Sunday, 22 September 2013

Advance Book Review: Blockbusters by Anita Elberse

I am generally leery of books where the author posits a provocative wide-ranging thesis. Its probably largely Malcolm Gladwell's fault. So naturally I approached Anita Elberse's Blockbusters with some trepidation. She makes the claim that focusing on high-stakes major campaigns is essential to succeeding in today's entertainment industry and she employs a plethora of examples and research from movies, sports, books, music, and television to support her case. While it can be a bit dry at times, Blockbusters is a very informative and often fascinating examination of the current and future state of the entertainment industry and the increasing importance of tentpole products and campaigns.

Elberse is a professor at the Harvard Business School who understandably brings a wealth of knowledge regarding the industry. She also has experience researching topics such as the economic effects of the unbundling of songs from albums on the music industry (bad for record labels). Elberse  has built up quite an impressive list of contacts (she actually just co-wrote an article with Sir Alex Ferguson), which greatly enriches the book. Blockbusters is able to glean insights from major players such as Maria Sharapova's agent and Alan Horn, the former president of Warner Bros. Rather than speculating on the strategies behind campaigns, Elberse is able to pick the brains of decision makers.

The book's main concept is an intriguing and seemingly counter-intuitive approach to entertainment. Essentially, the strategy of hedging bets with a diverse portfolio of products is not the path to profitability for entertainment entities. They should instead promote a few projects and bet big on their success. Elberse illustrates this point with a huge amount of well-argued statements backed up by data and examples, often with commentary from major players. Her book is wide in scope and ranges from Youtube to major opera houses and Argentinian soccer, yet she manages to explore all subjects in considerable depth. She is also refreshingly objective, acknowledging the drawbacks and inherent risks of the blockbuster strategy and why smaller-scale projects are still valuable (largely to facilitate the continued success of blockbusters). She explains the impact of blockbusters on producers and stars, and her chapters on endorsement deals are especially enlightening. I really enjoyed learning about the rationale behind athletic sponsorships for star athletes, such as when Elberse describes how Lebron James weighed three endorsement deals with different compensation models and King James' thought process behind his decision. And as would probably be expected by a new book, Blockbusters explores how recent technological innovations such as original content on Netflix and YouTube and speculates how they will impact the blockbuster model in the future. 

Despite the author's academic background, her book is largely readable and suitable for mainstream audiences. Her target audience seems to be the kinds of people who are at least slightly interested in following entertainment trends in places like the Wall Street Journal and Economist. Some basic business knowledge would be nice to get the most out of Blockbusters but there are no complicated formulas or anything and she explains everything in a clear fashion that a layman can understand. She is more concerned with communicating the conclusions resulting from her complicated statistical analyses rather than how she derived them. While the epilogue looks at ways to apply her blockbuster thesis to other fields, this is (mercifully) not the kind of book with workshops every chapter detailing how to apply these lessons to your job. The book is meant to inform and entertain, and it largely succeeds on both counts.
At times Blockbusters reads like a case study, which is fine as far as imparting information goes but it doesn't always make for the most captivating reading material. Sometimes the book drags as she explains the nitty-gritty of particular financial details, but it is generally readable and many of the book's conclusions are fascinating. She is able to pack a ton of information and insight into the book and it improved my understanding of the entertainment business more than any other book. 

In Sum
Anyone interested in learning about the current state of the entertainment industry and how it is being affected by technological innovations will get a lot out of Blockbusters. Elberse is able to combine the expertise of an academic with the clarity and eloquence of a journalist. She definitely subscribes to a higher burden of proof than many other books based on supporting a major thesis but even if you remain unconvinced about the blockbuster strategy you can still derive quite a bit of enjoyment and knowledge out of the book. Blockbusters ultimately maintained my interest through most of its pages and is worth seeking out for those interested in the topic.


Full Disclosure: I received a free copy of the book as part of a giveaway. 

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