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July 28 at 7:57am

The Ever-Growing Filter Crisis (aka Is Too Much Too Much?)

Whenever I walk into a grocery store, I can’t help but wonder if people really want so many choices.  But does the same applies to tomato sauce or frozen waffles also apply to art, literature, music, and movies?  Sure Pandora can source new music for me based on my prior expressed preferences, but music also works as a background pleasure.  The same is hard to say for movies.  And man, do we sure have a lot of great stuff readily available to us.  What are we going to do to filter and search through all our choices?

My NetFlix  WatchInstantly queue has 275 titles in it currently.  Since at best I do two such titles a week, I am pretty much set for the next three or four years for the $108/yr I dole out to them.  And I think I add to that queue faster than I subtrack.

Snag recently mentioned their ambitions to aggregate over 100,000 documentaries (up from the current 1,500.  I recently heard of a VOD experiment utilizing something like 50,000 titles.  My consumer side loves even the mention of such volume.  But my filmmaker side starts to get the shakes as I wonder how the hell will people find my movies.

We’ve all heard that titles that begin with the letter “A” do better on VOD than any others.  Viewers have a hard time investing much search time in the current interface.  The Netflix algorithm for finding what I like is a nice tool for adding to the queue, but it an anonymous source and sometimes I want to know more of the “why” that than “just because you liked X”.  I was excited to stumble upon WhichFlicks.com the other day and added ten more titles to my WatchInstantly queue as a result.  Yet they were all generally well known titles.

If the annual film production number estimates I was given recently by Chris Hyams of B-side fame were even 50% accurate (7000 films in the US, and 45,000 films produced worldwide per year), every filmmaker’s most pertinent question is not “How do I get my movie made?” but “How am I going to get my film seen?” .

Who wins in the volume game?  The same folks who win in the limited supply game.  Who has the most money at the end of the game?  The same folks who had the most money at the start of the game.  Who gets their story told in the history books?  Those that write the history books.  Wait… I’m off point.  Okay, just sort of, but… you get the picture.

If we can’t get attention for the work, how is it going to get seen?  I know many out there believe that the cream rises to the top, just like their are many that believe that hard work and a good attitude can bring you all you dream.  Me, I feel that the exceptions to those stories are what we must all work to prevent, that with effort and support, we can make it better together.

I don’t think it needs to just be volume and quantity of the message that gets your work noticed, but that is still how it is all working.  Sure design is still effective and originality scores points too.  And occasionally we see the underserved community come up and respond to a direct address (remember FAHRENHEIT 9/11 and THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST) or even a well served community respond to something that even just smelled authentic (BLAIR WITCH, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY), but what about good work in general, good stories well told, how can we find those and make them a priority for people again when they are being assaulted with choices from every sector under the sun?  Call me an optimist, but I am confident it can be done.

We lost an incredible service when all the film critics lost their pulpits at the national and local papers.  Individual blogs don’t work the same way papers did.  Now you want sports news, you go to sports sites, and the chances are you aren’t going to find news on some obscure indie film gem.  Sure you may get personalized ads on your social network and your thousands of friends and all those you follow have an opinion about what may be important that minute, but it isn’t the same as a long standing relationship with a critic with a history of well thought out opinions — you know how to judge the critic’s taste against your own.  I know you can go to MetaCritic or RottenTomatoes but I personally find the aggregated opinions don’t deepen my relationship with a critic or a film; they feel generalized, even after I drill down to the individual.

Even those friends whom I know whose tastes resemble my own, I don’t know what they are watching.  Or listening to.  Or reading.  Or where to easily get those things even if I did know.  And when I get a recommendation, what do I do with it anyways?  Why can’t I have one list that keeps it altogether for me, whether I am going to find it in a theater, or on Netflix, or VOD, or whether I want to purchase it?

Some solutions are also a bit terrifying.  If I let my tastes known about all things, if we have a set of common tags that I can like or dislike, even to varying degrees, presumably my next new favorite thing can be effortlessly found and delivered in this glorious digital age.  But when IT could happen here, when civil liberties are consistently ignored, do I really want to share my data?  Maybe such specific personalization is not such a godsend.

And what is it that we really want from such filters anyway?  It’s not just what to watch, but also when to watch what we watch.   Doesn’t eveyone miss those water cooler conversations about last night’s Seinfeld episode?  Isn’t the pleasure of going to the movies, largely about seeing it with other people?  We want to watch what are friends are watching so we can discuss it easily with them?  And not just really our friends, but also those we hope might become our friends too.

Really, when we all have over 1000 films on our To Watch list, how do we begin to make a choice?

