May 27, 2005

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Films' Long Tail Is Coming

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Just like it has been happening for books and music, independent producers of films and videos are going to witness the greatest opportunity ever to hit their hopeless dreams: the long tail of films is here.

Photo credit: Yahoo Movie Recommendations (c)

The Long Tail is a concept first described by Chris Anderson, chief editor of Wired, in a wonderful article by the same name which appeared in the October 2004 issue of the magazine.

In an extremely well-documented analysis Chris Anderson, documented how fundamental changes in the entertainment marketplaces gave way to a completely new market paradigm, one in which savvy online distributors leveraging appropriate new media technologies are now making the largest share of their profit not from selling best-sellers and popular hits but from the extended range of little-known titles, which nonetheless have markets of few hundreds or few thousand buyers, comprise hundreds of thousands of titles.

In good substance, the new online distribution services from Amazon to iTunes, Rhapsody have already proved that their economic profit is not created anymore by carrying and selling the blockbusters and the most popular tracks: the great profit is in the long tail. That vast number of unpopular, often non-commercial, niche books and music CDs which have proven to have solid, quantifiable small audiences willing to pay for what they like and not for what is promoted as popular.
The vision of the long tail entails that an increasingly greater number of digital content authors, from book writers to independent musicians will soon realize that the race to be a star is finally over. There is no need to be one, to make a living while expressing and sharing your creative talent.

The long tail ushers an era in which content authors will not search anymore for a market of a million readers or listeners but for a million markets of ones.

And if the long tail concept has proven to reflect the reality of online book and music distribution clearinghouses why shouldn't the same concept apply to films too?

The latest announcement from Yahoo and Amazon seem to confirm that indeed the film industry long tail, is just about to start wagging its own dog: Hollywood.

What is happening?

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What Chris Anderson synthesized and brought to light with extreme clarity and supporting data is a phenomenon sparked by two key technology enablers which have allowed something previously not possible in our physical reality.

New media technologies and the Internet have reverted the scarcity paradigm governing access to entertainment.


Yes scarcity: take music for example. Scarcity of shelves in a music store to carry old tracks, little known artists, independent labels, and anything else that does not have immediate appeal due to its name or popularity. Scarcity of time to listen and explore all that is not known. Scarcity of information about the music contained in each CD; unless you open it and listen to it there are no means to gauge whether its contents may meet your taste.

But when the music store becomes virtual, lots of things suddenly change, transforming what before was sold as a scarce resource into an unlimited supply of choices, supported by some smart and effective means to find and get at them.

But what is it that makes that difference so important?

Here are the key elements:

1) True unlimited choice.

2) Smart search facilities.

3) User reviews.

4) Real-time information about buying patterns.

5) Reputation and affinity engines.

1) True unlimited choice. You don't have to go with what can be fit on the available shelves (be it books or music the same applies to both). Your preferred music store can now carry all authors and titles that have ever been produced, including those out of print, and those rare ones you can only find on supposedly illegal P2P file sharing channels.

2) Smart search facilities. If you can search by genre, style, content type, language, keywords or by similar titles you are going to find a lot more stuff than if you walked for hours with your eyes glued to the shelves inside a physical bookstore or music shop.

3) User reviews. You can read what other readers and listeners have written about any title, why they liked and why they didn't. Yes, this system is moderately spammable and there is space for fake reviews, but there is no way to stop legitimate readers/listeners to also post their honest comments. That is generally sufficient to keep reviews in good balance and useful to the reader. What is most interesting about reviews, is that they can also point and direct to other relevant books which one may have not considered before. This is exactly what happened to Touching the Void:

"In 1988, a British mountain climber named Joe Simpson wrote a book called Touching the Void, a harrowing account of near death in the Peruvian Andes. It got good reviews but, only a modest success, it was soon forgotten.

Then, a decade later, a strange thing happened. Jon Krakauer wrote Into Thin Air, another book about a mountain-climbing tragedy, which became a publishing sensation. Suddenly Touching the Void started to sell again.

Random House rushed out a new edition to keep up with demand. Booksellers began to promote it next to their Into Thin Air displays, and sales rose further. A revised paperback edition, which came out in January, spent 14 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. That same month, IFC Films released a docudrama of the story to critical acclaim.

Now Touching the Void outsells Into Thin Air more than two to one.

What happened?

In short, recommendations. The online bookseller's software noted patterns in buying behavior and suggested that readers who liked Into Thin Air would also like Touching the Void. People took the suggestion, agreed wholeheartedly, wrote rhapsodic reviews. More sales, more algorithm-fueled recommendations, and the positive feedback loop kicked in.

