Michael Jackson and the Fat Middle

The big entertainment news on Wednesday night was that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences expanded the Oscars’ best-picture category to 10 nominees. That was obviously eclipsed by Thursday’s even bigger news that the King of Pop had died. These two events are connected.No, this is not a wacko conspiracy theory. Really. Let me explain.The major media’s business is to create blockbusters, and nothing defines blockbuster as succinctly as Michael Jackson’s 1983 album Thriller. By now you know, if you couldn’t have guessed before, that Thriller is the best-selling music album of all time, having sold a total of more than 100 million records and CDs. At the time it came out, Thriller dominated record sales like nothing before or since. placeAd2(commercialNode,’midarticleflex’,false,”);

In January 1984, about 13 months after the album was released, the New York Times reported that Thriller had sold 21 million copies in the United States. The second best-selling album of that year was Men at Work’s Business as Usual, which hit the top of the album charts at the end of 1982; it had a total of 6 million in sales. But January 1984 wasn’t the end of Thriller’s run. Driven by the release of Jackson’s epic music video, Thriller was also the top-selling album throughout 1984—the only album to hold the No. 1 U.S. spot for two years.

The dominance of Michael Jackson in music was paralleled at the beginning of the ‘80s by the dominance of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. and Raiders of the Lost Ark and George Lucas’ Star Wars sequels in the movies. The Empire Strikes Back (1980), E.T. (1982), and Return of the Jedi (1983) each sold (in the United States) more than twice as many tickets the year they were released as the No. 2 movie, and Raiders of the Lost Ark came very close to that mark in 1981.

Over the years, a lot of folks—some worried about how to sell movies and records, some worried about the state of the culture, some peering into the future of media—have seesawed back and forth about how much blockbusters like these will rule the culture business. The most influential best-seller of the 1990s on the subject was economist Robert H. Frank’s Winner Takes All Society, which argued that more and more of the spoils in every field would be concentrated among a few winners. On the other hand, more recently, Wired editor Chris Anderson, in The Long Tail, argued the opposite: that media was progressing toward an ever-growing “long tail” of niche interests.

Which brings us to the Oscars. From the vantage point of the early ‘80s, if you were trying to predict the future of music or movies, it is very likely you would have assumed that it would be dominated by a very few hitti di tutti hitti. You might well have bet with Robert Frank that each year, a single mega-hit would become more important.That bet, though, would have been wrong. As it happens, the early ‘80s were the apex of the mega-hit era. Thriller, of course, was the ultimate example. But the movies—whose box-office take you can easily chart over the years, thanks to Box Office Mojo—give you a deeper view. In 2008, The Dark Knight was the clear winner, with a total gross of $533 million in ticket sales, but the next two movies, Iron Man and the latest Indiana Jones installment, each did close to $320 million of business. In 2007, four movies ran almost neck and neck, each with a gross of more than $300 million; the top earner, Spider Man 3, was just a shade ahead of Shrek the Third. The single hit has given way to the multi-blockbuster summer.

This pattern holds generally true down the line: In 1982, only 19 other movies did a mere 10 percent of the business of E.T.; in 1983, only 27 movies had one-tenth the ticket sales of Return of the Jedi. Compare that with today: In 2006, 70 movies came in at 10 percent of the sales of the top grosser, Pirates of the Caribbean; in 2007, 78 movies hit that mark compared with Spider Man 3; and in 2008, 53 other movies had 10 percent of the sales of The Dark Knight. The falloff from the top to the rest hasn’t gotten steeper, as the winner-takes-all folks would predict, but more gradual.Look over this and you can see where the Motion Picture Academy is coming from. The common thinking is that the powers in Hollywood haven’t exactly been thrilled to see the awards dominated by smaller movies like Slumdog Millionaire and No Country for Old Men while Hollywood’s favorite children, such as The Dark Knight, go ignored. Clearly this is true. But it’s not only a question of the blockbusters versus the indies. It’s also a lot more movies—blockbusters fighting one another and mid-tier movies moving closer to the blockbuster ranks—clustering in the zone of Academy-worthiness.

You can think of that, if we have to coin a phrase (and everybody does, don’t they?), as the “fat middle.” Or maybe it’s somewhere above the middle. Call it the “bulging upper body” of cultural production. Or, if you want to use Chris Anderson’s head/tail distinction, the “swelling head.” You can go ahead and use any lingo you want. If you’re mathematically minded and want to talk curves, you can even say the “flat head.” The exact picture you draw of this will depend on cutting up a lot more data, but in general the mega-blockbusters of the early ‘80s have given way to a bigger clump of competitors jostling in the upper decks of hit, close-to-hits, could-be-hits, and near-hits.So does this mean that The Winner Take All Society is all wrong and The Long Tail is right? Well, not really. A few winners are not getting closer to taking all, but there could still be a sharp drop-off further down the economic ladder, lending some truth to some of Frank’s points about expanding inequality. And while the gap from first place to second and second to tenth and tenth to hundredth appears to have narrowed since the early ‘80s, supporting Anderson’s thesis, all the movement we’re looking at is still at the top of the ladder. The top ranks might be more crowded, but the growth in the fat upper-middle doesn’t guarantee that the tail is growing longer and fatter as well (though it does make it likely).

For cultural prognosticators, what might be interesting about the bulging upper body is that it shows there is plenty of room for cultural products—I hate saying “products” when I mean “movies, music, books, and the like,” but there’s no better word here—whose appeal is somewhat less than universal, but somewhat greater than niche-y. If you long for a time when we could all do the moonwalk together, this might feel daunting.But if you are a cultural grazer, it is not. The fat middle welcomes grazers: Everything in it is accessible; nothing is mandatory. This, to my mind, is a good thing. If it comes at the cost of there never being another Michael Jackson … well, one tragic King of Rock and Roll and one tragic King of Pop seems like all the subjects can handle. You’ll have all next week to bid goodbye to him and his cultural moment of the mega-hit. And if you need more time, never fear. Without a doubt, the Academy will find a way to shoehorn him into next year’s Oscars. Between all those best-picture clips in the era of the fat middle, there’s lots of room to fill at the show.Thanks to Box Office Mojo for movie ticket sales data.

Michael Jackson and the Fat Middle