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  • http://pangofilms.wordpress.com/ Michael Walker

    Sadly, what is killing the movie business is the same thing that killed the music business a few years ago: lack of choice. Sure, Netflix is pretty great, but if you look at the places where movies actually make money, ie. theaters, DVD outlets, you'll find that there isn't as much choice as you think. In theaters especially, there is less choice as Hollywood cements its death grip on the theaters. In DVD, if Walmart doesn't want your movie, where else are you going to go? Target? And Walmart isn't going to be selling DOGTOOTH anytime soon. Meanwhile, they keep putting out the same junk, creating the next generation of people who don't go to the movies, or who value movies so little that they steal them online.

    The trend in all stores, grocery stores included, is LESS choice. Having just done way too much research into supermarkets for a script, cutting down on choices is part of keeping prices down and moving you through the aisles. You may perceive a lot of stuff at a supermarket, but it is all from a few corporations. How about this for a food comparison? The trend among foodies for “local” food has been taken up by the megacorporations. Doesn't this kill the whole idea, or are they better at making local food than the little farmer who was trying to get three inches of shelf space at the supermarket? Doesn't that sound like the indie film being taken over by the studios? We still get “local” food, but the little farmer is out of work again, and the megacorporations get to save money on gas, forget about all the other reasons we liked local food, and charge a little more. So what happened to our choice?

    There may be 500 movies on my watch list on Netflix, but I've already made some choices getting it down from the 10000 on offer. Choices get made, one way or another. The transition in selling is going from the distributor making decisions for you (by selecting) to “suggesting” “things you may like” – in other words, making you think that you've made a decision that has actually been made by someone else. Behavioral economics is scary stuff, and it's hard to imagine how small companies in any field can compete if they can't afford the research that the big companies spend on this stuff.

  • doghouse

    Well, for starters, these numbers can't work. We can't have both exclusivity and unbounded production/market access at the same time. “Good work in general, good stories well told” is not enough reason to seek out these titles, when more and more of the entire film catalog, much of it superior to “good work in general”, is available every day. Not to mention non-cinematic art with far lower production costs and far higher levels of accomplishment, maturity and formal mastery (we're talking about an art-house audience, after all).

    Hollywood attacks this world of narrative proliferation with well-known strategies; but that's Hollywood. All indies can attempt to do is be better than “good”. Which is the trouble. We can't know if the the “cream rises to the top” in the American indie system because there's no way to assess the work of “filmmakers” who aren't making movies. Are there works of unproducible genius sitting in drawers in the U.S.? Would these works of genius attract audiences even if they got produced? Impossible to say for sure, but there's a related question we *can* answer: American independent film is apparently producing no works of genius.

    It might be more accurate to say that the “cream” does indeed rise to the top in the U.S., but that “cream” means certain capabilities uniquely required by the American indie system, which may correlate highly with getting films made, but far less well with formal accomplishment and originality of mind (judged, say, by international art house standards).

    The current face of the business may be hopeless, but what hope remains will reside in work of excellence and originality. That alone is unique; marketing strategies and facebook campaigns, for 7000 low-budget movies, will not be unique. The question is, to what extent is American independent film, with its basis in commercial funding and its producer-driven requirements, structured to allow for the vision, quality and high-intelligence which might confront this miserable world of media abundance?

    You can probably guess my opinion. But, agree or not, it's hard to lament the lack of success of films without strong claims or moral claims to an audience. Other countries, with stronger art-house “product”, may have more to complain of than we do.

  • Ashley Meyers

    One thing that seems like a good way for independent filmmakers to cut through the noise is to brand themselves and build a tribe around their films. Tools like Twitter and Facebook can really help with this. If you can establish yourself as a consistent filmmaker over the course of a few films and you can build a tribe around your films, then you have a channel so you can get your material right to the people who you've already connected with and who are interested in seeing what you have to offer.

    As a consumer I would join tribes of filmmakers who I you really enjoy and I would put their movies at the top of my 1000 movie list. I might shell out $19.99 for a DVD or a few dollars for a VOD view of the newest film from a filmmaker who I had some sort of relationship with (not unlike the relationship Ted talks about with film critics of the past).

    With the loss of major film critics maybe we're just cutting out the middleman (the film critics) and now the filmmakers need to interact directly with their fans and build a tribe.

    It may take a few films but I think this could be done.

    Rock bands do this especially well but filmmakers don't seem to.

    I'm not sure if Ted posted this link (I can't remember) but one of the blogs I read posted a link to this article about how an artist can make a living if they find 1000 true fans. Maybe with filmmakers it's 2K fans or maybe 5k fans or maybe 10K fans but the point is the same; if a strong connection exists between filmmaker and fan the filmmaker might be able to cut through the noise.

    http://www.kk.org/thetechnium/archives/2008/03/

    Ashley @ SellingYourScreenplay.com

  • http://www.jeffdolan.com Jeff Dolan

    This is a powerful expression of what goes through many people's minds. Thanks for sharing.

