Tag Archives: Netflix

The Queue Needs to Die

Netflix interface on the Xbox 360

Back when Netflix was a fledgling DVD-by-mail rental company, still only hoping to take the world by storm but not yet having done so, they popularized the concept of a rental queue, a list of DVDs you could set up and organize so Netflix would (depending on availability) send you the DVD you wanted most. Other companies picked up this idea, whether the correlation was exact or not – Netflix competitor Greencine has a queue that works the same as Netflix’s, Gamefly has a queue to send you video games in order, while streaming-only site Hulu set up a queue to keep your shows in order, basically treating it as a playlist so you could watch your shows continuously.

But with the ongoing transition from physical to streaming media, the queue needs to die. The concept of the queue is based on linearity. You watch this movie, send it back, get another movie, watch it, send it back, get another one, etc. Its whole purpose is to keep the list of movies you want to see but can’t yet in order, so Netflix(/Greencine/Gamefly/etc) knows what to send you next. In streaming media, there is no linearity, at least not in terms of what Netflix, et al, needs to know. You many only be able to watch one thing at a time, but there is no reason whatsoever for you to keep an ordered list of what else you want to watch, in order of how soon you want to watch it.

Netflix Canada and UK users are jumping up and down right now screaming that they’ve never had a queue. And it’s likely that Netflix realizes that a queue, as it exists right now, is not particularly useful for streaming media, and that’s why they haven’t bothered to implement one for users who have never had DVD subscriptions through them. They may very well take the queue away from US users as well. But that’s not optimal, either, because with a wide range of streaming possibilities, we need a way to keep track of the things we want to see, or might want to see again, and to separate them from the thousands of movies we have utterly no interest in seeing ever. The queue as currently implemented for US users is workable for this, but not ideal – the linear nature of it makes it difficult to navigate, and the 500-item limit isn’t large enough.

My queue on Netflix; it generally runs around 480 titles long

So the Queue should die, and in its place should come the Collection. That is, a way for each user to mark any film on a streaming service as part of their “collection”, and they should be able to manipulate that collection in all the same ways you can manipulate the entire Netflix library. So if I’m in the mood for a comedy, I should be able to browse comedies, but be able to optionally limit the results to the comedies I’ve marked for my collection. Note I said “optionally” – you should always be able to pull back and browse the whole library, too. There would be no limit on the size of this collection, so you’d never have to worry about having to declare that you’re no longer interested in one thing just in order to declare your interest in another thing. And, if films you’ve marked for your collection expire off Instant Watch and are later added again, they should be returned to your collection automatically.

I’ve been speaking about this idea in terms of Netflix, but for every streaming media service I know of, the collection concept would work much better than the queue or playlist concept. (More on playlists in a minute.) Hulu is a great example. I have HuluPlus on my Xbox, and it’s great to watch Criterion films at the drop of a hat. But the queue is an utter nightmare. TV shows and movies aren’t separated out, which wouldn’t be too bad except that on my Xbox, the queue lists individual episodes separately, so I could have three episodes of a show, then five movies, then two more episodes of it, then ten more movies, in that order. That’s messy. Plus the HuluPlus queue is difficult to reorder, since it’s on multiple pages – my queue right now is some 20+ pages long, and it’s a nightmare to try to get things in some semblance of order, and even then, it still has the problem of being linear when it doesn’t need to be. If instead I could just browse all the shows or movies I’ve marked for my collection, without regard for order and without individual episodes clogging the works, I might actually use HuluPlus outside of the few times a month I go to watch a specific film.

HuluPlus interface on Xbox 360

In streaming subscription music, the Collection concept is useful as well. I love Spotify, but the fact that the only way I have of keeping track of music is by adding it to a playlist drives me NUTS. Playlists definitely have their place, for curating specific music or songs either for your own use or for others, and I’ve gotten great use out of Spotify’s playlists. Here I’m not suggesting that playlists need to go away, but merely that they’re not suitable for every task. Right now I have a playlist of 2012 albums, because I don’t know any other way to keep track of them so I can listen to them and evaluate them for my Tunes Worth Hearing series and my eventual year-end lists. That playlist is now over 600 songs long, and it’s only April! That means by December, it will have over 2000 songs in it, and that’s a ridiculous amount of content for a linear organizational system.

And that doesn’t even begin to cover all the other music I want to check out. I had a playlist for a while called “music I want to check out.” Between indie bands I’d heard of through friends, classic rock I wanted to catch up on, jazz music I wanted to learn more about, back catalog music from bands I grew to love late, etc., the list ballooned to unmanageable before I could blink. Separating those things out into genres didn’t help much, either. What I need is a way to mark songs for my Collection, so they’re organized not linearly by all the songs, but browsable/searchable by genre, artist, and year of release. That would make Spotify 1000x more useful to me than it already is, which is a lot.

