One of my favourite movies is a French film with a rambling plot involving a graffiti artist, a rapper and a homeless man on a road trip. IP5 is memorable for a scene where Olivier Martinez finally kisses the woman he’s been chasing throughout the film. It’s still the best movie kiss I’ve ever seen. I first saw it during the school summer holidays in 1995, having exhausted the options of four terrestrial television channels. Driven desperate by boredom, I took a chance on a French film I’d never heard of.
It’s hard to imagine such a scenario today. There’s no need to flick channels, hoping for something decent to watch, when we can stream whatever we want.
Personalised, but the same
Netflix estimates that 75% of viewer activity is driven by recommendation. According to The Atlantic’s ‘How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood‘, the American company, fast becoming a staple in the UK (approximately 10% of UK households subscribe), has more than 75,000 unique ways to categorise content.
This allows them to provide extremely specific recommendations to their customers – Critically Acclaimed Romantic Dance Movies, anyone? – which, while they may make choosing your Friday night’s viewing quicker, could create a filter bubble which ultimately limits your choices.
Even if a streaming service like Netflix hosted such an obscure film as IP5, and categorised it accurately – French Coming of Age Road Trip Buddy Comedy, perhaps – I can’t imagine their algorithm would predict that I would enjoy it. Something about the idea that an algorithm can know a person is distasteful – as if the person is an algorithm too, easily understood and predictable.
So, no, I don’t want to watch Face/Off because I watched Adaptation – but it’s the potential impact on the film industry which is a bigger concern.
Safe bet cinema
The toast of this year’s Sundance festival, Tangerine, was made on an iPhone 5S. But while making films has never been more accessible, without the marketing budget to create demand, low-budget, independent films may not make a profit. At a time when film attendance is the lowest it’s been in two decades, this means investors prefer the safe bets of comic-book movies and remakes, and fewer diverse films – in terms of talent and subject matter – get made.
And what a shame that is. Don’t we need (and want) more films about people who aren’t square-jawed, middle-class white men? I nodded off halfway through Iron Man 3, but 2009’s Amreeka, written and directed by Cherien Dabis, had me choking on my popcorn with laughter. Yet the story of a single mother and her teenage son adapting to life in rural Illinois after leaving Palestine took just over two million dollars at the box office, compared to Iron Man 3’s $1.2 billion. Similarly, Taika Waititi’s coming-of-age tale, Boy (2010), set in poor, rural New Zealand is, for my money, a far more charming and engaging watch than Boyhood (although I recognise not loving Boyhood is a minority opinion).
Both directors released new films last year. What We Do in the Shadows, co-directed by Waititi and Jemaine Clement (of Flight of the Concords fame) will almost certainly be the funniest mockumentary about vampires sharing a house in Wellington you’ll ever see. I haven’t seen May in the Summer, Dabis’ second feature, but if it’s half as good as Amreeka it’ll be worth a watch. And there are plenty more recent low-budget, independent films to get excited about; 2014’s Zero Motivation, about young women doing their national service in the Israeli army, or this year’s The Wolfpack, a documentary about a reclusive family in New York City’s Lower East Side, to name just two.
These sorts of strange, charming, oddball little films are out there – but the same might not be true in years to come, if they can’t find an audience.
So why not try seeking them out? You could go to one of the many film festivals held around the country – most make tickets available to the public. Some of London’s best are Raindance (specialising in low-budget, independent film), Loco (comedy), Flare (LGBT cinema) and Underwire (short films made by women).
Or, just ignore the recommendations occasionally. Watch something you’ve never heard of. Watch a film on television, just because it’s on. And don’t let being spoiled for choice spoil the choices available.
Rachel Macaulay is a London-based screenwriter. @rachelmacaulay