The Wall Street Journal reports today on some interesting trends in the movie business. According to this article by Ben Fritz, a small number of blockbuster hits accounts for a higher fraction of total box office receipts than in past years. This year, the hits have included movies such as Finding Dory and Zootopia. Fritz writes, "Increasingly, success in the movie business requires being one of the handful of most popular movies that draw a disproportionate amount of attention on social media and in the cultural zeitgeist. This year’s five most popular films account for 30% of the total domestic box office. At the end of last year that figure was 22%, a record at the time. The inevitable result is a smaller pool of moviegoers left to see everything else."
Why the shift toward a larger share of revenue from the top movies of the year? Fritz wrote an earlier column that may offer some clues. In that piece, he noted that viewers tend to be getting their information from different sources these days. In the past, people watched Siskel and Ebert (and others like them), and those experts shaped their movie-going decisions. Today, people pay much more attention to what other viewers think. What is the movie's Rotten Tomatoes score? A bad score can doom a movie.
Is this shift an example of the power of the wisdom of crowds? Is it necessarily a good thing that we are using the crowd's wisdom to guide our movie-going decisions? Interestingly, some research points to the pitfalls of the wisdom of crowds. Jan Lorenz, Heiko Rauhut, Frank Schweitzer, and
Dirk Helbing have studied this issue through experimental research. They summarize their findings in the excerpt below:
This wisdom of crowd effect was recently supported by examples from stock markets, political elections, and quiz shows [Surowiecki J (2004)The Wisdom of Crowds]. In contrast, we demonstrate by experimental evidence (N = 144) that even mild social influence can undermine the wisdom of crowd effect in simple estimation tasks. In the experiment, subjects could reconsider their response to factual questions after having received average or full information of the responses of other subjects. We compare subjects’ convergence of estimates and improvements in accuracy over five consecutive estimation periods with a control condition, in which no information about others’ responses was provided. Although groups are initially “wise,” knowledge about estimates of others narrows the diversity of opinions to such an extent that it undermines the wisdom of crowd effect in three different ways.
Interestingly, one other shift seems to be occurring in Hollywood from the production standpoint. More than ever, studios appear to be relying on franchises, sequels, and reboots. Why is that happening? One could argue that the studios are trying to enhance the probability of achieving a strong box office by bringing familiar characters to the screen. That may be true to some extent, but there may be a limit to this positive impact. At some point, they may saturate theaters with reboots and sequels, and customers may desire more originality.