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Tools

Slugline. Simple, elegant screenwriting.

Red Giant Color Suite, with Magic Bullet Looks 2.5 and Colorista II

Needables
  • Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony Alpha a7S Compact Interchangeable Lens Digital Camera
    Sony
  • Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4KBODY 16.05MP Digital Single Lens Mirrorless Camera with 4K Cinematic Video (Body Only)
    Panasonic
  • TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM DR-100mkII 2-Channel Portable Digital Recorder
    TASCAM
  • The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    The DV Rebel's Guide: An All-Digital Approach to Making Killer Action Movies on the Cheap (Peachpit)
    by Stu Maschwitz

Entries in Netflix (6)

Tuesday
Sep202011

Netflix Doesn't Care About Movie People

The bookshelf of Netflix’s highest-paying former customer

Netflix announced Sunday night that they’ll be splitting off their disk rental operation to a separate company, called Qwikster.

There’s been a lot of discussion about this on blogs and on Twitter. The comments on Netflix’s blog post present a good overview of the customer response. Some have praised Netflix for their foresight, while others have derided the move vociferously (and comedically). I found this breakdown of reasons why Netflix might have made this move insightful, but not as much as this one and this one.

I love Netflix, enough to complain about them here from time to time. But this latest announcement reminds me that Netflix doesn’t really love me. And by “me,” I mean the die-hard movie fan. The four-disk plan, Blu-ray option, twenty-disks-a-month user. You know, the ones who spend the most money with Netflix.

When Netflix effectively increased their price by removing the combined disk/streaming plan, I did not complain. Netflix has always been a good deal, and I don’t mind spending money on movies.

I can see how the split into two companies makes sense at a corporate level for Netflix, and might even be bold and daring. Some have even drawn analogies to Apple’s disinclusion of a floppy drive in the original iMac. The idea is that by becoming a streaming-only company, Netflix will have no choice but to make streaming better. This makes sense, and they do need this focus apparently, because Netflix’s selection of streaming titles is currently a “we guess you’ll rate this one star” rough with a few diamonds scattered in—a situation that’s about to get much worse as their deal with Starz ends.

It makes sense that Netflix, which always viewed DVDs by mail as an interim solution, would make this change and strive to be the best at streaming. Streaming is better for most people, and for every big-spender film fan like me, Netflix is betting there are a ton more “most people” And, of course, they’re right.

Sure, I enjoy streaming—for TV shows in particular, but also for the occasional movie. But I’m a film nerd with a 1080p projector, and I appreciate the quality and extra features of Blu-ray. I may be in the minority, but I am willing to spend money to make up for that.

Part of Netflix’s oddly-handled message (a part that many choose to take at something less than face value) is that by being its own company, Qwikster has an opportunity to focus 100% on disk delivery and do it better that Netflix ever could. Assuming that intention is real, here are my suggestions for how to make that happen. Call it an open letter to the recently-christened CEO of Qwikster, Andy Rendich.

There are two kinds of customers for disks, and they are very different. The first chooses not to use streaming due to technical reasons. They have a slow internet connection, or bandwidth caps, or don’t own a device that streams Netflix, or just don’t like new things. Disks work in their minivan, their business laptop, and at home, and they don’t see the need to change. These are likely to be your 1-disk-plan customers. Maybe 2.

The other kind is me, the film buff who appreciates quality, loves special features, and doesn’t mind waiting a day for a movie. These are likely to be 3-disk or more customers who will (if you insist) pay extra for Blu-ray. These customers are also more likely to have multiple accounts per household.

Netflix is currently failing to address the needs of this big-spender film fan customers in two key ways:

  • Netflix has a 28-day delay on many new releases (which, of course, affects all customers).
  • The Blu-rays that Netflix sends out are often stripped-down versions with no special features.

So Andy, while $8 of my monthly budget may well continue to go to Netflix, I’ve got $27 that I’d been spending on disks that you could capture. But since Qwikster offers no synergy with Netflix (such as shared ratings, or notification that a disk in my queue is available for streaming), the competitive field is open for that $27. I’m already trying out Blockbuster’s Total Access service—3 disks per month for only $20, no extra charge for Blu-ray, and I can swap disks at two locations close to my home.

You seem like a smart guy, and I’m pretty sure you know that you need to earn your own customers. If you want me among them, here’s what you could do:

  • Create social features that make sense. Let me choose who my friends are and prioritize their opinions when suggesting movies I might like.

  • Steal a great idea from GameFly (the very cool company whose lunch you’re reaching for) and let me buy the disk if I like it. Mail me the packaging and the next disk in my queue.

