On February 3, 2016

The Netflix discrepancy

Ponder with me one of the great mysteries of the universe: how can it be that the 2012 romantic drama “The Best of Me,” starring Michelle Monaghan and James Marsden, has an average rating of 4.3 stars out of five on Netflix?

A little information to help you understand why this is a serious question: Netflix is a subscription-based entertainment service with 74 million monthly payers who watch movies and television shows, mostly via Netflix’s online streaming platform and occasionally on snail-mailed DVDs, and have the option of rating them on a scale of one to five stars. Netflix isn’t especially interested these days in sharing the aggregate scores of its films; the purpose of the rating system, within a dictatorial interface whose goal is not to show customers the company’s entire range of viewing options but, eventually, to be able to tell users exactly what to watch from an impossibly vast collection (there exists no internal way to browse the entire database as a list), is to gather data on your tastes and preferences.

As far as Netflix is concerned, you don’t need to know what the outside world thinks of a movie—the company’s goal is to enclose you in a bubble of content that you personally love. That’s why, when you use the Netflix app on your Roku or Apple TV, the star rating that appears in red when you hover over a title is not an average score based on broad user input but an algorithmic prediction of what you yourself will rate the movie once you’ve watched it. For years I assumed the opposite, as this is explained nowhere on the screen. Netflix’s algorithm presumably makes its guesses based on your previous ratings and viewing history; other people’s opinions probably factor in somehow, too, but it’s clearly not about them—it’s about you.

The only way to see Netflix’s “average rating” for each film—based in many cases on hundreds of thousands or even millions of votes—is to access the site through a traditional browser and then to switch from the dominant “Watch Instantly” mode to the near-obsolete “DVD” mode. Then, when you click on a title, you’ll see both Netflix’s “best guess for you” and the “average of [X] votes.”

Netflix’s average-rating feature is, in a way, more populist than IMDb, which caters to “movie fans” specifically rather than general viewers. IMDb isn’t a place to watch movies; it exists for those who seek movie-related content (information, community) beyond the movies themselves. Netflix, meanwhile, sells the actual product, and its users include people who just want something to fall asleep in front of and would never visit a movie message board or query the technical details of a film.

Its ratings are therefore more likely to stray from the Tomatometer (the score assigned to movies by the film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes) than IMDb’s, which come from people who consider themselves cinephiles—not professional critics, but close. “The Best of Me” scores an eight out of 100 on the Tomatometer, which means that only eight percent of critics (from print and online publications) reviewed it favorably. This is a very bad score.

Its IMDb rating is a kinder 6.6 out of 10; however, this is only a middling score for the website. But its average rating on Netflix, again, is a 4.3 out of five, and this score is tremendous. For reference, “Citizen Kane” scores a 3.8. “Casablanca” gets a 4.1. “Pulp Fiction” also gets a 4.1. Last year’s Best Picture winner, “Birdman,” gets a 3.1. “The Best of Me,” a Southern tearjerker from the mortality-obsessed imagination of the author responsible for “A Walk to Remember” and “Nights in Rodanthe,” is better than all of these.

I’m vaguely watching the movie on Netflix Instant right now, and it seems pretty bad, but how can I argue with 931,985 voters?

Another fun fact: not a single winner of the Palme d’Or (the highest prize at Cannes, the world’s most prestigious film festival) has scored a four or higher on Netflix since 2002’s “The Pianist.” “The Tree of Life,” which won in 2011, gets a 2.6. Meanwhile, of the twelve official entries (so far) in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, only three—“Ant-Man” (3.9), “Iron Man 3” (3.9), and “The Incredible Hulk” (3.6)—have failed to score a four or higher. After some searching, I can’t find a single non-documentary feature anywhere on Netflix rated higher than “The Avengers” (4.5).

I believe that the discrepancy between arthouse notions of great cinema and Netflix’s notion of the same is primarily a result of the insular, guiltless experience of the latter, where we choose movies from a computer-whittled selection based on our own tainted late-night viewing histories rather than any critical or public consensus on what we should see; watch them in the privacy of our homes; and then rate them anonymously, without creating an interactive IMDb-style profile, on a website without any external links to professional reviews.

Netflix exists outside of social pressure; it’s cinema decontextualized. Consequently, it can be generous even to films that people were too embarrassed to pay money to see in theaters (“The Best of Me” was not a box office hit, grossing only $26.76 million on a $26 million budget) and cruel-to-ostensibly virtuous but difficult movies like Jean-Luc Godard’s “Goodbye to Language” (a 2.6 on Netflix), proclaimed the best movie of 2014 by critics J. Hoberman, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Armond White.

Are Netflix’s ratings the purest representation of what people actually enjoy? I don’t know—it’s hard to believe that any single human who’s seen both “Sunset Boulevard” (3.8) and “The Longest Ride” (3.9) actually thinks the latter is better, regardless of what the collective scores indicate. Moreover, it strikes me as possible that the cultural bullying inherent to traditional modes of film consumption has done more to lead people to good movies than Netflix’s individually tailored recommendations.

On the other hand, “The Best of Me” is starting to grow on me.

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