What will the impact of the new metric be on film culture?
Netflix’s CEO of Product Innovation, Todd Yellin, announced this week that the streaming service will be phasing out its five-star rating system in favor of a simple thumbs-up/thumbs down metric. Editorials will surely abound calling this yet another symptom of the decline of criticism/cinema/western civilization, but the reasons for the switch are, according to Yellin, strictly pragmatic: after a/b testing the thumbs rating system, Netflix found a 200% increase in the number of ratings users volunteered. The more data being fed to the algorithm, the more accurately it can provide recommendations. Yellin also noted that the star rating system failed to capture users’ actual viewing habits: a prestigious documentary may garner more five-star ratings, but an Adam Sandler film would receive far more views.
The debate over how to properly evaluate a film has raged for as long as the medium has enjoyed art form status, but no clear answer has been reached. Many critics eschew star-ratings in favor of more-or-less ambivalent essays; others prefer to grade a film from A-F. The late great Roger Ebert, as dedicated a film lover as any, provoked a controversy when he and Gene Siskel trademarked the thumbs-up/thumbs-down rating on their popular television show, but Ebert’s simple evaluations always came backed with thoughtful discussions and reviews. Such detailed opinions aren’t half as interesting to Netflix as a binary judgment that allows them to create a personalized experience for their customers. The new system would provide users with a “compatibility” score for each film, judging (with what will surely be eerie accuracy) how well a film matches one’s tastes from 0–100%.
What should film fans make of this development? Unfortunately, the possible damage done by the shift is likely to go unnoticed until it’s too late. Even genuine cinephiles will likely find themselves awash in a sea of perfect recommendations, and hours spent watching Netflix may well go up. But just as the insidious effects of newsfeed curation were downplayed until they came to undermine our political system, so might the harm of such an intensely curated viewing experience only show itself in secondary and tertiary effects on the cinematic ecosystem. As prestige titles disappear behind more “watchable” ones, challenging films may slowly disappear. Yellin may be right that viewers rate films according to the tastes they wish they had, but such dissonance actually represents a noble aspiration – an aspiration that can lead to different viewing habits down the line.
Netflix has branded itself as a purveyor of prestige content, just last month acquiring Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman and, more recently, Andrew Dominik’s War Party. As I wrote some weeks ago, their upcoming Five Came Back documentary may well inspire film fans to broaden their palates. But moves like the embrace of pan-and-scan for mobile content prove that Netflix’s business interests far outstrip their desire to preserve film culture. This is not new; distributors are not filmmakers. The responsibility falls, as ever, to true fans – to seek out new films, to challenge themselves, and to create the type of demand that moves business interests. The new rating system, like social media political bubbles, will function only as a mirror. It’s up to us to make sure we like the reflection.