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A thought about your next movie recommendation


How do you choose what to watch next...?

Is choice something to leave to marketers - or do we need to 'keep talking' about the TV and movies that are worth watching?

In all the current furore about the rising public consciousness of what this article at the BBC refers to as 'Corporate Greed and Inequality', and considering that the issues involved encompass the likes of rising energy prices, major issues of public policy, political accountability and diminishing faith in an economic system that seems riddled with self-serving cabals, cartels and the kind of 'discreet' agreements in the corridors of power that have all but absolved the world's banking powers from the effects of a recession that has cut deep into most of our lives in the last few years...well, maybe it puts the issue of your next choice of movie rental, ticket or disc purchase into an insignificant perspective.

But it worries me. As a veteran of video stores in the UK and Europe, I live near one of the best in London. The expertise of the team of owners who serve at the shop have led me over the last 4-5 years to movies and TV shows I would never have found in any other manner than actually standing, in the real world, in front of a human being who knows me a little, shares my enthusiasm for film and TV, and knows a little about what I have rented in the past. A person with whom I have conversed on the subject of movies, actors, directors, etc, even in the event that I have never actually rented anything from their store directly related to that conversation.

The character limit on Twitter won't support this model of information flow. The auto-recommendations in my Amazon account - while in themselves among the least offensive and most useful forms of sponsored recommendations currently available - still fail the Turing test too often to compare to those golden moments of actual communication at the video shop. For one thing, the Amazon recommendation system does not understand why I may have brought a particular movie or TV series, and may guess wrongly as to whether it was a gift (and therefore should not figure in future recommendations that Amazon makes for me) or a personal purchase (and a strong indication to Amazon to offer me items of a similar nature).

There are real-world connections, such as a chat in a video store or a water-cooler recommendation, that bring people together with movies and TV that may not only become important to them, but even change their lives. Or, at least, provide a good evening's entertainment. And all the demographic algorithms in the world, all of big business's determined strategies to remove chance from the equation of how we connect to our next movie or TV show, cannot replace this - or automate it.

I was talking last week with one of the owners of the video store in question - a generally rather gloomy conversation about the likelihood of the advent of movies-on-demand, via Sky and other big-name service providers, combining with the eventual improved efficiency of broadband to kill video shops. The argument is that people will be browsing from Sky's (or whoever's) On-Demand catalogue, reading the summaries (assuming that they don't know exactly what they are looking for in the first place) and clicking a few buttons to save a perusal of racks of DVDs and Blu-rays in their local video store.

As a hypothesis, it's not quite as simple a model of 'devolution' as it seems. In the case of theatrically-released movies that can be viewed via subscription channels at a premium price whilst still in cinemas, much depends on whether the customer's home hardware can compare to the 'commercial' experience of an auditorium; whether the customer cares about the 3D aspect of new releases; how long it will take for emerging home hi-def 3D technologies to seriously combine with adequate screen size and quality-of-experience to truly challenge the new campaigns to delay or halt radical changes in the home/theatrical distribution set-up for new movies and TV output. And with many other factors.

The point is, who will introduce you to Citizen Kane if that movie does not happen to be in the current bundle of multiple-viewing archive deals that pervade Europe (back when I lived in Italy, I would end up discussing the previous night's movie with him - he saw it on BBC2 and I saw it on RaiDue. After this began to become a regular occurrence,  I realised the corporate, aggregate nature of TV programming acquisition, at least in Europe)...?

With fond memories of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I decided some months ago to revisit the series, only to discover that the few stand-out moments from season 1 were in the context of a show that had not yet found its flavour, humour or pace. And which had clearly been made on a shoestring budget. It was at the video store that I was convinced of how much the show improves in later seasons, and that I should not abandon it. With some reluctance, I shelled out for season two. And, in short order, all the seasons thereafter.

Likewise, having followed my Buffy-fest with a complete viewing of Angel (and survived the awful drop in quality in season four of that show, only to find that season five was the best of the whole Angel experience), I figured that I was on a David Boreanaz kick by now and might as well give season 1 of Bones a try. I found it formulaic, dated, humourless and not worth pursuing, and decided not to continue with it. Until I chatted with a friend who assured me that later seasons really picked up on the potential of the humour in the Boreanaz/Deschanel dynamic, and introduced a raft of worthwhile secondary characters. Consequently Bones S6 is on my waiting list at the video shop, after having ploughed my way through that show with increasing appreciation - despite my loathing of CSI-style TV.

Another example: today my new housemate helped me hand my Metropolis poster straight, only to reveal, despite being a knowledgeable lover of sci-fi movies, that she had not only never seen Fritz Lang's masterpiece, but had never even heard of it. When she then helped me put up my poster of The Day The Earth Stood Still, exactly the same situation transpired. So now I have the impending pleasure of introducing this very cinematically-knowledgeable woman to two classic movies that happened to slip under her radar.

