Books and Movies… Never the Twain

While movies often are inspired by a book, and once in a great while a book is written based on a movie, they’re very different creatures. Now this is clearly obvious on the surface, but the implications go far beyond the easily apparent.

For one thing, there are far fewer movies released each year than books. I won’t even try to get into all the figures, but some comparisons are indicative. There might be twenty F&SF-related movies released in one year, and less than a handful in an off year, but according to the latest Locus survey, over 1,600 new F&SF titles were released in 2008, and that total was down slightly from 2007. Major studios release somewhere between a hundred and a hundred-fifty “significant” pictures, those with production and marketing budgets over $100 million, and perhaps another three hundred “lesser” films every year, compared to 50,000 new fiction book titles released every year.

Then there’s the complexity. Most movies have a plot line that’s the equivalent of either a short story or a very simple graphic novel. Books range from age-two cardboard picture books to the incredibly complex multi-volume series.

Movies, obviously, are visual, and that means that no visualization or imagination is required of the audience, unlike a book, which requires far more effort on the part of the reader. What’s more interesting is that the growth of CGI and other special effects has further reduced the “imagination quotient” of movies. In turn, this tends to reduce subtlety and/or to replace it with easily recognized visual hooks that tie into easily recognized cultural tropes and references.

One of the greatest differences lies in the marketing. The average major studio picture costs around $110 million, and approximately a third of that is marketing and advertising. In effect the marketing budget for two week’s worth of new film releases is most likely more than the total annual marketing budget for the entire fiction publishing industry. The vast majority of books receive essentially no publicity, except in the publisher’s catalogue and in a few targeted “trade” publications, if that. That’s why so many writers not only do, but must, resort to self-publicizing, going to conventions, blogging, etc.

There is one similarity. Reviews, either of movies or of books, play a minimal role in determining the success of either a film or a book. Movie-makers aren’t interested in the views of 50 year-old critics when most movies are emotionally targeted at the under-25 audience. On the book side, however, I suspect that reviews play a small part because there are so few compared to the number of titles published every year and the diversity of the reading audience, and the number of “official” review outlets is dwindling, although online reviews, by pros, semi-pros, and everyone else are increasing rapidly.

Another interesting comparison is market segmentation. Essentially, cinema marketers see their market in four quadrants plus one: men under 25, women under 25, women over 25, and men over 25… and children. I suspect those quadrants refer more to emotional ages than chronological ages, but that’s still the targeting. Needless to say, in general, males under 25 prefer action and more action, neat gadgets, and sex, while women prefer romance and only hints of sex. A movie needs to appeal to at least two quadrants to be guaranteed of a chance at profitability, but… men over 25 don’t go to nearly as many movies as the viewers in other three quadrants, and women over 25 tend to be much more choosy about what they see. So… guess what audiences most movies are designed to attract? By comparison, books have a wide range of genres, which in turn have great numbers of subgenres.

In summary… we have in books thousands and thousands of titles on every subject for every taste at every level of literacy, but in a form that requires a certain amount of thought, concentration, and imagination and with numbers of individual titles that preclude wide-scale and intensive marketing and result in overall low profit margins, while movies are a high profile, exceedingly heavily advertised and marketed, visually in-your-face medium released in limited numbers and largely marketed to the least sophisticated under-25s.

And people ask, why are movies profitable and books struggling?