Whatever future of entertainment may hold, it’s reasonable to assume Netflix will play some role in determining it. The company is at the forefront of defining home viewing habits and the ways in which audiences can discover its library of movies and television. It’s a fickle process, one that doesn’t favor the discovery of edgier content. So it was particularly dispiriting to learn that sometime in April, Netflix will abandon its five-star ratings in favor of a thumbs up/thumbs down approach.
“Five stars feels very yesterday now,” said Netflix VP of product Todd Yellin in a press briefing. He went on to suggest that star ratings hurt its business investments in catalogs of titles, noting that “bubbling up the stuff people actually want to watch is super important.”
However, that logic holds only if you believe the only important metric is giving the audience exactly what it wants — and nothing else. No surprising new experiences that might expose them to fresh storytelling, genres, filmmakers, or sensibilities they never knew. It serves complacency: Like those Adam Sandler movies? Here’s more! Hate ’em? Here’s some other comedies instead.
The thumbs up/down system has been a negative force in the critical landscape ever since Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert first applied it from the couch of their television show nearly 40 years ago. At first, the metric initially became an asset for propelling smaller releases to commercial heights: Two thumbs up became synonymous with “must-see,” and played a crucial role in movies like “My Dinner With Andre” going from obscure arthouse material to overnight hits.
Over the years, however, this binary approach has encouraged reductive assessments that depressed the value of nuanced opinion. It’s that same impulse that has led to our current age of Rotten/Fresh polarities determining a movie’s fate with the ease of a flipped coin. By judging any culture through the limited range of binary possibilities, it’s always one step away from outright dismissal. (At IndieWire, we pair our reviews with letter grades ranging from A+ to F, which at least allows for more variability.)
As with many Netflix announcements, this news doesn’t tell the full story. While users may feel empowered by the opportunity to flick their thumb in approval or condemnation, the company has a lot more data under the hood: Duration of viewing, geographical habits, time of the year, and many other details fuel its ever-secretive recommendation algorithms.
The thumbs up/down approach also provides terrible optics for a company in the business of supporting the future of movies, one that has recently gone into business with no less than Martin Scorsese. It suggests that there’s no value in divisive material — the kind of movie that, say, you love and your friend hates, and you stay up all night drinking wine and arguing about it. (Nobody wins; that’s the point.) By depriving viewers of the opportunity to broaden their range, Netflix denies an essential aspect of the maturation process for the critically engaged viewer.
In a practical defense of Netflix’s reasoning in Vulture, Kevin Lincoln cites a number of titles from the company’s library that have received an aggregate rating of 2.75 or lower, including high-profile comedy specials from Amy Schumer and Chelsea Handler, Sandler movies produced as part of its partnership with the actor, and so-called “well-reviewed film festival premieres” like “Burning Sands.”
It’s true that the negative star ratings for some of these titles may be the unfair result of fickle users harboring cruel agendas. (Just think of what an army of alt-right loonies might do to “Dear White People” when it lands on the platform next month.) In that sense, it may be wise for Netflix to keep those ratings private.
But if it uses the thumbs up/down approach to drive its algorithm, it won’t give audiences the opportunity to expand their interests. By only suggesting titles based on what you’ve liked, Netflix limits the possibility that you might stumble upon something you never knew you’d enjoy in the first place. Just because you gave a thumbs up to every movie directed by Steven Spielberg available on Netflix (currently, there are three of them) doesn’t mean you won’t get something out of the lesbian romance “Blue is the Warmest Color,” which Spielberg awarded the Palme d’Or when he headed the jury at Cannes in 2013.
“Blue is the Warmest Color” (available in Netflix’s “LGBT Dramas” section) looks completely different from anything in the Spielberg oeuvre, which contains very little sexuality at all, let alone queer coming-of-age stories. But it turns out that Spielberg knows an ambitious piece of filmmaking when he sees it, even if it’s not in synch with his own directorial sensibilities. Why should we believe audience members are any different?
Years ago, Netflix actually paid for film critics to help single out valuable titles in its catalogue and explain their significance. In an age defined by content overload, that curatorial approach has become more valuable than ever. By contrast, the “like” and “dislike” buttons are dangerously volatile switches, particularly once they wind up on a global platform like Netflix. The company holds the keys to changing the way the world sees the moving image. And now, with the ease a single vote, it could change the way people don’t see it, too.