NY Times on Netflix

The New York Times did a Netflix story. The Author, William Grimes, seemed to like it, but…

[My wife and I] each judge the other’s selections harshly. I scored a major victory with “Mon Oncle” by Jacques Tati, a director I once dismissed as tedious, annoying and far too French. He is now a god in our house. But I have had my back against the wall after “L’Atalante,” a film I had never seen but knew to be, by expert consensus, a towering masterpiece. Less than 10 minutes after the opening credits rolled, the atmosphere in the living room grew frosty. I lost control of the mouse for a week. At least I had the foresight to sneak off and watch “Russian Ark” on my own.

That’s the fun of Netflix. Along with savage recriminations, my home now resonates with high-toned animated discussion of directors, cinematographers and camera angles. Once again I’m the moviegoer I was in college, when Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut were in full stride, and adventure was in the air, and bright-eyed cinéastes could sit through a film like “El Topo” and not demand their money back. It’s not available on Netflix, alas, but the Web site does propose an alternative, a compilation of “Ed Sullivan” shows featuring Topo Gigio. Close enough.

Interesting enough, but Netflix — and services yet to appear — are a sign of things to come: a world of entertainment shaped by the consumer, not by marketers.

Netflix executives say their edge over the competition is not their library but the way the library is presented to users, who are asked to rate the films they have seen. By sifting through the ratings, about 400 million of them at present, and analyzing buying patterns, a company program called CineMatch generates rental suggestions specific to each user.

Lost in Translation will outperform most $300 million films for us, and that’s because of our ratings and recommendations,” said Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer for Netflix. “Monster will be huge for us, and that’s not because our subscribers are more sophisticated than the general moviegoing public, but because our merchandising system is much more specific.”

It will be a world of what you want, and only what you want, as clearly marked by your previous purchases and selections. You’ll never be upset by products that you don’t want, even if you didn’t know you didn’t want them, nor will you have to tolerate contrary opinions or debate.

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Living Room Film Club, a Click Away
By WILLIAM GRIMES

Published: March 19, 2004

It so happens that I have a perfectly valid excuse for watching “Hercules in the Haunted World.” The film, made in 1961, offered brief employment to a slab of beefcake named Reg Park, the British Steve Reeves, and at first glance it would seem to be a two-ton wheel of cheese. But somehow a genuine artist became attached to the project, a director named Mario Bava.

And who is Mario Bava? Why, the seminal influence on Dario Argento, the cult Italian horrormeister. One by one, his stylized, incredibly violent films found their way into my home in a blood-soaked festival organized by my wife, an Argento fan who cannot bring herself to watch the leisurely stabbing scenes that take up about half of every movie. We made our way through “Inferno,” “Deep Red,” “Suspiria” and “Tenebre.” Then it was on to Bava.

Thank you, Netflix.

Netflix, founded in 1998, is an online movie-rental company that could be described as the anti-Blockbuster. It deals only in DVD’s, and customers pay a flat monthly fee of $19.95 to rent an unlimited number of films with no late fees. The sole restriction is that subscribers may keep only three movies out at a time. (The company also offers more expensive five-film and eight-film plans.)

As each movie is returned in its self-addressed, prepaid envelope, Netflix sends out the next film on a list that the subscriber maintains online. Since the company has 23 regional distribution centers, most movies arrive the day after they are sent out. In theory a fanatic customer watching three films a day could go through several hundred DVD’s each year, whittling down the per-film rental cost to a dollar or less. In practice the average user watches about six movies a month.

I became one of Netflix’s nearly 1.8 million users several months ago, and I have never looked back. Overnight, life became much simpler. No longer did I have to make a mad dash to the video store, either to rent a film or to return it by the noon deadline. Late fees vanished and so did the check-out line. I cursed the endless hours spent prowling the aisles in search of misfiled films, or something — anything — to watch. Anything that is, except the dead-enders artfully arranged in the section labeled “staff favorites,” a euphemism for “films that no one will rent, ever.” Best of all, I succumbed to the pure pleasure of browsing endlessly through thousands of movies, making my selections with a click of the mouse and then seeing them slip through my mail slot, in their bright-red envelopes, just a few days later.

Netflix not only changed my routine, it also turned me into a different kind of movie watcher. Culturally, I am no longer the same person.

The flat-fee system elicits two responses: more frequent renting, and more adventurous renting. To justify the cost, you watch more films. But since four films per month averages out to the cost of four films at Blockbuster, every subsequent movie is, in a delusory sense, free, and therefore there is no risk. Why not roll the dice and order, say, “Russian Ark,” a bizarre Russian film, part audioguide and part costume drama, that pulls the viewer through the Hermitage Museum in a single, extended camera shot, skipping from century to century. It’s even more unwatchable than it sounds. But so what? I dropped it in the mailbox knowing that “Naked City” and “Adaptation” were on their way.