My 2012 Albums playlist on Spotify; 652 tracks, and we're barely into April

When I suggest things like this, I usually get a few people telling me to just search for what I want. Well, yes. All these services are built strongly on searching (or on recommendations). And that’s great, for people who are searchers. People who know what they want to watch or listen to and can just go get it. I’m much more of a browser. I’m much likely to think, “I want to watch a movie tonight, what should it be,” and then browse through available options. With so MANY available options, I need a way to tap quickly down into what kind of thing I’m interested in right now, and I need those results to include not just things Netflix or Hulu thinks I might want to watch, but what I’ve earmarked as things I want or need to watch. I can’t be the only person like this. So for us picky browsers, streaming media companies ought to move away from the idea of a linear queue and towards the idea of a non-linear collection.

Film on the Internet: Casablanca

Time to start a new series! I love that time. This series has come about because a few people who have been finding my Film on TV series useful have recently decided to cancel their cable – making recommendations from TCM, Sundance, and IFC less useful. So I’m going to supplement that set of recommendations with a series that highlights films available to watch online.

This comes with its own set of caveats. The online streaming service with the largest library is Netflix, and you have to be a Netflix subscriber to use it. Still, I imagine a large portion of film lovers already have a Netflix subscription – if you do, hopefully I’ll be able to highlight some things on Instant Watch that you may not know about or didn’t realize were available to stream. I know when I was initially researching for this, I found a TON that I had no idea were available.

I’ll also throw in a few films from time to time that are available on hulu, which is completely free (aside from having to watch periodic brief ads). The overriding downside to both hulu and Netflix Instant Watch is that they are only available in the United States. I apologize for that, but as far as I know, there are no sites offering legal free (or subscription-included) streaming movies worldwide.

Casablanca

Available on Netflix Instant Watch.

I decided to kick off the series with one that most everyone knows and has probably seen, but it’s always worth seeing again. I promise I’ll get into more eclectic stuff soon, but I didn’t want to throw something super-obscure out there the first time. ;)

Casablanca

Casablanca tells a simple story of a world-weary American ex-patriot making a living off the masses of people escaping Europe through Morocco in the midst of World War II and the woman he never expected to come into his life again, pleading with him to help her resistance-leader husband fleet to safety in America. It sounds like any other war-time story – a touch of romance, a touch of intrigue, a bit of cynicism, a bit of nobility. Not much seems to set it apart from the dozens of other war-inflected films made in the early 1940s. It’s based on a play called “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” that, in its original incarnation, proved to be ironically titled – it was never even produced.

Bought by Warner Brothers as a vehicle for their then-major star George Raft, it eventually went to the less-proven Humphrey Bogart (his breakout roles in High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon had come only a year or so earlier – prior to that he’d been knocking around Warner’s backlot playing two-bit gangsters and villains). Bogart’s sad eyes and sardonic line delivery gave Rick Blaine a depth that Raft could never have managed. The cast filled out with Swedish beauty Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and wonderful supporting staples Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall. Warner’s sturdy and reliable Michael Curtiz took the directing reins, but most people agree that producer Mervyn LeRoy was really the strongest driving force behind the film – even possibly adding the famous final line (“Louis, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship”) himself late in the editing process. For a very complete and accessible look at the production of Casablanca – which was so chaotic it’s amazing the film got completed at all – see Aljean Harmetz’s great book Round Up the Usual Suspects: The Making of Casablanca.

The success of the film, though, is centered on the perfect combination of the film’s brilliant dialogue (by Julius & Philip Epstein and Howard Koch) and all of the actors’ flawless delivery of it. Lines like “We’ll always have Paris,” “Here’s looking at you, kid,” and “Round up the usual suspects” (not to mention the misquote “Play it again, Sam”) have entered the common lexicon not only of film buffs, but of the cultural at large. In less capable hands, Rick’s ultimate noble decision could seem corny or self-righteous, but Bogart’s performance and the character given him by Koch and the Epsteins doesn’t allow that to happen. Rick remains a difficult-to-decipher, complex character to the end – a character full of both nobility and cynicism, both love and guardedness. I’m not always wholly convinced that his final act is not one of self-protection rather than self-sacrifice.

Here’s a bit of the scene where Ilsa requests Sam to play “As Time Goes By” and she and Rick first see each other again. The whole thing is available to stream from Netflix Instant Watch.

