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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