October 18, 2013

The Rise of the Blockbuster

Anita Elberse of Harvard Business School says our tastes are converging on blockbuster hits and the biggest stars. Credit: Watch Movies Online For Free / Flickr Creative Commons

Guests:

Do you ever wonder why so many movies now have a number at the end? Superman 3, Batman 5, Fast and Furious 1, 2, 3, 4...(we could go on.) Anita Elberse, professor at Harvard Business School, certainly did. In her new book, Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, Elberse argues that, despite living in a world with more media sources and entertainment options than ever, our tastes are converging on the flashiest blockbuster hits and the biggest superstars.

Elberse examines the example of Alan Horn, chairman of Walt Disney Studios who oversaw Warner Bros.'s wildly popular Harry Potter and Batman series. Horn had what seemed to be a counterintuitive idea: instead of spending studio money on lots of different films, giving the viewers choices, he funneled money into a small handful of "blockbuster" movies with big stars. It worked. Horn's strategy was wildly successful, and this success has inspired more and more entertainment executives to swing for the fences and go all in on products guaranteed to make a profit, rather than taking risks on more under-the-radar films.

The result? Though many believed that having a plethora of media sources available would lead to more niche products, that hasn't quite been the case. In fact, as Elberse puts it: "In fact, what is happening is the exact opposite."

Jay-Z performing in concert.

Music superstars like Jay-Z have also adopted the blockbuster approach, says Elberse. Credit: musicallies / Flickr Creative Commons

 But the "blockbuster effect" doesn't just impact the big screen. When rapper Jay-Z released his memoir Decoded, for example, he partnered with software giant Microsoft for a promotional blitz. One of the most creative parts of the campaign was an elaborate scavenger hunt, with pages from the book hidden in bus shelters, on the bottom of pools, and in the lining of Gucci jackets - all with the intention of pushing Jay-Z's fans to Microsoft's search engine Bing to uncover the clues.

How do megastars like Jay-Z and brands like Microsoft benefit from these partnerships? Before Decoded, Microsoft found that Bing was used primarily by women in the Midwest -- and, as Elberse jokes, "if you're thinking about trying to get a cool product favored by folks who are into technology, that isn't quite the demographic you'd like to serve."  Jay-Z's image was an opportunity to introduce their brand to a younger audience.

Jay-Z meets with endorsement partner Bill Gates of Microsoft.

Jay-Z and Bill Gates: strange bedfellows? Maybe not, says Elberse. Credit: niallkennedy / Flickr Creative Commons

 Jay-Z, on the other hand, was facing a problem encountered by many first-time authors: limited funds available from the publisher to promote his book. In exchange for using his image, Microsoft was happy to step in. "That's why we see more of these partnerships," Elberse explains. "It's either to solve a marketing problem - I can't get through to these consumers, or it is to solve a distribution problem."

To hear more from Anita Elberse on the future of entertainment - including singer Lady Gaga's marketing genius and how stars outside the world of entertainment have started adopting the "blockbuster" approach - tune in to our full interview above.

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