Netflix’s Terrible (Hopefully Temporary) Problem

By  · Published on January 10th, 2014

Reading Felix Salmon’s downer article and searching for a classic mystery thriller has gotten me pessimistic about Netflix. Not about its future as a business, but as a user. As a movie fan.

The core problem that we all know so well is that Netflix doesn’t have a lot of streaming options (hence the small crop that manifested from searching for classic mystery thrillers). The secondary problem, as Salmon points it:

“As a result, Netflix can’t, any longer, aspire to be the service which allows you to watch the movies you want to watch. That’s how it started off, and that’s what it still is, on its legacy DVDs-by-mail service. But if you don’t get DVDs by mail, Netflix has made a key tactical decision to kill your queue – the list of movies that you want to watch. Once upon a time, when a movie came out and garnered good reviews, you could add it to your list, long before it was available on DVD, in the knowledge that it would always become available eventually. If you’re a streaming subscriber, however, that’s not possible: if you give Netflix a list of all the movies you want to watch, the proportion available for streaming is going to be so embarrassingly low that the company decided not to even give you that option any more. While Amazon has orders of magnitude more books than your local bookseller ever had, Netflix probably has fewer movies available for streaming than your local VHS rental store had decades ago. At least if you’re looking only in the ‘short head’ – the films everybody’s heard of and is talking about, and which comprise the majority of movie-viewing demand.”

Thus, the solution is also extremely clear.

But a problem/solution so stark is also a dividing line between how useful Netflix (or any subscription streaming program) is going to be as a service. Salmon is right to point out that it’s dramatically shifted from something excitingly useful to a virtual swap-meet bargain bin. Great for accidental discovery, less-than-helpful for watching something specific.

Hunt around the Horror section and you’ll find favorites like Cabin in the Woods and classics like Rosemary’s Baby, but they’re floating in a massive sea of bizarrely bad mainstream detritus and super low budget indies with no other place to go. Frankenqueen? The Dead Undead? Blood Surf? It’s an island of misfit toys that no one should play with.

On the brighter side, all niche movies need a home, and there’s a real joy to be had in discovery. Plus, as a landscape of excellent movies overshadowed by a horde of terrible (or forgettable) ones, Netflix is a nice echo of the industry’s batting average.

Still, in order to become a tool that provides what viewers want, Neflix will have to get aggressive about future deals that can provide a larger streaming library that features more popular and classic options. No more giant title dumps. More transparency and communication to users about what they’ll be getting. A system that goes beyond acting as little more than a local library with a monthly fee.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.