In Hollywood, movies live and die on their opening weekend. A director who earns the studio’s money back in two days will go on to make another film. A director who doesn’t, doesn’t.
This sounds like a solid (if harsh) way to do business, but the truth is that it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Today, we have streaming video, second run theaters, Redbox, Netflix, DVD and Bluray, premium cable, satellite, and a several more channels by which a movie might earn its budget back. Film producer Roger Corman’s autobiography is entitled How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime, and yet, his classic Civil Rights era film, Shame, did lose money in theaters, but earned it all back over the years as it became a cult hit.
Ideally, a movie debuts to a strong opening and remains a good earner long after it’s left theaters. A film like Terminator 2 was the film event the year it came out, but far from being a flash in the pan, its heartfelt story and stunning action pieces remain interesting today, and it’s hard to find a DVD or Bluray collection that doesn’t include one of its many special edition re-releases. Contrast this with, say, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, which looked fantastic with its all-CGI backdrops at the time, and today is a forgotten showcase of outdated effects work.
If you aim for the long tail, you might not always have a strong opening, you might not go viral and hit a million reads in the first week, but when your content aims to cash in on trends, it ceases to be relevant the minute it’s released to the public. You might hit a million readers by focusing on whatever Kanye West did last week, but if you don’t get those million readers before the story has left the headlines, you never will. Trendy content, the day after it’s released, is yesterday’s weather report.
The strongest business marketing ideas are those that don’t rely on trends, they’re not built on the quicksand of flash-in-the-pan zeitgeists and controversy-of-the-week controversy, but on a message, a subject, a theme or an idea that may not be a trending Twitter hashtag, but which has remained relevant in the past and will remain relevant into the future.
A book that we cannot recommend highly enough: The Long Tail, by Chris Anderson. The very fact that we just mentioned that book nearly ten years after its release is an example of the long tail in action. When The Long Tail was released in 2006, it did not make Amazon’s top ten list, but a 2003 book, The Kite Runner, did, owing to the impending release of its film adaptation.
Planning for long tail success may seem tricky, because it comes down to waiting for the right things to happen, waiting for shifts in culture and technology, waiting for the right events to take place, but the science of creating long tail-capable content is easy: write about something that will still be important tomorrow.
Gilbert S lives and works in rural New Mexico with his rat terrier, Kay.