The rise of Netflix has had an impact on the world at large far greater than the sum of its components. A recent article by salon.com reveals how Netflix is using sophisticated, state-of-the-art technology to figure out viewer preferences at an unprecedented scale, and used that data to justify their $100 million investment in the David Fincher led series House of Cards (2013), an American adaptation of the British novel and BBC series of the same name, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. The article points out that Netflix’s technical data surveys noticed that David Fincher directed projects, and films starring Kevin Spacey were both quite popular, thus leading Netflix to justify such a substantial investment. Where the article and I differ is on the path such technology is leading us: they feel it is inherently negative, whereas I see it as both a cause for concern, and the future genesis of a creative revolution that will sweep across the entertainment industry, and fan the flames of a new independent film golden age.
The sad truth is that the grim future that Salon is predicting is coming true anyway; networks and film studios are pandering to the public’s taste more and more based on demographic preferences, and through increasingly accurate polling data. Their grim future is going to come true regardless of whether or not Netflix had jumped onto the scene to begin with. A great example is internet-enabled Blu-Ray disc (BD) players: how do we know that our BD players aren’t sending out information to Los Angeles about how often we stop, pause, fast forward, rewind, or stop and restart altogether? And if they’re not sending out such information now, how soon until they start? In essence, they’re doing the same thing Netflix is doing, just through a different medium. Nielson ratings work in a similar, though not as precise, manner.
However, what we will get out of our digital revolution will also be positive. Independent filmmakers will avoid the trends of what the public wants, and ask them if they have ever seen this type of film before; it will spawn a whole new generation of independent filmmakers, and prompt older filmmakers to do indie film, all of which will seek to find that new ribbon of originality that, let’s face it, Hollywood is losing anyway.
Just as amazon.com has provided an outlet for young authors to be published in a digital forum, Netflix could very well establish itself as a place for aspiring filmmakers to get their films out to the general public without going through traditional Hollywood channels, which would not only allow Netflix to get a better gauge of what their audience wants, but also introduce young filmmakers who would otherwise be denied a wider audience a grand opportunity. Obviously, there would be some costs to such a service, but it would provide a great forum for indie films to present themselves.
It’s not just Netflix, though. Netflix was the first, and it is quite large, but amazon runs a digital video service, and that’s not bringing up the iTunes library, with its genius service, and others. Salon challenged Netflix for the same reason small businesses challenge WalMart: they’re the biggest targets to go after. They didn’t assail the Amazon service, even though they probably use the same data collection tools, and if they don’t know, they eventually will.
Neflix has screwed up in the past; they’re raising the rates was a giant public relations blunder, although the company didn’t miss a step financially. I sometimes feel that that they do not stock enough copies of newly released films (although after a year with them, I accept that it’s not likely to change). However, Netflix has shown a brilliant ability to make positive PR for itself, with the recent announcement of a Disney deal being the most substantial. Who knows? Maybe Starz will come back, or HBO will cut a streaming deal; HBO may want to eventually air House of Cards (2013) if it views it as a good investment.
Remember when Netflix was just a DVD service? It specifically targeted the Blockbuster video and Hollywood Video/DVD (depending on which location the name varied) crowd, and won out. It prompted the development, and successful implementation, of Redbox, and other $1/day rental machines. Oh boy, how times have changed. Now, BBC series (including the original House of Cards, which I feel I should inform has been remastered and recently re-released) are readily available for an American anglophile who loves british TV; foreign films which may never have made a splash here find audiences (for instance, I watched a violent but fascinating Japanese film Battle Royale, which I would never have sought out, but am interested in since it’s available at my fingertips).
I suppose my final response to the Salon article is that I ultimately don’t care if Netflix tracks what I watch, and how I watch it; would I prefer that it be optional? Yeah. (It’s one reason why I appreciate being able to toggle privacy settings on Facebook.) They may eventually make it that way if enough people make a fuss about it. However, I don’t mind it right now, since even if I’m not interested in ninety percent of films they recommend to me, I appreciate the ten percent that catch my eye.