I attended two holiday  movies, Avatar and Up In the Air, both of which delivered the promised shock and awe but which on balance provoked in me a quiet despair. And this felt bad. So, I’m out of step. But there’s a great article, “A World of Hits,” in The Economist that chases my blues with the insight that, hey, such a reaction may be a small downside of living in a blessed wealthy mass-consuming Democracy—tyranny of the majority and all that—that rewards blockbuster movies and best-selling books.

An excerpt:

“Although you might expect people who seek out obscure products to derive more pleasure from their discoveries than those who simply trudge off to see the occasional blockbuster, the opposite is true. Tom Tan and Serguei Netessine of Wharton Business School have analysed reviews on Netflix, a popular American outfit that dispatches DVDs by post and asks subscribers to rate the films they have rented. They find that blockbusters get better ratings from the people who have watched them than more obscure ones do. Even the critically loathed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is awarded four stars out of five.

“Perhaps the best explanation of why this might be so was offered in 1963. In Formal Theories of Mass Behaviour, William McPhee noted that a disproportionate share of the audience for a hit was made up of people who consumed few products of that type. (Many other studies have since reached the same conclusion.) A lot of the people who read a bestselling novel, for example, do not read much other fiction. By contrast, the audience for an obscure novel is largely composed of people who read a lot. That means the least popular books are judged by people who have the highest standards, while the most popular are judged by people who literally do not know any better. An American who read just one book this year was disproportionately likely to have read The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown. He almost certainly liked it.

“This explains why bestselling books, or blockbuster films, occasionally seem to grow not just more quickly than products which are merely very popular, but also in a wholly different way. As a media product moves from the pool of frequent consumers into the ocean of occasional consumers, the prevailing attitude to it—what Hollywood folk call word of mouth—can become less critical. The hit is carried along by a wave of ill-informed goodwill.”

You can read the whole article here.


  • Interesting idea, that the scale is slanted depending on who’s viewing. My concept has been that most vacuous blockbusters are symptoms of LCD (lowest common denominator) thinking.

    Thanks for your comment on my post today (It Could Always Suck Worse). I was hesitant to put it up and appreciate your thoughts.

  • David says:

    thanks for tipping me off to the two movies and for your insights into why awful books and movies are so popular I’d never really thought about it, other than being depressed.
    . I’ve got the numbers wrong, but there are so many Americans that responses numbering in the millions are even meaningless. I heard once that something like hundreds of thousands, maybe a million or so, Americans believe we never went to the moon. Market a book or movie relentlessly and, sure, you get a best-seller.

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