The algorithms will not save you

The pandemic has upended movie watching. Our theaters are now our homes, with streaming services like Netflix and HBO Max our de facto movie watching hubs. Even long after COVID-19 is behind us, film distribution will not revert to the way it was in 2019. Brick and mortar theaters stay in shambles. Premium VOD will be untenable. Subscription services increasingly dominate.

Paradoxically, a movie watching landscape under the control of new technology can make finding content to match your tastes more difficult. Algorithms are not the answer. Instead, you’ll have to use some proactiveness and legwork to find your next great film.

That’s because almost every streaming service makes hunting for good content an ordeal. So much content can appear at once. Most services are intentionally obtuse with the details and it’s hard to know when a service adds or removes movies. Categorization can feel vague, misleading, and manipulative. A service will happily pay inflated prices for critically acclaimed festival winners and then proceed to bury them off the home page.

To boot, every streaming service, especially Netflix, has a spotty batting average around quality control. There’s a lot of blatant filler content. Big directors and actors pop up with uncharacteristically uneven work (e.g., David Fincher’s Mank, George Clooney’s The Sheltering Sky, Sophia Coppola’s On the Rocks). A straightforward genre picture in another context becomes a mishmash of widely different movie influences driven by algorithm to appeal to multiple niche audiences at once.

It’s fair to ask why these new platforms, with so much data, money, and cutting edge technology, have an uneven record. But consider the parent companies and their motivations; consistent quality isn’t the top priority. Amazon will happily burn cash as another incentive to keep you loyal to the bigger Prime e-commerce service. Apple TV Plus is another offering alongside Apple Arcade and Apple Fitness to keep brand loyalists happy as iPhone sales reach a saturation point.

Cynically, part of the logic behind what titles the services favor boils down to marketing, a ploy to keep you from unsubscribing. Tiger King isn’t exactly Oscar caliber cinema, but a few weeks of trending social media keeps Netflix awareness high, more eyeballs, and less churn. I’d bet the number of people who have watched Oprah’s new Apple TV Plus series is minuscule, but the ability to plaster Oprah all over Apple products and stores is priceless. Extraction is pedestrian John Wick meets Commando mercenary action, but when it has the weight of Chris Hemsworth and the guys who directed Avengers: Infinity War behind it, Netflix gets free summer blockbuster cachet.

Now of course, there are great movies on the services I’ve dragged here, not to mention all over the internet. But to find gems usually requires some manual digging. “Best of” critics lists can serve as a starting point. If you’ve liked a director or actor’s work, check IMDB to find what else they’ve done.

For recommendations beyond online media outlets, sign up for a free account on Letterboxd, a Twitter-like aggregator for movies. Follow a few people who’s tastes you agree with, and watch for new recommendations to pop in your activity feed. Like with any social media, there’s a learning curve to find the right people to follow, but I’ve found a lot of solid picks I wouldn’t have heard of otherwise through the app.

Also pony up for a la carte for rentals, at least occasionally. While increasing amounts of content are exclusive to a single subscription service, you’ll find an infinitely larger selection of both new and old releases packaged as an old fashioned rental at $4 to $6. Thankfully most rental options offer similar prices, streaming quality, and audio formats. Personally I’ve always favored iTunes rentals given Apple’s tighter stance on privacy and a solid bit rate quality, but rental services are largely interchangeable.

In addition, a watchlist to jot down potential films of interest is especially helpful today as movies drop in and out of availability. Something as bare bones as an entry in your notes app of choice or a Google Doc can work. Capturing and cross referencing your list against an app like Just Watch can be even more effective, ensuring you’ll know where any title of interest is available for rental, streaming, or purchase.

Remember that homework to find great movies isn’t a pretentious act. In the end you’re chasing your own tastes. Some prefer The New Yorker, others streamers on YouTube or posts on Reddit. There’s no judgement in where you find your next great film, and it’s ok to take a break and ride the algorithm for a while too. But what streaming is throwing at you reach what’s possible with a small amount of effort; dig in to find what resonates for you.