INCREASING RETURNS

It’s a hits game for everyone.

In the network economy the winner-take-all behavior of Hollywood hit movies will become the norm for most products–even bulky manufactured items. Oil wells are financed this way now; a few big gushers pay for the many dry wells. You try a whole bunch of ideas with no foreknowledge of which ones will work. Your only certainty is that each idea will either soar or flop, with little in between. A few high-scoring hits have to pay for all the many flops. This lotterylike economic model is an anathema to industrialists, but that’s how network economies work. There is much to learn from long-term survivors in existing hits-oriented business (such as music and books). They know you need to keep trying lots of things and that you don’t try to predict the hits, because you can’t.

Two economists proved that hits–at least in show biz–were unpredictable. They plotted sales of first-run movies between May 1985 and January 1986 and discovered that “the only reliable predictor of a film’s box office was its performance the previous week. Nothing else seemed to matter–not the genre of the film, not its cast, not its budget.” The higher it was last week, the more likely it will be high this week–an increasing returns loop fed by word of mouth recommendations. The economists, Art De Vany and David Walls, claim these results mirror a heavy duty physics equation known as the Bose-Einstein distribution. The fact that the only variable that influenced the result was the result from the week before, means, they say, that “the film industry is a complex adaptive system poised between order and chaos.” In other words, it follows the logic of the net: increasing returns and persistent disequilibrium.

 

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-- KK