Full disclosure: I think Netflix is awesome. We’ve laughed and cried together and it’s one of the strongest relationships I have in my life. However, I’ve grown concerned about how much time we spend together watching films. Of course, I love to watch those films and TV series, but it’s easy to get caught in a never-ending loop of awesome content. That’s actually the point.
Netflix has been a groundbreaker in the movie business for many years, through its on-demand service, by their betting big on streaming (and winning) and, later, with their original content. When you’re browsing, their suggestions are always right on point. How come? They have the data.
Even before they branched into original content, Netflix had assembled an insane amount of data about their catalogue in different categories: year, actor, director, theme, genre (and not just “western” or “action”, but specific stuff such as “visually striking children’s films made in the 1970’s”), etc… And they also gathered data about you: not only the information you happily provide -because you have to- when you sign up, but also what you’re up to when you’re on the website.
This creates patterns and trends that Netflix can easily compile and analyse, and an algorithm will get a pretty fair idea of your tastes and show you what you want. That’s how they found out they had the market to go into original shows: House of Cards was commissioned as a series for two seasons without having to go through the pilot season as all the lemmings in tinseltown do. The following talk explains the process perfectly:
src in: https://embed.ted.com/talks/sebastian_wernicke_how_to_use_data_to_make_a_hit_tv_show
src gen: https://embed.ted.com/talks/2403
Ticking the boxes
How does that bode for creativity? Well, apart from keeping you busy Netflix-and-chilling, as well as taking time from your writing schedule -because, yes, you need to schedule– there’s a bigger worry: not getting out of what’s already known. Netflix’s practices in delivering and creating content is groundbreaking and has completely shaken up the movie business by reverse-engineering Hollywood, that’s a given. But then? They give you exactly what you want.
The whole point of great films is that they’re not exactly what you want. The Force Awakens ticked all the boxes it was supposed to tick for Star Wars fans, film enthusiasts and newcomers alike, and was quite underwhelming in that way. Creators do great work when they manage to get out of their comfort zone and, to equal importance, to get the audience out of their comfort zone as well. Algorithms have their purpose as far as entertainment goes, but little more.