Adele, Star Wars, and the Power of the Blockbuster

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By Bill Greenwood

Earlier in the year, Jaybird President Laurie Jakobsen wrote about Anita Elberse’s book “Blockbusters,” which explains how today’s digital economy has amplified big hits and realigned the overall entertainment industry to put an even bigger focus on superstars. And now, as we prepare to put 2015 in the books, we have been hit with two massive events that illustrate Elberse’s theory: the record-shattering releases of Adele’s new album, 25, and the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

According to Elberse, it is far more profitable for entertainment companies to throw most of their annual budgets behind a few giant projects that appeal to a mainstream audience rather than many smaller projects that appeal to various niches. In the case of Adele, Sony Music Entertainment certainly seems to have embraced this tenant. The marketing campaign surrounding the release was ubiquitous, with Adele’s single “Hello” being nearly inescapable, a plum performance slot on Saturday Night Live, a live concert special on NBC, and a slew of interviews with some of the biggest TV, print, and online outlets in the world. Even more interestingly, no tracks from the album other than “Hello” and an officially released live recording of “When We Were Young” made their way to YouTube, even after the record was officially released. This indicates that Sony had allocated significant resources to keeping the remaining tracks a secret, which in turn aided the marketing campaign in selling the full album.

Turning to Star Wars, it was nearly impossible to avoid the franchise in the lead-up to its release. Ever since it was announced that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm and intended to create a new trilogy, speculation about the film has run rampant. When the release date began approaching, Disney pulled out all the stops. Toys were released, TV commercials abounded, and the films’ actors and actresses appeared on nearly every major talk show around the globe. In addition, each trailer release became an event, with fans poring over the details, a fact not lost on the film’s promotional team, who incited wild speculation with their refusal to include images of Luke Skywalker in the trailers. However, very little of the film’s plot details were leaked to the press despite the rampant hunger for information, indicating that much like Adele, Disney expended considerable resources to keep the details of the movie quiet before its release.

It is this lack of leaks that intrigues me. The digital age had seemed to make exclusives irrelevant, as every track from an album would typically be uploaded online for free as soon as the record was released, if not sooner. Tidal learned this the hard way this very year, when exclusive videos it posted from Beyoncé, Rihanna, Madonna, and more were nearly instantly uploaded to YouTube. Likewise, many blockbuster films find their way to pirate sites shortly after release, if not weeks or months early. However, Adele’s 25 and Star Wars: The Force Awakens appear to indicate that leaks can be avoided if the companies behind them are willing to throw enough resources at keeping them behind closed doors. With this accomplished, marketing campaigns become much more effective.

So what does this mean for 2016? Well, major entertainment companies will likely throw even more money at an even smaller amount of potentially massive projects. But it seems like a large portion of that monetary equation will now go toward preserving the mystery of the works being promoted. This means that marketers may find themselves in the strange position of promoting a release by keeping it close to the vest, allowing an artist or film’s previous notoriety to do most of the work for you.

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