  • Use that last point as a negotiating point with the studios. You’ll immediately become a major sales outlet for the Blu-ray disks they love so much, so force them to make the disk experience great, instead of stripped-down and buried in skip-proof ads. Vow to only carry the full, feature-laden versions of movies when available, and market this as a huge content advantage over streaming services.

Obviously the last point is the main one for me. You’re selling disks now. Make them great. Simple as that.

It may be brilliant or it may be crazy, but Netflix has eliminated the advantages of convenience and interoperation that they once uniquely possessed. I love movies and I have money. Who wants it?

Thursday
Sep152011

Stripped-Down Blu-rays Selling Blu-ray Are Making Me Hate Blu-ray

I just rented Unknown from Netflix, on Blu-ray.

The first thing you see when you pop in the disk is a big, long, loud ad—for Blu-ray.

Hello. I own a Blu-ray player. I’m watching a Blu-ray. Why are you trying to sell me Blu-ray?

Skip.

Oops. Can’t skip. “This feature is not available here.”

So let’s see. I’m a Blu-ray owner, and you’re trying to sell me on Blu-ray by demonstrating Blu-ray’s ability to force me to watch an ad.

Fast forward maybe? Success!

But wait, now I’m curious. Let’s watch this Blu-ray ad.

It talks about image and sound quality. Yep, those are important to me.

Now it’s going into a big section about special features. “Go deeper into the movie.” Yes, this is the main reason I love Blu-ray so much. Picture-in-picture commentaries. Behind-the-scenes stuff. Awesome.

OK, ad over. Now some trailers.

Wow, lots and lots of trailers. For movies, and TV shows, and games, and…

Skip. Oops, nope. Fast forward.

Fast forward fast forward fast forward.

Aha. The menu.

And here are the two options:

  • Play Movie
  • Languages

Let me get this straight. After forcing me to watch an ad touting the amazing special features of Blu-ray, a thing of which I am already clearly a fan having spent hundreds of dollars on a player, you present me with a movie featuring exactly one “special feature”:

Spanish.

One of the most prominently featured movies in that unskippable ad was Sherlock Holmes. I rented that too. It also featured a stripped-down menu with only two options and none of the special features advertised. Except, of course, for the unskippable ads.

I get it. These minimized disks are pressed specifically for the rental market. I’m supposed to buy the “real” Blu-ray to see the good stuff. I actually do buy tons of Blu-rays—usually after renting them and experiencing how great all the special features are (Universal, ironically a late adopter of Blu-ray having supported HDDVD, doesn’t do the bare-bones thing). Looking back at my Amazon buying habits, turns out I buy a lot fewer movies these days—with “these days” coresponding precicely to the advent of these stripped-down “rental only” disks.

I’m a filmmaker and movie fan with a 1080p projector, 100-inch screen, and surround sound. Everyone I know streams nearly all their movies, but I specifically seek out the quality and extra features of Blu-ray without a second thought to the expense. But my love affair with the format is being killed by these bare-bones disks.

Here’s a crazy idea. How about instead of forcing people to watch an ad that talks about how Blu-ray provides a great movie watching experience—and then providing a shitty movie watching experience—how about just providing a great movie watching experience?

Let the experience be the ad.

Or, like Seth Godin says, “the product is the marketing.”

After all, look at the enormous popularity of the easiest way to have a high-quality movie watching experience at home, without any ads, trailers, FBI warnings, or firmware updates.

Talk about a successful product.

Monday
Aug162010

Why You So Stupid Netflix?

Which would you rather have for lunch — something a good friend ordered for you, or the most popular lunch among people who also enjoyed such hits as Turkey Sandwich and Fish Taco?

A few years back, Netflix made headlines by offering a prize of one million US dollars to anyone who could build a better recommendation engine for their online movie rental site. Crazy? Not according to Netflix. Their assertion was that if they could get just ten percent better at recommending movies based on users’ ratings (1 to 5 stars) of previously-viewed films, their revenues would increase by much more than a paltry $1M.

What has always boggled my mind about this challenge is that it’s a classic case of struggling to find a technological solution to a distinctly human problem. Google labors to perfect computer algorithms that convert recorded speech to text. For all their research and computational might, they do a pretty poor job. Meanwhile, a small, smart company called CastingWords* uses Amazon’s “Mechanical Turk” service to assign transcription tasks to hundreds of eager, human laborers who work for pennies. The results are near-perfect.

