What Netflix Could Teach Hollywood

David Leonhardt The New York Times June 7, 2006


BETWEEN "The Godfather" and "The Godfather: Part II," Francis Ford Coppola made a movie called "The Conversation." It stars Gene Hackman as a paranoid wiretapper in Watergate-era San Francisco, and the cast includes Robert Duvall, a young Harrison Ford, the woman who played Shirley in "Laverne & Shirley" and the guy who played Fredo Corleone in "The Godfather."

The movie was nominated for best picture in 1975, and Mr. Coppola has actually called it the finest film he has ever made. After watching it this week, I wouldn't go that far, but it is certainly better than nearly anything at the multiplex right now.

Yet "The Conversation" was on its way to the movie graveyard just a few years ago. Since video stores have room for only a few thousands titles, some didn't carry it, and it was slowly being buried under the ever growing pile of newer films at other stores. It would have been easy a decade ago to imagine a time when few people would ever watch "The Conversation" again.

Then came Netflix. The Internet company with the red envelopes stocks just about all of the 60,000 movies, television shows and how-to videos that are available on DVD (and that aren't pornography). Just as important, for the sake of "The Conversation," Netflix lets users rate movies on a one- to five-star scale and make online recommendations to their friends.

The company's servers also sift through the one billion ratings in its system to tell you which movies that you might like, based on which ones you have already liked.

The result is a vast movie meritocracy that gives a film a second or third life simply because -- get this -- it's good. Last year, "The Conversation" (average rating: four stars) was the 13th-most-watched movie from the early 1970's on Netflix.

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