In The Black Swan, Taleb originally explained Mediocristan and Extremistan to describe how many pundits, scholars, and participants had mistakenly believed that the finance industry followed a Gaussian distribution when it actually followed a Zipf-Mandelbrot power law.
Physical measurements in the world tend to have Gaussian distributions, “to live in Mediocristan,” but other domains, like finance, follow power laws, and “live in Extremistan.” In Mediocristan, the average weight of 100 random Americans won’t change much by adding the heaviest American into the sample as the 101st observation. Conversely, in Extremistan, the average income of 100 random Americans would change drastically by adding Bill Gates into the sample as the 101st observation.
Although it’s not commonly understood or discussed, Hollywood also lives in Extremistan. Successful studios, production companies, and freelancers all adopt barbell strategies.
In financial investing, a barbell strategy is a strategy in which an investor places a majority of the portfolio, maybe 90% to 95%, into extremely non-volatile assets like T-bills, CDs, cash, etc., and a minority of the portfolio, maybe 5% to 10%, into highly risky assets like stocks, venture capital, or futures.
In the financial domain, Taleb advocates for the barbell as a way of dealing with Black Swans–unexpected yet highly impactful events–by both hedging against negative Black Swans and profiting from positive Black Swans. In an extreme barbell strategy, the non-volatile majority of the portfolio might sustain small and steady losses in a bull market because T-bills wouldn’t beat the rate of inflation. T-bills are also insulated from recessions and will outperform bear markets. In both bear and bull markets however, some of the assets in the risky, volatile portion of the portfolio will sustain losses, but such losses are bounded and acceptable. The upside on the risky assets is effectively unbounded, so the highly profitable bets cover the losses for the rest of the portfolio.
What does all this mean for Hollywood? The barbell strategy is widespread.
It’s very typical in Hollywood for client work to serve as bread and butter. Invoicing for client work is usually fee-for-service, and filmmakers don’t expect, require, or depend on any particular clients’ product enjoying runaway success.
Specialists in Hollywood are creatives though, and join the industry because they love creating. The scrounge, toil, and pull favors to make their passion projects, some of which do enjoy runaway success.
Hollywood lives in Extremistan because the physical inputs–development, pre-production, production, post-production, and marketing and distribution–are only very tenuously related to the outputs–tickets, views, à la carte VOD purchases, subscribers to subscription VOD services, etc.
Even though Hollywood’s finances are severely obfuscated, assume that the Pareto principle is in play, that 20% of films and shows generate 80% of the revenue. Matthew Ball and Prashob Menon explain that revenue has been stagnant and fragmentation of the industry has intensified.
In Vanity Fair, Nick Bilton explains how the inefficient Gaussian aspects of the industry are about to get squeezed. Silicon Valley is about to make Extremistan even more extreme.
One economic explanation of why brands proliferate is that brands provide consumers consistency of product. A classic illustration is a national restaurant chain. A traveler who’s passing through an unfamiliar town doesn’t know local restaurants, and the variance in quality among the mom-and-pop shops is high. Even though the quality of a chain might not be the highest in any given town, a risk averse consumer might prefer eating an average meal at a chain, rather than risking a low-quality meal at a mom-and-pop shop.
In Hollywood, it’s exceedingly difficult and rare for film studios to establish such consistency across their different marquee offerings. There are some mechanisms for doing so: moviegoers will often select films based on specific directors or actors. For more formulaic movies, sequels provide consistency for established demographics.
In the past decade, television has exploded with a vast amount of content. John Landgraf, the CEO of FX, has even worried that there is too much television. There’s more dreck, like reality television, but there is also more high production value television. Such high production value television competes with 2-hour theatrical feature films.
Story arcs are fractals. An audience will follow characters in a good story through a not only a 2-hour film, but also through a 12-episode television season, a single 45-minute television episode, or even just a 2-minute scene.
What does this mean for television? Filmic shows might contain long story arcs that follow characters across six seasons, but episodes often function as standalone short films. Episodes of The Walking Dead in later seasons often have self-contained, coherent stories that can draw in new viewers without requiring that they watch earlier seasons. Characters come and go from season to season. No additional context is required. This is a highly successful mechanism to actually create a consistent product across tens and tens of hours of entertainment content. This is more successful branding than any traditional movie studio could hope for, even one that specializes in zombie horror.
Subscription-based VOD services like HBO, Netflix, and Amazon, through their original content, have been able to establish brands in a way that film studios never quite could. Sophisticated audiences understand what it means for a show to be “an HBO show” or “a Netflix original.”
Is the brand loyalty to these subscription-based VOD services merely an artifact of their captive audiences? Subscribers who have already opted into particular subscriptions might actually be receptive to mere feature-length films, and not just entire television seasons. Economies of scale nudge subscription-based VOD services toward the production of entire television seasons rather than two-hour films, because consumers who have opted into a subscription want the most bang for their buck. There are exceptions, however—the Netflix feature film “Beasts of No Nation,” HBO documentaries like “Going Clear,” or even just shorter miniseries like “Oliver Kitteridge,” “Angels in America,” et cetera. Perhaps, insomuch as content producers own distribution channels, they can maintain attractive brands for their subscribers.