Netflix Recommendations, or How I Apparently Ruin the Queue Curve

The million dollar prize for improving Netflix’s recommendation system (Cinematch) by 10% has been out there for a couple of years now, and programmers are now within a few tenths of a percent of getting there. The New York Times has a new article about it here. Not a lot of new information over the various articles that have come out since the prize was announced, but I’m still stymied by how weird I am, apparently, in the movie rental world.

Cinematch has, in fact, become a video-store roboclerk: its suggestions now drive a surprising 60 percent of Netflix’s rentals. It also often steers a customer’s attention away from big-grossing hits toward smaller, independent movies. Traditional video stores depend on hits; just-out-of-the-theaters blockbusters account for 80 percent of what they rent. At Netflix, by contrast, 70 percent of what it sends out is from the backlist — older movies or small, independent ones. A good recommendation system, in other words, does not merely help people find new stuff. As Netflix has discovered, it also spurs them to consume more stuff.

For Netflix, this is doubly important. Customers pay a flat monthly rate, generally $16.99 (although cheaper plans are available), to check out as many movies as they want. The problem with this business model is that new members often have a couple of dozen movies in mind that they want to see, but after that they’re not sure what to check out next, and their requests slow. And a customer paying $17 a month for only one movie every month or two is at risk of canceling his subscription; the plan makes financial sense, from a user’s point of view, only if you rent a lot of movies.

Okay, first off, I do want to know how they’re deriving the fact that Cinematch is responsible for 60% of Netflix’s rentals. Are they going off how many people rent movies from the recommendation page or from the “movies like this” thing that pops up when you add a movie to your queue? Because if so, the number’s suspect. To me, saying a recommendation system is responsible for a rental means that the person would not have rented it without the recommendation. But I add things ALL THE TIME from the pop up thing not because I didn’t know about the film or that I wanted to rent it but because it’s convenient and saves me from having to search for it. But that’s a bit by the by.

“New members often have a couple of dozen movies in mind that they want to see, but after that they’re not sure what to check out next.” Wow. I can’t even imagine that. I have somewhere around 1450 films spread across three Netflix queues (you can only have 500 per queue), and that’s not including the 400+ discs worth of TV shows that I have in yet another queue. (It does, however, include several instant watch movies that I’ve seen before and probably wouldn’t rent if they weren’t streaming for free.) A couple of dozen? I’m sorry, I can’t wrap my head around that. There are probably 24 films in theatrical release RIGHT NOW I’d see. Much less the last 100 years of cinematic history. Clearly I am strange.

There’s also an interesting bit earlier in the article about how much Napoleon Dynamite; and other love-them-or-hate-them films like Lost in Translation; and I Heart Huckabees; throw off the system, because it’s so difficult to predict whether someone will like them or not. I can totally see that, and all the films they mentioned are ones that I tend to avoid recommending most of the time, for the same reason. Except Lost in Translation, because I have mad, blind love for Sofia Coppola.

The good thing about all this is, I think, the fact that the recommendations are apparently encouraging people to check out more offbeat, older, and independent films. That’s a great thing about a subscription service with so wide a selection – the cost of experimentation is very low. I often think this should be a critic’s job, too – rather than warn people away from the latest multiplex blockbuster that they’re going to see anyway, turn them on to a hidden gem they might otherwise miss amidst the flurry of big studio publicity. (I think Netflix should put up pages for all the major festivals, since that’s where the best indies first come to light. It would certainly save me a lot of time and effort currently spent in searching Netflix for every festival film every few months in case it suddenly ended up with a distribution deal. /selfish)

So tell me, do you use Netflix’s recommendations? Or if you’re not a Netflix subscriber, some other sort of algorithmic recommenations, like Flixster? Does it influence 60% of your rentals? Does anyone rely  on recommendations of this sort, rather than also factoring in human recommendations, whether from friends, critics, or bloggers – or a personal affinity for a cast or crew member? In other words, if Netflix recommended a movie (with a higher than 4.5 predicted star rating, let’s say) you hadn’t heard of, and you didn’t know any of the actors or the director, would you rent it without digging up more info? I wouldn’t. But as already decided, I am strange. And maybe I would get to that unknown film, once I got done with the 1400 already in my queue. :)

Ooh, just got to the end of the article (yes, I’m reading and writing at the same time – sue me), and found this: “[Netflix CEO Reed] Hastings is even considering hiring cinephiles to watch all 100,000 movies in the Netflix library and write up, by hand, pages of adjectives describing each movie, a cloud of tags that would offer a subjective view of what makes films similar or dissimilar. It might imbue Cinematch with more unpredictable, humanlike intelligence.” I WANT THAT JOB. When that job is posted, Mr. Hastings, let me know, mmkay?