Netflix is sitting on a nearly Wikipedia-sized repository of user-generated movie reviews. These reviews a not just free to Netflix — since only active members can contribute them, people are actually paying for the privilege of reviewing films on Netflix’s site.

Netflix not only ignores these reviews in recommending movies, it also ignores your reaction to the reviews. This is the 100% human answer to their “technological” problem that has been staring them right in the face for years.

When I give Face/Off five stars, am I doing it because I love John Travolta Movies? Or Nick Cage flicks? Or John Woo films? Or hyper-violent 90s action? Or any film that features a speedboat chase? Netflix has no idea why I like or dislike a movie, so how can they predict what I might like or dislike next?

When I read the Netflix reviews of Face/Off, two things are abundantly clear: First, many people like that movie for reasons I don’t agree with. Second, people who don’t like Face/Off, with a few notable exceptions, are people whose cinematic opinions I can live without.

In Real Life I have friends who love Face/Off and friends who hate it. And crazily enough, I respect all of their opinions. Any of these friends are welcome to recommend movies to me, and I will almost always take those recommendations.

That’s Netflix’s second mistake: Thinking that we always only want to watch movies that we’d rate highly. I don’t know about you, but I watch plenty of movies that I know won’t be five-star favorites. A friend’s strong endorsement is often the reason — even that guy who hates Face/Off.

But let’s get back to Netflix’s first mistake: Thinking that what everyone thinks matters. I’m sorry, but everyone is an idiot. Even with the challenge complete and the fancy new algorithm implemented, everyone seems to think that because I liked Mission Impossible III, that I’ll jump for anything starring Tom Cruize. Or that liking the first four Steven Seagal films has anything to do with one’s opinions of his subsequent works.

Read some Netflix reviews. While a few are insightful, most are utter garbage.

If a person’s review is garbage, then what good is their star rating? None whatsoever. So the majority of the data used by these million-dollar algorithms is worse than worthless. No wonder the results plateau despite endless efforts.

Of course, your garbage might be my delicacy. On Netflix, you can rate reviews Helpful or Unhelpful. But Netflix obstinately sticks to it’s “everyone’s opinion” philosophy and uses these ratings to bubble Helpful reviews to the top of the list.

The list. No matter how you rate the reviews, you see the same list as everyone else.

You can probably imagine what I’m going to say next. Unless, of course, you work for Netflix.**

If I read a compelling, insightful review on Netflix, and I mark that review Helpful, then factor that person’s ratings higher in determining what films I might like. Similarly, if I mark a review as Unhelpful, then don’t let that fool’s opinions influence my recommendations.

Let me build a personal network of friends whose opinions I respect, and let their recommendations populate my personalized Netflix experience. It will immediately become obvious that a few, cultivated opinions are worth much more that a watered down average of millions.

Oh, and speaking of millions, you can keep the check Netflix. Better recommendations will be reward enough. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m hooked on you like strawberry crack.

* I found out about CastingWords in Seth Godin’s amazing book Linchpin. If it doesn’t make you want to quit your job, then maybe this will.

** In which case you might sponsor a contest to develop a robot that can predict what I’m about to say based on what everyone else has said.

Thursday
Apr082010

iPad for Filmmaking, Day Six Report

I’ve had my iPad for six days now, as anyone following me on Twitter knows. I realize that some of my Twitter followers find the iPad chatter to be a divergence from my usual filmmaking tweets seasoned with occasional missives about coffee and photography (both of which are, for me, filmmaking tools)—but that’s not the way I see it. My iPad has been quite busy over the first near-week of its life as a filmmaking tool.

First and foremost, I hoped that I would enjoy reading screenplays on my iPad, and I am happy to report that I do, very much. I read a ton of screenplays, many in PDF format. I hate reading them on my computer screen, especially my laptop. Not because of the backlit screen, but because of the psychological association I have with my computers. They are devices for doing work. They are a constant and cacophonous source of distraction. Reading screenplays, even well-written ones, is weirdly not easy. If you’re susceptible to distraction, reading a screenplay on a laptop can be like trying to count ceiling tiles at a Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

Printed screenplays are much better, but I hate wasting the paper myself. If they come to me printed, great—but even when printed double-sided (which welcomely is now the industry standard), they add up in meatspace. My 17” MacBook Pro, an extra battery, power adapter, and three screenplays crammed in a bag is a recipe for a very sore shoulder.

The minute the iPad apps started flooding the iTunes store, I began a search for a good PDF reading app. I flirted briefly with converting the screenplays to the ePub format used by Apple’s iBooks app, but with disastrous results. Here’s a cool article by someone more persistent that I—but while I certainly gave up in part due to laziness, it was also because I realized that ePub is not ideal for screenplays. ePub books can be re-flowed and re-paginated on the fly by the device, and that’s not a good thing for scripts, where white space, formating, and page numbers matter.