Particularly notable is that when Krakauer's book hit shelves, Simpson's was nearly out of print. A few years ago, readers of Krakauer would never even have learned about Simpson's book - and if they had, they wouldn't have been able to find it. Amazon changed that. It created the Touching the Void phenomenon by combining infinite shelf space with real-time information about buying trends and public opinion. The result: rising demand for an obscure book."

(Source: The Long Tail)

4) Real-time information about buying patterns. If you can see what others choose in real-time, without censorship and with the ability to look at such trends over time you can get a much more credible pulse of any title by just looking at buying data over time. A trendline showing a spike at the beginning and then a constant decrease would indicate a low-quality product with some effective marketing-spinned sales affecting its launch, and so on.

5) Reputation and affinity engines. As Amazon has successfully pioneered, the use of reputation, affinity and recommendation engines which based on other user choices can automatically recommend possible titles that may the buyer taste has proven to an extremely powerful marketing mechanism. "Customers who bought this item also bought" says the Amazon title introducing a short list of alternative options to any book you select.

"People are going deep into the catalog, down the long, long list of available titles, far past what's available at Blockbuster Video, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble.

And the more they find, the more they like.

As they wander further from the beaten path, they discover their taste is not as mainstream as they thought (or as they had been led to believe by marketing, a lack of alternatives, and a hit-driven culture)."

Not only, they now take pride in their discoveries. Because what they listen to, is now kind of "theirs", it is not just the hit everyone knows about.

Finding and discovering your music by way of easily exploring other people tastes, recommendations and affinity lists allows many to really find the music they like and not the 50 songs on the playlist of most commercial radios that week.

"Hey! Come and listen to what i have got here!" This is the type of thing you will hear more and more from people who are not DJs. It is the excitement and joy of having unearthed something unique, rare-to-find and unexploited by the masses. What a thrill to find it, listen to it and share it with others who like your style too.

Can you see now?

Can you catch the view?

And if all of the above applies to books and music, shouldn't it apply also to movies?

The moment that you can access a full catalog of all movies and TV shows, where you can search the exact content you want, while helped by visual search facilities, user recommendations, reviews and affinity suggestions, do you think everyone is going to keep watching those Hollywood unwatchable multi-million dollars "blockbusters"?

Of course not.

Nor this is going to kill Hollywood and the tradition of the theatrical film as we know it, but it opens up an enormous space to new, less known title and producers of movies that would have had otherwise no venue to participate and make their work known.

Five or ten years ago how many opportunities would you have had to easily see a set of short quality independent movies like these?

Not many.

Start considering this then. If the Internet and new smart entrepreneurs start providing unlimited bandwidth and storage space for you to publish and access any content you like (which is already happening in a big way with faster and faster broadband connections and with services like Ourmedia, Internet Archive, Open Media Network, Prodigem and many others), will you still need to go and see a movie at a specific location and time? Will you need to go and get a physical DVD to bring it home and see it?

Once cheap large plasma displays decorate or are built-in into your apartment walls, what's the left advantage of going to a theater to see a movie?


All the advantages are now on my side: Time and day of the showing, who gets invited to see it, perfect sound, perfect snacks and drinks, and even the option to review key scenes to discuss them with friends at the end of the show.

This is what I see.

Enormous opportunities for independent movie producers, documentarists, video makers and reporters of all kinds. Anyone of them now can have a multiplicity of markets and tiny audiences to serve.

Once you erase the prohibitive costs of converting video to film ($ 30-50,000), of doing Dolby-certified soundtrack ($ 5-7,000), or of making multiple master copies to send out to film festivals around the world, independents can start to make a profit.

All the while everyone else could easily start enjoying a long tail of choice and diversity that could have not been easily imagined.

To start seeing the future of the long tail of films go to the newly launched Yahoo Movie Recommendations, and get a glimpse of it coming.

The films' long tail is coming, and you can be a part of it.

If you are a would-be producer of this new long-tail era, cool now your excited spirit by watching an introductory clip to how to create your first short film.

What do you think?

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Readers' Comments    
2005-05-28 13:04:12

John Evans

Chris Anderson's article is seminal and amazingly insightful. Good to see the argument being carried forward into film. Big media is rapidly downsizing to widely-distributed personal media. The old categories of writer, producer, publisher are disappearing before our eyes, while H.G. Wells's "originative intellectual worker" is emerging. We'd better be on our toes!

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posted by Robin Good on Friday, May 27 2005, updated on Wednesday, August 15 2007





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