It’s finally happened: I’ve run out of things to watch. The blockbuster hits and grand Oscar-chasers and addictive TV shows are on summer break, and I’m left scraping the bottom of the Netflix barrel on sleepless nights—a bleak rabbit hole of cheap, made-for-video b-movies. Why are there so many god-awful movies on this site?
A recent Pacific Standard article gives a glimpse into the answer—a peek into the strange world where Big Data and low-budget movie studios collide. The article profiles Asylum, the infamous "mockbuster" rip-off movie studio that churns out content on a shoestring budget based on what will sell, paying no mind to what's actually good.
Netflix is one of Asylum’s regular buyers, along with Red Box, Blockbuster, Amazon, and others. And it buys the whole shebang. It scoops up every new release and has the studio’s entire catalog available.
And Netflix doesn't just stop at licensing new releases. In a sense, it’s influencing their being made in the first place. Netflix provides Asylum with data on what its users are interested in, and the studio obliges.
“It’s not like we said, ‘There aren’t enough crappy B-level movies out there, so we must corner that market!’," Asylum co-founder David Michael Latt told Pacific Standard. "We don’t really know the consumer. The consumer is too big and too fractionalized. All we know is we’re making a film for Netflix, and they tell us what they want.”
Netflix is getting good at predicting what people want. It knows what each of its 35 million subscribers is watching, for how long, and whether they liked it. It spots trends by analyzing the millions of categories movies and shows are tagged with, to predict the customer probably wants to watch, say, Critically-Acclaimed Gritty Movies Based on Real Life.
It also hands that information, or at least part of it, over to Asylum, which returns the favor with a steady stream of data-informed sleaze. "Netflix doesn’t just stream films—it wills them into existence," reported Pacific Standard. In other words, by enjoying Jaws and Twister, I may have accidently willed Sharknado into existence.
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In fact, streaming sites like Netflix are what revitalized the struggling b-movie industry. For years, Asylum’s bread-and-butter was “mockbusters,” knock-off versions of successful blockbusters hits turned around in a month, for under a million, with amazing rip-off titles like Snakes on a Train and The DaVinci Treasure.
Even in the analog days, genres and concepts were tested on buyers before the movie was produced to make sure there was consumer demand. Streaming made this model work even better. One, websites could collect loads of data and feedback instantly. Two, sites need easily and constantly available b-movies to beef up their libraries, making it look like there's a lot of content, and new stuff arriving all the time.
Three, the mockbusters (or "tie-ins," as the studio is trying to rebrand them) can ease the sting, and capitalize on it, when users search for a title that isn’t available. Looking for Transformers? Maybe you’ll settle for Transmorphers instead. The licensing deals Netflix has with the major film studios and networks are always in flux, and b-movies serve as filler flix.
Now, as Netflix attempts to ditch the distribution business to focus on programming, it’s leveraging its massive store of consumer data to do create original content. The company is betting its algorithm is sophisticated enough to risk producing an entire series and streaming it all at once. Such was the case with House of Cards; Netflix learned users liked the original BBC version, liked David Fincher, and liked Kevin Spacey—Voila! A hit is born.
It's certainly a smart strategy: Television pilots routinely throw millions down the toilet because no one wants to air the show. Netflix airs its own shows, and has a pretty good, math-informed idea people will watch it.
The unsettling part is that the masses can be terribly off base, and even the most sophisticated algorithm can't sniff out, you know, actual art. In the words of this Salon article, viewers are turning into puppets. “Now Netflix is using the same formula to prefabricate its own programming to fit what it thinks we will like," wrote Salon. "Isn’t the inevitable result of this that the creative impulse gets channeled into a pre-built canal?"
In a sense, if we want less crappy movies to peruse, it’s on us. A tongue-in-cheek post on Asylum’s blog made this point by asking viewers to queue up a particular title (this one happened to be 2010: Moby Dick) to give the appearance of consumer demand and force Netflix to order it—not because the studio gave a damn if anyone watched the movie, but just to game the system. “This is about taking a stand,” the studio wrote. “Against math.”