Such things happen. In the years that I lived between various countries, in various states of business and lack of time (or being out of the company of lovers of good movies), I often found myself exposed to a stream of cinematic dross whilst future favourites of mine would have to wait years for me to stumble upon them - or be told about them.

When the recommendation process is completely automated, it's a reasonable guess that the most expensive (i.e. currently on release) possible VOD material will be pushed first at us. After that, the likes of Pretty Woman and Notting Hill, as 'archive favourites'. And a slew of TV and movie output calculated from focus groups, statistics and cookie-analysis, amongst other methods.

Who will be fighting for Fritz Lang in these lists, these promotions, these auto-recommendations? Knowing that Jack Nicholson is a reliable draw, which executive will promote the superb The Last Detail over the vastly inferior (but more recent) Wolf?

All I am saying is that we need to keep an eye on how this situation develops over the next few years - on how the process of discovering quality movies and TV risks to slip entirely into the purview of the marketers, as the loci of actual real-world conversation begin to close up (such as video stores). Without the evolution of the grass-roots 'grapevine' in the face of corporations looking for reliable demographic forecasts, we may only have McMovie to look forward to. Or TV-by-numbers.

See also:

The movies that save our lives

Ten classic films you should admit you've never seen

Auteur This: Aggressive Mediocrity

The loneliness of the long-distance 'B'-movie fan

5 DVD catch-ups for the summer content drought

5 movies that deserve a second look

Nine Non-Mainstream Movies Worth Seeing This Summer

7 foreign-language films that are worth the subtitles

Top 10 contenders for a Halloween movie marathon

How to Have a Twilight-Free Vampire Movie Marathon

The films of John Carpenter - in order of importance

Top 10 movie horror anthologies

All Good Things: a look back at Carpenter's masterpiece The Thing

Tucker & Dale, The Tunnel lead Telluride Horror Show selections

In Praise of “Slings & Arrows”: Fortunately Outrageous

In praise of Friday Night Lights


If you're interested in writing for Shadowlocked (disc and screening reviews, etc, or just getting some extra coverage for your extraordinary writing talent, get in touch with us.



#1 Interesting article Richard Cosgrove 2011-10-24 16:20
Very interesting article, Martin, about an oft overlooked issue. Just as record shops have largely disappeared, replaced by racks of CDs that contain only the couple of dozen that the buyers of these chains consider the most marketable (read: profitable). This is all very well if you're after Coldplay, Westlife, *insert name of current X-Factor winner here*, but for anybody else, forget it. Sames goes for DVDs / BluRays.

Yes,it is true that you can get virtually anything you want online these days, but this completely takes out the 'browse' factor that shops have, and which is far too often taken for granted.

I've lost count of the amount of times over the years that I've been browsing through a book shop, or record shop, or video rental library, and thought 'that looks interesting, I'll give it a go' only to be very pleasantly surprised. Browsing online doesn't have that same feel because for one, as you point out you're often herded towards things that the site thinks you like, and two, there's nothing quite like holding a movie in your hands, reading the blurb on the back, looking at the cover and thinking 'go on then, I'll have a go.'

Sadly these days are going to disappear more and more - even the larger shops like HMV are geared up towads only the most profitable items of many product lines (CDs, DVDs, t-shirts, books, games etc etc), which means that you'll get racks full of Stephanie Meyer and James Patterson, at the expense of much more interesting and worthy authors like David Moody and Lee Child.

Our only hope, and it's actually a good one, is that online forums devoted to recommending the very best in reading and viewing build and flourish, and that those of us who love our books, movies, and games actually also step away from the page and screen on occasion and meet up with like minded souls in the real world for a good old chat over a pint or a coffee.


So, in a nutshell - great article, Martin*!

(Richard Cosgrove)

(*hint, hint - Xmas drinks ;-) )
#2 Wonderful article! Caleb Leland 2011-10-27 13:16
A friend of mine and I were having a similar conversation a few months back about the demise of record stores. Like Richard, we found ourselves disliking the fact that while you can find like-minded people online to discuss these matters with, it's not the same as going to an actual shop and finding new and interesting treasures, or chatting up a clerk and having them point you in the direction of a book or album you might not have otherwise found.

It is because of that fact that I find myself making sure that I support my local comic book shops as much as possible, because the folks who work there can not only inform me of great titles I might not have otherwise checked out, but I can spend hours talking about the subject with them and just about anyone else who happens to stop in. It's one of the last bastions of real community.

Masterfully written, Martin.

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