The Highbrow Trade-Off: Market Mediation and Success in the Film Industry

By Ezra W. ZuckermanTai-Young Kim
1999| Working Paper No. 1563

The present paper applies the mismatch hypothesis to the contemporary American film industry. This proposition, successfully applied to the stock market, holds that failing to gain the attention of the critics who specialize in a product’s intended category carries an illegitimacy penalty (Zuckerman 1999a). In this paper, we show that the film industry’s segmentation into highbrow and lowbrow niches has two important implications for this process. First, since critics exert particular influence over the conspicious consumption that typifies highbrow art (Shrum 1991, 1996), penalties for misclassification pertain to highbrow but not lowbrow films. Second, we observe that the lowbrow segment of the market is both much larger than the highbrow niche and is represented by a rival set of intermediaries in film exhibitors. These conditions entail that critical recognition as a highbrow product hampers a film’s ability to reach the wider, lowbrow, market and that this is especially so when it is allocated few screens by exhibitors. In sum, we show that there is a fundamental trade-off in adoption of highbrow identity. While critical recognition of a movie as highbrow helps it penetrate the highbrow niche, such endorsements harm the film’s bid at reaching a wider audience.