The "Top Picks for Hugh" tab on my Netflix app includes the 2014 zombie flick Z Nation (I am allergic to zombie flicks), the first Nanny McPhee (seen it, for my sins) and all seven series of Star Trek: The Next Generation (you cannot be serious).
So much for the fabled algorithmic power of the world's most popular streaming service. In these pages and others you will have read a lot about the unstoppable rise of Netflix, how it has transformed viewing habits, how traditional broadcasters quake at its name, and how it put the gold into the Golden Age of Television. Add in the Oscar-winning exploits of last year's Roma and the high expectations surrounding Martin Scorsese's imminent The Irishman, and you have one of the wonders of the digital media world.
There’s one problem. Most of the time, Netflix isn’t all that good. Discard the small number of prestige Oscar-bait titles it purchases or finances a couple of times a year, and you’re left with unoriginal mediocrity in the form of films like Otherhood, Wine Country and Murder Mystery. Even when it comes to new, original long-form serial drama, the biggest (Game of Thrones) and the best (Chernobyl) still come from other sources.
What happened to the dream of having all the world’s best films and TV available in your livingroom, and why do we have this pale imitation instead?
Gather around, metaphorical children, and I’ll tell you about the old days of video rental, when you could choose from pretty much all the major cinema releases of the preceding 12 months (with a not-unreasonable gap between the theatrical opening and the video release), as well as from a huge catalogue of thousands of older movies. It was far from perfect: the foreign-language section was puny; there wasn’t an awful lot from before 1980. But there were specialist stores to cater for those needs.
A few times during the video store age, I found myself in stores in other countries: cavernous places where you'd have no problem finding the complete works of Luis Buñuel or Howard Hawks. It seemed unlikely that such enterprises would ever be viable in a country the size of Ireland. But, as the internet age got going, the prospect of a virtual store materialised.
My dumb mistake was thinking that what we'd end up with when the dust settled would be a sort of Spotify for film
Even before widespread broadband made that technically possible, online booking permitted the rise of a new breed of DVD mail-order services, which were able to take advantage of scale to offer a more comprehensive range of titles, sounding the death knell for the old stores. When the biggest of those companies, an American outfit called Netflix, abruptly shifted its business model from mail order to online streaming, it looked like we might finally reach the promised land of unrestricted access to every film ever made (or something close). Backed by the limitless power of Big Data, the new platform could be the biggest video store on the planet, stocking every title ever known, all available at the tap of a touchscreen.
Or so we thought. Mail-order Netflix might have begun with the Schumpeterian destruction of the old bricks-and-mortar video rental business. But it went on to perform a dizzying pirouette to streaming which is now studied in business schools across the world. My dumb mistake was thinking that what we’d end up with when the dust settled would be a sort of Spotify for film.
In fact, with the new Disney+ service set for its American launch in November, the fragmentation of digital TV or internet television or whatever it is we’re supposed to call it will only increase. There is no reason to believe this will lead to better stuff getting made.
You can still rent movies, of course, through Google Play and iTunes and others, and there are other, extra-legal options (or so I'm told). But there's something about the Netflix effect, not least the fact you're paying them a monthly subscription, that makes that option seem less enticing or, oddly, less easy than it was in the days when you had to actually get off the sofa to go rent a movie.
What we actually have is a so-so video on demand service, clogged up with second-rate movies (the kind of stuff, ironically, that used to be derisively called straight to video), along with a number of commissioned series, some of them pretty good (Russian Doll, GLOW), but many no more than passable. And Friends.
Thanks for nothing, Netflix.