In the preface to The Hollywood Economist, Edward Jay Epstein tells the story of why newspapers still report box office numbers. The journalists who put them together are well aware that ticket receipts make up just a small fraction of the average movie’s revenue. They know, for example, that the numbers are highly relative—different movies have different splits with different theater chains and distributors and even then, studios rarely take home anything over 40% of the money earned theatrically. Not to mention that domestic and international gross, which although conveniently rolled into one, don’t go into the same coffers. They know that the results are juiced by p&a spend, but still get compared head to head with movies that didn’t have any.
Yet newspapers continue to report what are little more than bragging rights. Why?
The answer is that newspapers can only report on what is happening right now. By the time the other revenue streams trickle in—ones that studios are reluctant to disclose—nobody cares how much money a movie made. Not only that, but movies contribute millions of dollars in newspapers advertising and an immediate scorecard is nice fodder for next week’s ad copy. #1 Movie in America, etc.
So what seems like cluelessness is actually very logical. Newspapers are responding perfectly to the incentives that the inclinations of their readers and the industry converge to create. And for the most part, any effort to ‘fix’ this anachronism would fail unless it changes the root cause of the issue – which in this case is an innate feature of the human attention span.
Many things are like this. What seems like an easily resolved inefficiency is actually a deeply rooted, consistent response to the conditions of the market. You just have to be humble and open minded enough to spot these native operative paradigms. To understand why people behave this way, the assumptions need to be traced back to their founding sources. Not only for the sake of sympathizing with the culture, but to figure out what can be changed and what can’t.
Unfortunately, this is why bloggers analysis fails so spectacularly. As outsiders, they’re cut off from the peculiarities of the terrain – and they are too foolish and self-absorbed to to bother finding it out for themselves.
It’s easy to learn enough about an industry to know that, say, the box office numbers don’t tell you much. Pointing it out isn’t helpful. What’s difficult is to develop a wide and empathetic understanding of the sources that created these conditions. This is the position that makes change or action possible. Because the solution will not be obvious. It will not be an “aha!” moment. And if you feel like you have one, you’re probably still in the easy phase.
Bravo, Ryan. I think you captured well the reason why experts who take time with a subject are still very much needed, even with the fast pace of the blogosphere.
I read an article not too long ago written way back in the 1930’s by a famous writer (I think it was Willa Cather) who was complaining that the wide use of the typewriter was producing loads of awful novels. She called these novels “of the stenographer’s school”, i.e. they didn’t involve much thought or reflection–they were just “pounded out”. I shudder to think what she would have made of today’s world.
Keep up the thoughtful writing, sir.
About a year ago the Chicago Reader stopped listing movie times in print. Myself and many others were upset by this… Not having movie times on my phone or Internet on my phone, it was one of the reasons I picked up the paper.
Movie advertising and Hollywood box office reported numbers are always interesting to read about, just like how real estate listings of who sold and bought are interesting. Statistical reporting is just as fascinating as niche blogging and there is a need for it.
Another revenue stream in addition to movie ads that is greatly hurting newspapers are employment ads and automotive, as a big bulk of both ad budgets have transferred online and into niche sites like monster, careerbuilder and cars.com rather than to the newspapers.
Also, while I was hoping that advertising for video games (they’re kind of like the new Hollywood, there’s lots of reporting on how many people buy the latest RPG games etc.) would be in newspapers, you don’t see those as much as the target market for video games doesn’t read newspapers.
In regards to the Willa Cather quote, there was an article in this week’s or last week’s NYT Sunday magazine about the explosion of self published novels, or put out by what what used to be called vanity presses 20 years ago. There used to be a stigma associated with vanity presses, alas no more… Growing up I had a lot of random poetry published in small press journals, and I was always paid for it. If I got a letter for a ‘world book of poetry’ or an anthology that required payment I’d throw it out.
I was just on a sales appointment last week with this man that told me he wrote a book. I said my usually “Wow, that’s cool!” It was clearly self published and while it’s in the backseat of my car at the moment I could quote some choice passages.. but I won’t, because that’s snotty. In the NYT article it noted that only 1% of self published novels actually hit it big or go mainstream. My feeling is that is this weirdo man or others enjoy the process of writing, than what does it matter if they ate a big part of the fabric that make’s up “today’s world?”
Print on demand and the ability for printers to print as many or as little copies of a novel is what is killing traditional publishing and bringing on the self publishers. Book advances are getting larger for a select few, but there are no huge print runs anymore. Or profits.
“Unfortunately, this is why bloggers analysis fails so spectacularly. As outsiders, they’re cut off from the peculiarities of the terrain – and they are too foolish and self-absorbed to to bother finding it out for themselves.”
Did you catch the wisp of irony that emanated from your keyboard when you wrote that?
In the sense that I write almost exclusively about things I know intimately, no.
At the ripe old age of 21, what, exactly is it that you know intimately?
The economics of the movie industry? You’re a visionary who sees the “big picture,” right?
Benver, I hope you understood I was using someone else’s insight as an analogy for a point I have come to realize myself. I certainly ever try to pass Epstein’s analysis off as my own.
Benver burned you, Ryan.