What Netflix Can Learn from The Video Store Experience

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Netflix can save itself by going old school.

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BoJack Horseman’s third season debuts this Friday, and while the animated comedy is just one of many fan favorites, it is important to note that, originally, Netflix started as a movie provider. Streaming giants like Netflix, Amazon, and Apple took over the customers that browsed video store aisles, but the heart of what those stores represented has gone unreplaced. For all the items Netflix has at its disposal, and no-need-to-leave-home convenience, they can still do better.

My favorite day of the week when I was a child was Friday. Not because the school week was over, or that it dawned the beginning of a weekend, but because Friday was when my Dad would take my sister and me to the video rental place. The store itself was nothing special. It appeared to be a repurposed law office, but the mere sight of it was the highlight of my week. Hundreds of cases lined shelves containing movies that I’d never seen. At the time there was no IMDB to check out what a movie was – you had to read the case to glean any information. Of course, that experience is only a memory now for most people. Blockbuster finally closed its doors in 2011, but many independent video stores shuttered way before then.

Online streaming has made it possible to access thousands of titles anywhere at any time, but Netflix doesn’t seem to change viewer habits for the better. Left with the choice between catching an under-seen gem or hate-watching something, subscribers seem to choose the bad film nearly every time (The Ridiculous Six became the most streamed film in Netflix history last year). Giving the audience the power to choose whatever they want, and how to experience it is the future of entertainment, but the audience’s choices aren’t always great.

It’s probably not fair to blame Netflix for viewers with questionable movie watching habits, but they also aren’t replicating the carefully considered recommendations that independent video store clerks dished out. For every indie gem on the site, there are at least two-to-three bad Nicolas Cage movies. And, Matt Singer notes in his piece on Screencrush, out of the 250 top-rated films on IMDB, only 34 are present on Netflix (including Sin City which isn’t exactly Turner Classic Movies material).

The recommendations that the app offers aren’t helping either. Telling customers what they should watch is always a dicey bet, but whatever logarithm or analytics being used aren’t working. After watching I Saw the Devil, one doesn’t anticipate the suggested viewing after that to be Bob’s Burgers. It’s one of the best shows on television right now, but, unless a Netflix employee knows something I don’t about Tina Belcher, Bob’s Burgers is not remotely close to being a companion to a South Korean thriller. Even worse are suggestions like this:

With space and resources devoted to suggestions that don’t work, perhaps it is time to for Netflix to change-up how they share movies. Television spots for House of Cards appeared during a major presidential debate, and original programs like Orange is the New Black and BoJack Horseman are always front and center on the app. Such is not the case with Netflix’s original films. Cary Fukunaga, fresh off the success of True Detective, turned in one of the better films of 2015, and, still, advertisements for Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation were inconspicuous. Outside of the bubble that is Film Twitter, few people saw Beasts of No Nation. Certainly, no one at work or anyone in my family could tell me anything about it.

If it seems like I’m picking on Netflix it’s because, despite wanting to do better, they just don’t. The commitment to quality is obvious when looking at Netflix’s history of working directly with filmmakers and giving them an immediate platform in 190 countries. In a cinematic landscape dominated by adaptations of comic books and sequels, that kind of global presence for writer/directors that can’t be beat . So to see a difficult project like Beasts gets made only to be forgotten is aggravating, even more so when The Do-Over is plastered everywhere a year later.

There are enough faceless entities asking for our time and money; adding a personal touch like curated sections would be a big boon to Netflix. In a move to mirror independent video stores, they could offer recommendations by directors like Steven Soderbergh, Lisa Cholodenko, and Spike Lee. Immediately, Netflix gains something that alternatives like Amazon can’t offer. Like the clerk’s picks shelves of yesteryear, stumped video store customers would always have a last resort to rely on. Something sure to comfort Netflix users who regularly spend 20 minutes browsing for a movie to watch before giving up.

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At my local video store, I could surf through hundreds of movies selections too, but I would often head to the shelves where clerks would lovingly place their recommendations for undecided viewers. Of the three employees there, one made every effort to broaden the horizons of each customer. My parents were hardly on the front lines of American Independent film, but, here, was my father, checking out Pulp Fiction and The Piano after chatting with this bold clerk. Worst case scenario, if something we wanted wasn’t there, we’d go home happy with something else thanks to his recommendation.

Allowing auteurs to share their personal favorites only helps Netflix when promoting their original content in the future. Sure, that means licensing some flicks that are a little “out there,” but that is how tastes grow. And when viewers expand their horizons it makes them open to more of Netflix’s original offerings. It certainly would come in handy for future releases like Under the Shadow and War Machine (I’ll give you a moment to look them up).

People won’t know they want to watch those films until the opportunity presents itself. I don’t know if that involves placing trailers for their original films in front of theatrical releases, but any spotlight on those gems would make a difference.

Netflix became popular not because of a vast library of middling fare, but because of the quality television they offered. The same could be said for their films as well if they make a few choices. All those years ago when my father took me to the video store, I wasn’t excited by cheap selections, I was excited by the passion the clerks had for sharing great films. Hopefully, with a few tweaks, the same could be said of Netflix soon.