth, and independent films are all truth and no spectacle. (Howard Franklin, reference below)

At first glimpse, it looks like Franklin is describing the "death valley" formation we have discussed before on this blog.

The death valley problem, briefly:

Big companies are flourishing. Small companies are flourishing. It’s the one in between who struggle. Big companies have marketing muscle. They survive by bending the world to their will. Small companies are nimble. They survive by adapting to the world’s dynamism. In between we see a "death valley" filled with mid-size companies too small to bend the world, too big to adapt to it. (We could call this the "sour" spot.) (I thank Scott Miller for telling me about the death valley problem.)

Looking at Franklin’s remark, I wondered whether the death valley model is the right way to think about this problem. It may not be a question of size, and the benefits conferred by large vs. small. No, this may be a problem of plenitude. It may be that plenitude is creating bigness as much as it is creating smallness. 

As the consumer becomes more fragmented and multiple, the "block buster" must achieve new degrees of generality to appeal across these new differences. It must become ever more spectacular. Now, only big studios can play. Morgenstern (below) notes that there are six big players left: Fox, Warner, Universal, Paramount, Disney and Sony. Only big budgets will work. Morgenstern says the average feature film costs $98 million to make and market.

The block buster may once have been driven by mass markets and the "dumbing down" of popular culture. (The intellectual’s favorite explanation.) But now blockbusters are being created by blocks busted, by the rise of tiny cultures and subcultures into which consumer taste is now fragmenting. Or, to put this another way, the thing that is driving the little companies, the ones that seek for truth, is also the thing that is driving the big companies, the ones that trade in spectacle. Plenitude is creating not just a long tail. It is also creating a very fat middle.

We understand pretty well how plenitude creates itself. Finer distinctions beget more intensive segments. But Truffant’s distinction between truth and spectacle is useful here. To speak to more finely defined markets, the independent film maker must speak a finer, more intensive truth. The more narrow and deep is this truth, the more likely will proximate audiences will find it uninteresting. The more intensive the truth, the less likely will an indie picture find a large audience. It had better hope so to capture as many occupants of the segment as possible if it is to have any hope of success. For some segments, the very idea of "cross over" is in jeopardy.

What a culture! At one end, we may look forward to spectacle that must be all big name stars and very special effects. Nothing less than $100 million dollars will get the job done. Only movies that really are spectacle: violations of our sense of scale and proportion will speak to all of us. (I guess this is still shared.) (Is this why Tim Burton continues to flourish against all the odds? His films violate scale and proportion, whatever else they do or do not do.)

At the other, little films that may now be as particular as a novel. Little films that must be as particular as a novel. A world of film makers who are content to live the lives of novelists. No more huge paydays. No more award ceremonies watched by millions. The rewards will have to be intrinsic because, well, you just better like what you do. We may not be making much more. And this in turn, the plenitude effect again, means that the film maker may forsake spectacle and the Truffautian bargain. Sure, every so often, someone will make a City of God or a My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But these are going to be as rare as block busters with artistic credibility.

Tomorrow I am at the Corante Social Architecture meeting in Cambridge.  If you’re there, let’s catch up!


Howard Franklin in Morgenstern, Joe. 2005. Hollywood’s Gambling Problem. Wall Street Journal. November 12, 2005, p. P13.

McCracken, Grant. Plenitude. 2006. Plenitude. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

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