Did You Hear the One About The Long Tail?

In two days, Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail will be released in bookstores real and virtual everywhere.

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.

Today, a mere two days before the book release, we learn that Mr. Anti-Hollywood himself, Johnny Depp, has steered a mainstream ship called Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest into film history by shattering every record that Chris Anderson likely wishes would have held at this particular point in time.

POTC beat last year’s Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith for the largest one day take ever with a whopping $55.5 million on Friday.

POTC beat 2002’s Spider Man by $18 million for the biggest opening weekend ever with an incredible $132 million in estimated box office receipts.

Now, this really does nothing to discredit Mr. Anderson’s theory. Internet marketers have been mining niche markets long before there was a nice buzz phrase for it, and the importance of continuing to do so in the future is critical. And Anderson never said that hits would disappear — they’ll only come less frequently, and can no longer be manufactured.

I certainly agree with that, and thanks to Mr. Depp’s insistence (against the strong objections of the studio geniuses) that he play Captain Jack Sparrow as a slightly fey imitation of Keith Richards, he had a lot to do with creating that increasingly rare box office monster.

The real lesson here is that we love big stories; those with characters that often inexplicably connect with us. Even though many have pronounced the end of any type of collective consciousness due to the fragmentation of media, this particular phenomenon of humanity will not be extinguished by the Internet.

We love to relate to one another. Whether it be through niche affinity groups, or the rare occurrence of a piece of work — silly or substantial — that resonates with millions, we literally live to feel like we have a common understanding of reality with others.

There’s no doubt that you absolutely must speak to a well-defined niche audience in this day and age. Trying to tread carefully like the studio suits originally wanted Depp to do doesn’t work. But, sometimes, you can still hit that homerun without really trying, by simply being brave enough to buck convention.

Just tell big stories.

UPDATE: Chris Anderson comments on the success of POTC 2 here.

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Comments

  1. I think you have a stunning point there. We love big stories, and the more we talk about a smaller reality the more it ripples through the universe.

  2. Question.

    Can a big story be a small story?

    I mean, detail, seemingly mundane aspects of life, etc. Probably just a matter of taste on the audience’s part…

  3. That is a big story. Remember… left is right, and right is wrong. :)

  4. You dog…

  5. Not to quibble, but Revenge of the Sith had a better opening day in terms of dollars of revenue per exhibition screen. Neither your point nor mine proves anything with respect to Anderson’s argument. But if anyone scored a data point this weekend, it was Anderson: A hit from the past was bigger than the biggest hit this year. If we adjusted for inflation, half of Hollywood might defenestrate…

  6. Ok Greg, I won’t call that quibbling. :) Total weekend gross, even adjusted for inflation, makes POTC 2 the biggest opener of all time.

  7. > Total weekend gross, even adjusted for inflation, makes POTC 2 the biggest opener of all time.

    This is at least half wrong. Revenge of the Sith opened on 472 fewer screens. If its gross-per-screen is scaled up to the same number of screens as Pirates, it comes in at $56,460,913. You could argue that it might not have done as well on more screens (although it opened on a Thursday, not a Friday), but, at the same time, the population is by now marginally larger and presumably the per-head ticket price is somewhat higher. And yet again, if we take blockbusters from the past and adjust for population, available seats and inflation, it is reasonable to assume that one of those past movies would beat both Pirates and Sith. But, all of that notwithstanding, if the events of this week, this summer, and this epoch in movie-making history mean anything, they tend to support Anderson’s argument: Fewer big hits, big hits hitting less frequently, lower average grosses and many, many niche entertainment products — not all of them movies.

  8. I just got home from seeing POTC 2 and read your post. Strange cooincidence? Maybe. Me and hundreds of others were out seeing a fun, rediculous movie and having a good laugh. And tomorrow, I expect to receive my copy of The Long Tail in the mail which I pre-ordered some time ago. Some kind of convergence of something? I don’t know. I think even though the niche is alive and well, as you said, everyone enjoys a good story, even if you have to completely suspend belief and just revel in a good time. And look at the community it creates…all the people who can connect because they saw the same movie and enjoyed it. Ah, I ramble; it’s late.

  9. Greg, Revenge of the Sith is not the movie that was surpassed for total weekend gross — it was Spider Man in 2002 that held the previous record with $114 million in one weekend. POTC 2 beat Spider Man by $18 million.

    That’s an adjusted-for-screens-and-inflation ass kicking. I’m not sure what you are talking about?

    And if you read the post again, it says Anderson is right, despite POTC. The post is about stories, not numbers.

  10. Stuart,

    Thanks for explaining the long-tail. I heard the term thown around a lot but didn’t know what it meant.

    – Bryan
    http://www.BryanCFleming.com

  11. Using the theory of the long tail, I should try to cover as many niches as I can to increase my chances of a home run (see Denton) or make a wee profit off each of them, cutting the ones that lose money.

    The theory reminds me of the pitch used by guy who used to sell the newspaper ad idea: If you make only $1 per day profit from your ad and you put the same ad in 1,000 newspapers, you’ll make $1,000 per day.

    So what i get from the theory is you can get in the hall of fame by hitting homeruns or a whole lot of singles.

  12. Joseph, that’s exactly right. Everyone should be aiming for single after single. The cool thing is that sometimes they accidently go out of the park when you’re not really trying.

    The key is not to swing for the fence. The key is rather to always put yourself in the position to run all four bases by crafting stories designed from the get-go to strongly resonate with people.

    At a bare minimum, these stories connect strongly with your niche. And every once in a while…

  13. you’re great at what you do.
    a top of a niche.

    niche that is going main stream.

    so i predict you’ll be top mainstream inevitably.

    maybe there’s a new kind of pop.

    niche-pop.

    of which nick hornby has to be the superstar.

  14. As they: niche is the new mainstream.

  15. great site with good look and information…i like it