    The most prolific content king has been words, and maybe more specifically news, for the longest time. And we've been relying on our news outlets to filter all the quadrillion things that happen in the world for us. Still, there are thousands and thousands of news outlets, yet we each have chosen the ones we like best depending on how we want to see the world.

    Due to the recent capability of new types of content to be similarly produced in quantity, like video and films, I believe we are in a transition period until new filters surface with enough of their own voice to gain significant followings.

    We'll get there. Until then, enjoy the gold rush!

  • http://outinthestreetfilms.com/ Jon Raymond

    I posted a blog to propose a solution to this last January here: http://outinthestreetfilms.com/wp/?p=143

    You're on the right track when you compare film to the music business. Music has already successfully handled this issue. When you search for music, what do you find? Ten trailers at your favorite cineplex to choose from? No. You find the top 100 updated weekly. This is further broken down by genre as it is in film. But in music you can choose to look at a multitude of genres: rock, classic, light classic, traditional classic, classic rock, alternative rock, soft rock, hard rock, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, jazz, smooth jazz, acid jazz, modern jazz, easy listening, on and on and on. How many film genres are there? Ten? Come on. Music has been around for centuries. Film just barely over one century. Film has to get it's act together. Take a cue from music.

    In my blog I reference Pandora radio ( http://www.pandora.com/mgp.shtml ) which has successfully used music genre to categorize music fitted to a listeners preferences. If Pandora can do this so can we. IMDb may be a move in that direction. But it has a long way to go.

    As a web developer I'm aware of the Amazon.com API. This is a set of tools that allows developers to interface with Amazon's database, and guess what? IMDB is part of that database. Now all we need to do is develop a Panadora model of film using something like IMDb to start with. But we also need to further categorize and subcategorize movie genres.

    Frankly, this would be a piece of cake for me to do, if only I had the time and the resources. IF ONLY. This is a major endeavor that would take months of full time work for at least one person. Unfortunately daddy's trust fund ran out a few years ago and I have to make a living doing shit that people want to pay me for.

  • http://twitter.com/MPGordon Matthew Gordon

    I think it's still about curation. More specifically, I think it's about creating platforms for curation. The missing link is a netflix-like service that matches seekers of film with curators who have similar taste. As you point out, news paper film critics used to have this job — and to some degree they still do — but traditional critics are loosing jobs and sway. And on top of that the traditional mass media critic simply can't cover the diversity of media now available in the market – especially media that doesn't play at theaters. Here's what I dream of, I dream of someone out there who has my taste in media, someone who spends their days trolling the web and then reading and writing about media that would appeal just to me. Maybe this seams ridiculous, but I don't think it is. I think the biggest block to a world full of amazing curation is that there is no easy way to find good curatorial matches and the fact that good curation is a full-time job (either that or it's a massive investment of time and/or money in netflix-like software). My suspicion is that a large number of netflix users are — like me — happily paying a monthly fee because netflix is currently the best curator in town. But netflix is riddled with curatorial holes (short films spring immediately to mind). A service, be it human or machine, that could deliver a steady stream of media of different lengths and genres that matched an individual's taste and could be viewed on different platforms (theaters, DVD, VOD, iTunes, etc)….that's a service people would pay for. Truthfully, I think monetizing the production of independent media is first about finding a way to monetize truly great curation.

  • http://twitter.com/MPGordon Matthew Gordon

    I think it's still about curation. More specifically, I think it's about creating platforms for curation. The missing link is a netflix-like service that matches seekers of film with curators who have similar taste. As you point out, news paper film critics used to have this job — and to some degree they still do — but traditional critics are loosing jobs and sway. And on top of that the traditional mass media critic simply can't cover the diversity of media now available in the market – especially media that doesn't play at theaters. Here's what I dream of, I dream of someone out there who has my taste in media, someone who spends their days trolling the web and then reading and writing about media that would appeal just to me. Maybe this seams ridiculous, but I don't think it is. I think the biggest block to a world full of amazing curation is that there is no easy way to find good curatorial matches and the fact that good curation is a full-time job (either that or it's a massive investment of time and/or money in netflix-like software). My suspicion is that a large number of netflix users are — like me — happily paying a monthly fee because netflix is currently the best curator in town. But netflix is riddled with curatorial holes (short films spring immediately to mind). A service, be it human or machine, that could deliver a steady stream of media of different lengths and genres that matched an individual's taste and could be viewed on different platforms (theaters, DVD, VOD, iTunes, etc)….that's a service people would pay for. Truthfully, I think monetizing the production of independent media is first about finding a way to monetize truly great curation.

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