I didn’t just want to be able to read screenplays, I wanted to be able to make notes on them. There is a full-blown PDF annotation app called iAnnotate PDF, but I skipped it due to its complexity, and to be honest, because it is about the ugliest app I’ve seen yet on the iPad app store. I don’t need a ton of functionality, I just need to make little margin notes, like one can easily do in Apple’s under-appreciated Preview app on the OS X desktop.

Which sadly ruled out the simple, elegant, and bargain-priced (for now) GoodReader, which has a number of fans, including writer/director John August.

I found my sweet spot with ReaddleDocs. It is fairly priced at $4.99, and while not a standout in UI design (the icon is unfortunate, and the mechanics of organizing files are convoluted), it somehow has nailed exactly the amount of information I want on my screen when reading a script.

Some iPad periodicals have been criticized for failing to provide a sense of place within the larger document. Readdle is doing two things to subtly combat that here. Obviously the current page number and total page count are at the top of the document, but what I really love is the black dot on the right. When holding a printed screenplay, you always have an intuitive sense of how far through the document you are. The dot provides that perfectly. Wonderful.

Tap that dot and you can rapidly move to any page. The refresh rate is standard-issue iPad-awesome.

ReaddleDocs allows you to set as many bookmarks as you like, and name them. This is the capability that I have bastardized into a basic margin notes feature. Brevity is warranted, lest you type right off the edge of the screen (a forgivable bug for a day-one app). Another reason not to go too crazy with the bookmark/notes is that there is no way to export them.

The last thing I’ll say about Readdle is that, like GoodReader, it knows that the default iPhone OS PDF reading service is unsatisfactory, and replaces its scrolling model with a page-turning one. Here I have another minor complaint (which echoes August’s about GoodReader)—the page turning gesture in ReaddleDocs is too stubborn, and the redraw is not as slick as the rest of the app. Again, I forgive this as a version-one issue that would be hard to test for without an actual device in hand. I don’t expect (or want) fancy iBooks-like page flipping animation, just something simple and smooth (and left-to-right) like what’s in the excellent Amazon Kindle app.

Readdle and GoodReader can both grab your PDFs from the web, Dropbox, email accounts, and computers on a shared Wi-Fi network. There is a seemingly never-ending flow of classic screenplays available at mypdfscripts.com.

So that’s reading screenplays—how about writing them? Final Draft is working on something for the iPad, as are the developers of iPhone screenwriting apps Screenplay and ScriptWrite. Until those options materialize though, the clever duo of Joke and Biagio have created a template for Apple’s Pages app that achieves screenplay formatting via Styles, which allow some automation (hitting Return after a character name will take you to a dialog element automatically), but not much (no Tab to advance through elements).

Adobe has a cloud-based, colaborative screenwriting web app called Adobe Story, currently categorized as a “free preview version” at Adobe Labs. Who would have thought that Adobe would provide the Google Docs of screenplays? There’s even a standalone AIR app. If ever there was a screenwriting app that wanted to be on the iPad, its Adobe Story. And with Adobe running AIR apps on iPads on day one, maybe there’s hope.

If you plan on writing anything long on the iPad, you may want to consider a physical keyboard. I like the Apple Bluetooth Keyboard because it allows flexibility in how you position and orient the device, and because Bluetooth was named after a Viking.

There are several movies that provide endless sources of inspiration to me, and since I own them all on DVD, I have no compunctions at all about ripping them with Handbrake and storing them on the iPad. Sex them up with cover art from this search engine (in iTunes, File > Get Info, Artwork tab, Add).

I used Apple Compressor to make iPad-friendly version of my demo reel, my short films, and various other inspirational videos found around the web.

I’m using the new Publish functionality in Lightroom 3 Public Beta 2 to fill my iPad with portfolio images, along with color reference stills, reference images for projects in development, and the usual family photos. Since I don’t use iPhoto, I just tell iTunes to sync my iPad with a specific folder I’ve created. Sub-folders become iPad “albums.”

So I have a dozen screenplays, a half-dozen feature films (with commentary tracks), my entire photography portfolio, and the ability to watch anything Netflix streams, all tucked neatly in my new murse. Not bad for less then a week into things. I bought the iPad with specific (and, so far, not very adventurous) ideas about how it could instantly become a useful filmmaking tool, and so far it has met and exceeded my expectations.