by Legendary Lew
Film School Rejects recently posted an interesting article by Colin Biggs, who advises Netflix to take on staff recommendations for movies instead of relying on analytics for viewer’s next entertainment choices. It’s an interesting idea and one that Netflix could perhaps give serious consideration.
I’m a former personal video consultant (yes, that was actually the title of the job I had at a video store) of almost twenty years in three different video stores. I’ve helped film and TV fans choose entertainment from 1998-2016. One of the three video stores I’ve worked in failed miserably and closed in less than two years. The other two struggle to keep on, but they have done so, even while Blockbuster Video has collapsed all around them. So I think I can give some insight regarding Netflix and having paid employees make thoughtful recommendations to customers.
My main thought on this is, “It’ll probably suck.” Why? Allow me to give several reasons for what would be an almost certain failure:
1. Netflix was Built on Dehumanizing the Viewing Experience
You can argue that Blockbuster Video separated viewers from the movie theater, but Netflix took the idea one step further in this ingenious, creepy ad. Note how the Netflix customer sits comfortably, relaxed and alone in his chair while various unfocused others in the background scramble to reach the video store that shutters and darkens like a prison.
Of course, there could never be a mention that you could actually meet other film fans face-to-face in video stores or that, due to different circumstances, late fees could always be negotiated or waived. I’ve done that plenty of times to keep customers.
This personal viewer isolation was definitely in Netflix’s DNA–so much so that you could not phone nor visit Netflix regarding DVDs lost or broken in the mail. You could only email to unseen, unheard associates. Even if you wanted to work at one of Netflix’s distribution centers across the country, finding their locations was like a search for government hangars performing interplanetary alien autopsies.
2. Any Paid Video Consultants Would Probably Not Be Allowed the Freedom to Suggest Their Own Movies and TV Choices
Netflix is now in the business of producing streamed entertainment. Despite strong attempts to de-emphasize their rent-by-mail service, the company still offers it and acknowledges the die-hards who stick to it. However, DVD subscriber membership is dropping yearly to less than 5 million today–down from almost 15 million in 2011.
Thus, it should be no surprise when DVD.com (Netflix’s mailing service) releases a YouTube ad in April and garners less than 700 hits in five months. Note how the approach is much more subdued than the 2004 ad above. There’s even a lack of voice over. Stay awake if you can.
If Netflix were to hire its own “personal viewing consultants” to guide you through different choices, what do you think the chances are they will compel employees to suggest only Netflix programming? If they are like any other place I worked for that had competition, those chances are pretty darn high. You can also bet those unlucky consultants could only suggest what’s currently available:
“Sorry, Mrs. Haggerfield. We love that movie too and highly suggest it. However, we just removed that film from our catalog yesterday.”
Suddenly, Mrs. Haggerfield feels no less frustrated than the late video return customers in that 2004 ad.
3. Video “Clerks” Would Need to be Redefined and Respected
This point is most crucial. I will always contend that Blockbuster Video’s greatest failure was not its powerlessness against Netflix and cable. It was the lack of good, expert customer service. Yes, I am sure that many former Blockbuster clerks knew their stuff, handled unruly customers well and were competent retail employees.
However, Blockbuster Video did not value the extra knowledge of eclectic or rare finds. It didn’t make much sense for me as an employee to apply my expertise on films if a similarly positioned co-worker had no idea who the world famous filmmaker Fellini was. Knowing the “top ten” movies and having enough new releases to please every customer was enough. Eventually, though, any film fan with an ounce of curiosity will seek out something different, and the Big Blue was ill-prepared for that.
With media becoming cheaper to produce, many more independent works are being created. It’s truly impossible for anyone alive to take in all good movies and TV shows, so the knowledge of unknown or unappreciated works has more worth. Consuming so many different films from different countries over the span of 100+ years takes an enormous amount of time and money. Theater ticket prices are expensive. Include Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon, HBO and a host of other online/cable offerings and it all adds up. (No wonder piracy is popular). Paying a college-aged clerk minimum wage won’t cut it. Nor is it respectful of customers’ demands.
One reason Biggs’ suggestion falls short is because there’s no mention of the context in which films are viewed. As a personal video consultant, I had to answer questions like, “What film would you recommend as a suitable Halloween movie for my two sons aged 10 years and younger?” This was an actual request I fulfilled for actress Joan Cusack. (She and I eventually agreed that Jason and the Argonauts was good for her adventure-seeking boys). I’ve had rental requests for DJ dance parties, Thanksgiving family entertainment, dating–straight and gay, art galleries, business meetings, depression cures, frat parties, teachers’ research projects and more. These specific types of demands are the ones that really test you.
So what would Netflix need to have satisfactory staff recommendations? It would need very well-paid experts on different genres of film. Those persons would take no other responsibilities for Netflix, except to watch as many films/TV show in their designated categories as possible. They would need to have the freedom to suggest works Netflix doesn’t carry, but another service might. They would need to know local independent films with limited DVD/online releases. And they would need excellent customer service savvy to care about each individual’s particular need. Netflix has a legendary business growth plan currently, but given its past history with vast catalog mail rentals, they would be foolish to try inching back. You’d be better off going to independent video stores that survived the Netflix onslaught.
Legendary Lew is the co-founder of The Underground Multiplex and former personal video consultant of almost 20 years. He’s a writer, producer and host of the podcast “Mediatrocities” and the upcoming “Vital Media” series.