So far I have not been sent any damaged discs, and only one has gone astray after being mailed back. I filed a “missing in action” report on the Netflix Web site, and a day later, it either turned up, or Netflix wrote it off. In any case, it was no longer listed as being out.

A Few Catches

There are a few snakes in this cinematic paradise. For one thing, Netflix cannot accommodate the moviegoer who needs instant gratification. If you simply have to see “Scarface” tonight, then only the video store can help you. Cable systems offer movies on demand, but the pickings tend to be slim. My metabolism doesn’t work that way. Browsing through a vast library and clicking as the mood strikes feels plenty spontaneous to me. You see it, you want it, you add it to your queue right then and there.

There are two other weaknesses in the Netflix system, one unavoidable, the other understandable. First, the company does not rent videocassettes, so its library does not include thousands of films, some of them obscure, but many of them recognized classics. Anyone hoping to binge on Barbara Stanwyck will have to do without “Ball of Fire.” Preston Sturges fans will look in vain for “Easy Living.” Even within the more limited universe of DVD, Netflix is not totally comprehensive. Its mainstream orientation has left an opening for GreenCine (pronounced GreenScene), an online rental company that specializes in art-house films, documentaries, Japanese anime and cult films. It does not have multiple distribution centers, but it does have “Cane Toads,” an Australian documentary about, not surprisingly, cane toads. I scanned the first 20 titles listed under “film noir” and found six films not offered by Netflix.

Wal-Mart, which entered the online DVD rental business last June, undercuts Netflix with a three-movie plan priced at $18.76 per month. Its library of about 12,000 titles passed the Dario Argento test with flying colors. Wal-Mart has 10 of his films, compared with five on Netflix. GreenCine, despite its alternative profile, offers only two Argento films, although it has two documentaries about the director.

Netflix, too, has its niche side. An innovative program called Netflix First makes a small number of independent films available exclusively to Netflix subscribers for a limited period. The program, which started with “Croupier,” has grown to include about 20 films.

Netflix executives say their edge over the competition is not their library but the way the library is presented to users, who are asked to rate the films they have seen. By sifting through the ratings, about 400 million of them at present, and analyzing buying patterns, a company program called CineMatch generates rental suggestions specific to each user.

Polishing the Profile

“`Lost in Translation’ will outperform most $300 million films for us, and that’s because of our ratings and recommendations,” said Ted Sarandos, the chief content officer for Netflix. “ `Monster’ will be huge for us, and that’s not because our subscribers are more sophisticated than the general moviegoing public, but because our merchandising system is much more specific.”

My experience of CineMatch makes me an agnostic. Right now my account page tells me that, based on my rentals and ratings, I might like to rent “Aguirre, Wrath of God,” “Stagecoach” or “The Vicar of Dibley.” I see the logic, and it is primitive. The “Stagecoach” recommendation reflects my rental of John Ford’s “Searchers,” just about the only western I’ve seen in my adult life, unless you count “Blazing Saddles.” CineMatch got lucky here. I found “The Searchers” riveting, and I put Howard Hawks’s “Red River” on my queue. “Stagecoach” is indeed a viable candidate. “The Vicar of Dibley,” a gentle and not very funny British comedy series, shows up because I rented two other British series, “Full Bottom” and “Thick as Thieves,” both of them a lot less funny even than “The Vicar of Dibley.” Three wrongs do not make a right.

In theory, as I generate more ratings, CineMatch will develop a more complex taste profile for me, but I’m doubtful. I think it will just get confused.

I don’t blame it. At the moment, a domestic battle rages for control of the Netflix queue, which can be revised and reshuffled at any time. It is disputed territory. My wife likes very fat films or very slow films. It’s either nonstop action, with a lot of gunplay, or painstaking, exquisitely nuanced psychological dramas, like the interminable “I Capture the Castle,” a British film about an eccentric family living in Wales in the 1930’s. My weakness is for pretentious foreign films. At the moment, I feel a creeping urge to rent “Andrei Rublev,” a three-hour film about a medieval Russian icon painter.

Frost Warning

We each judge the other’s selections harshly. I scored a major victory with “Mon Oncle” by Jacques Tati, a director I once dismissed as tedious, annoying and far too French. He is now a god in our house. But I have had my back against the wall after “L’Atalante,” a film I had never seen but knew to be, by expert consensus, a towering masterpiece. Less than 10 minutes after the opening credits rolled, the atmosphere in the living room grew frosty. I lost control of the mouse for a week. At least I had the foresight to sneak off and watch “Russian Ark” on my own.

That’s the fun of Netflix. Along with savage recriminations, my home now resonates with high-toned animated discussion of directors, cinematographers and camera angles. Once again I’m the moviegoer I was in college, when Bergman, Fellini and Truffaut were in full stride, and adventure was in the air, and bright-eyed cinÈastes could sit through a film like “El Topo” and not demand their money back. It’s not available on Netflix, alas, but the Web site does propose an alternative, a compilation of “Ed Sullivan” shows featuring Topo Gigio. Close enough.