Netflix Roulette

Will video-on-demand recommendations give The Tramp the random joy she used to get from video stores?

‘What do you mean you don’t have Under Siege 3?’ The Tramp in her video rental days.

I like films, a lot. I have liked films a lot for a goodly number of years. Back in the glory days of video rental, I’d easily watch three or four films over a weekend, choosing them with an eye to variety. So if I rented a blockbuster new release I also had to get something obscure or subtitled, or if I rented an action film I’d get a rom-com to go with it.

Random rentals were the bedrock of my taste for years, the source of my guilty pleasures and my not so guilty ones: French cinema, anime, and martial arts movies – particularly when they star Steven Segal and a random rapper. But with the decline
of the video rental store, so the joy of the random video discovery has gone. Which is why I was excited by Netflix and its ‘picked for you’ recommendations service.

*This* recommendation seems awfully personal.

Netflix UK, for the uninitiated, is a film and TV lending library that streams content to the viewer through the internet. Netflix started in the US in 1997 as a postal DVD service (a service it maintains in the US), but it is a subscription-only online service in the UK. For a flat fee of £5.99 a month, you can watch as little or as much as you like.

When you set up an account, Netflix requests your viewing preferences and asks you to rate the films you have seen to get a feel for the type of content you might enjoy. Your preferences form the basis of Netflix’s recommendations to you.

Now to be fair to Netflix, I have watched an awful lot of films over the years and it feels like this includes at least 50%, possibly more, of their library of titles, many of which are older films. Therefore many of the recommendations made were for films and TV that I have seen, and enjoyed, in the past. For the purposes of this article, I decided only to watch things I’d never seen before.

“You were only supposed to heat my bloody Horlicks up.”

The first film Netflix recommended for me was Harry Brown, a Michael Caine vehicle that I’d been meaning to watch for a while. The tale of a pensioner on a London estate who’s had enough of lawless kids and takes matters into his own hands, this is a bit like a geriatric Death Wish or Falling Down and is as likely to appall as many people as it appeals to. With a caustic script and a literally unblinking turn from Caine in the title role, Harry Brown also happened to be exactly the sort of film I was hoping to stumble on thanks to Netflix.

A lot of the other recommendations, though, were for seriously bad romantic films. Happy Accidents stars Marisa Tomei and Vincent D’Onofrio. She is a sassy school teacher (and singleton), while he is a time traveler. Yes, a time traveler. We know this because he talks about the meaning of time a lot and taps his watch while looking worried. After thirty minutes, I, too, was looking at my watch, wondering how much longer I would give it. The answer was another fifteen minutes.

Again, to be fair, while Netflix was offering me Happy Accidents, it was also offering me Peggy Sue Got Married, Heart and Soul, Shaolin Soccer and The Lives of Others – films I might have wanted to watch had I not already seen them. It was also offering me a feature-length Iron Man cartoon from the 80s, which I merrily devoured. Why it then offered me Paul Newman and Joanna Woodward in A New Kind of Love is beyond me. But hey, Newman and Woodward! Even if I’ve never heard of it, how bad could it be?


Sex began in 1963. Evidentally some time after the release of A New Kind of Love with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.

Pretty bad, actually. Where Touch of Mink or Pillow Talk still manage to charm despite the somewhat dodgy ‘of their time’ sexual politics, this is at best a watchable failure. Woodward plays a woman who works, wears trousers, has short hair and avoids womanising men like Newman’s writer character. She does this not because she’s sensible and independent, but because she secretly knows she needs lot of beauty treatments in order to snag herself the husband she really wants. Having succumbed to a new beauty regime (including platinum wig), she is immediately mistaken for a prostitute by Newman. You’d think this would put her off, but instead she falls in love with him. Happily, he does likewise and marriage is undertaken. It’s a bit like an early-60s version of How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, but a lot less fun. (How To Lose A Guy … is sadly not available on Netflix UK.)

My game of Netflix roulette ended with Marchlands, a six-part TV series that aired on ITV early last year. Three different families live in the same house in 1968, 1987 and the present day respectively, each family linked by the spirit of a young girl who appears to have died in mysterious circumstances. Not quite as gothic as it sounds, it actually comes across as a mix of Midsomer Murders with a dash of Medium. I’m not sure I would have watched it had I realised at the outset that it was a six-parter, but I persevered and it passed the time well enough.

The cast of Marchlands laugh it up between takes

In America, Netflix has first-run rights to programmes and films from Paramount, MGM and Lionsgate Entertainment. It also has back catalogue rights to titles from many of the major Hollywood studios – including Universal, Fox and Disney. At the last reliable count, Netflix was offering at least 100,000 individual titles for streaming in the US. This is perhaps an indication of what we can expect from Netflix in the UK in the coming months and years, but for reasons of international content licensing and the relatively small size of the video-on-demand market here, it has to be said that the service isn’t delivering yet.

For the same reason, while I’m sure there’s a complex algorithm sitting behind Netflix’s personalised recommendation system, at the moment it just feels like a really big tombola operated by a granny who likes picking out random bits of paper with titles on them. And once I’d exhausted the obvious recommendations and things I’d already seen, I found I was left with dross – not the hidden gems I’d been hoping to find.

Video on demand is clearly the future, however. Cheap for the viewer and for production companies alike, it is a viable and sustainable alternative to illegal streaming and downloading. But while it’s the future, it also feels to me like a step back from the well-stocked video rental store that I knew of old and continue to pine for.

5 thoughts on “Netflix Roulette

  1. The problem is absolutely to do with the catalogue being so tiny. They could have the smartest algorithm in the world and they’d still have to recommend Harry Potter to 80% of their UK members because there isn’t enough variety for a tailored approach.

    That said, anecdotal evidence from the US, where – as you say – the range of available content is much wider, suggests that even then, they sometimes don’t get it right (see It especially falls down for multi-occupant households, where just because one person watched Terminator and another watched Sense and Sensibility it doesn’t mean either of them wants to watch Junior. The fact is that recommendations are really hard to do, even when you know lots about your customer (no thanks, Amazon, I don’t want ANOTHER rolling pin).

    I think what’ll come next will be the collating of ratings and watching data across users and turning that into much more targeted recommendations (“People who liked the stuff you like also like X”, or even “Your Facebook friends’ top movies this week” or “People in your “film critics” Twitter list recommend Y”). There’s lots that can be done to make it work better. BUT, you could know everything about my watching preferences and still not expect me to want to watch One Crazy Summer, even though I do. For an echo of the Blockbuster moment of serendipity, it would be better to have a Wikipedia-style “Random movie” button that gives you a recommendation based on nothing at all and dares you to watch it.

  2. I love the idea of a “random movie” button and you’re right, that could indeed be the way to stumble upon those hidden gems.

  3. Pictures & captions & article all very funny & fun today, you’ve made watching someone watch telly curiously riveting. We do have similar taste in old movies. (Especially if by Heart & Soul you mean Heart & Souls the Robert Downey movie where he has 12 ghost guides who look after him when their bus crashes). Quite tempted by the old telly aspect of Netflix, always feel I’m missing out by not watching ITV dramas and that my life would be happier if I’d seen Scott & Bailey or Doc Martin (although I’ve never seen even 5 mins of either). Are they on netflix?

    1. Ah yes heart & souls, you’re quite right. I’m not sure how many older missed TV shows are on there, it’s an odd mix. Have a browse. You can search by actor as well as title, which is quite fun.

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