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'Blockbusters': Go Big Or Go Home, Says Harvard Professor

Movies like The Dark Knight or the Harry Potter series are touted as blockbusters — big-budget spectacles sure to make box office bank.

And though wannabe blockbusters can — and do — flop, like the $120 million disappointment Speed Racer, big budget is still the way to go, according to Harvard Business School professor Anita Elberse.

She's just written a book called Blockbusters: Hit-making, Risk-taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment — and she says the title doesn't just apply to movies. "It is identified a lot with movies," she tells NPR's Renee Montagne, "but I use the term more broadly to describe big bets in the world of entertainment, whether it's film, television, book publishing or music, or a range of other industries."

Interview Highlights

What makes a blockbuster?

The core idea in the book is that [of] a blockbuster strategy — so a strategy in which a company, a content producer ... spends a disproportionate amount of their budget on just a select few of the most likely winners, that that blockbuster strategy, that that is actually the surest path to success.

On her case study of Lady Gaga and Born This Way

What a case study entails is me having access to everyone around Lady Gaga, and actually in fact Lady Gaga herself, and being able to ask questions.

And what I found is that they are well-aware that it's necessary for them to embrace risk, and to go as big as possible ... they realized, we have to go so big that this is not even something the record label can pay for. What we need to do is get a whole bunch of partners. And they partnered up with Best Buy, with Zynga, with Gilt Groupe, with Starbucks, with a whole bunch of players that would make the launch even bigger than what a record label could do.

Anita Elberse is the Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. <em>Blockbusters</em> is her first book.
/ February Partners
February Partners
Anita Elberse is the Lincoln Filene Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. Blockbusters is her first book.

On whether all that marketing and money really make a blockbuster

In many ways, these are self-fulfilling prophecies. What you get when you put all your resources behind a product, is you get everyone to join in. If you are championing a product, your salespeople will follow and say: Wow, this is really going to be great; we need to support this too. Your retailers are going to join in and say: This is going to be the greatest book that anyone has ever seen, or this is going to be the biggest movie of the season ... If you swing for the fences, lots of people will come and support you.

It's not the only reason why they're so successful, though — we also see marketing advantages; it's much more cost-efficient. If you double the production budget for your movie, you're not necessarily doubling the advertising budget. So in a way it's relatively inexpensive to market these movies.

On the effect of blockbusters on creativity

What we're really seeing is those sure bets are, those sure hits are paying for all these other products. To give you an example, we wouldn't have had Gravity ... and that's a $100 million movie, which is a really, really risky bet for the studio — they wouldn't have made that movie, it's not a tentpole movie, it's not a blockbuster bet — they wouldn't have made that movie if it weren't for all the successes that they had in the past decade at Warner Bros., with the Harry Potters and with the Terminators, and with Inception and with many other films.

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NPR Staff