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Why Data Science Will Be the Future of Entertainment

Since its inception, Netflix has paved the way for streaming to become the new way to watch content and it’s no surprise either. If we look back upon the history of content distribution in the entertainment industry, technology has always been at the forefront. Look no further back than when radio helped bring entertainment across frequencies, or when television brought movies and sitcoms into the homes of suburban America. And now thanks to mobile technology, we have a radio, television, and computer all combined into a device that can fit into our pocket. Technology has always been the limit to what the entertainment industry can accomplish, but with the digital age increasing the interconnectedness of consumer to merchant, it appears that the limit may be no more thanks to data science.

Before discussing how streaming takes advantage of data science, we have to talk about how it got there. With almost everybody relying on mobile technology, especially their smartphones, it’s now far more easier to obtain information and data on people. The digital age has introduced corporations and business to the digital footprint: a collection of data that summarizes a consumer’s purchasing habits and, most importantly, their online activity. That online activity is what draws the attention of businesses and advertisers. By using data analytics, businesses and advertisers can create a profile of their target audience that gives them the best opportunity to sell their products and/or services. In the case of something like Netflix, data science can not only help sell its services, but develop products based on their users activity.

Netflix has always been a data science driven company. On their own website, they state:

“Partnering closely with business teams in product, content, studio, marketing, and business operations, we perform context-rich analysis to provide insight into every aspect of our business, our partners, and of course our members’ experience with Netflix.”

Netflix is one of the first online content platforms to take advantage of data science and algorithms. Their software engineers are able to detect the viewing habits of their users and create personalized recommendations for them in order to generate more web traffic on their site. Netflix’s reliance on data and algorithms is so strong that they even developed algorithms that change the thumbnail image of a movie or TV show. For example, they’ll change the thumbnail if the image contains the likeness of an actor or genre that you prevalently watched on Netflix. Their system is so efficient and effective that Netflix knows all of their users’ viewing habits 80% of the time. And with their content library being one of the largest, they can cover a large market of consumers with personalized algorithms for each of them.

Netflix doesn’t have to rely on a system like the Nielsen Ratings to determine what shows they need to produce. They have access to data that detects even the tiniest detail. Netflix’s data reaches so far that they can even detect a user’s browsing and scrolling behavior on their interface. The main point being is that Netflix deeply knows its user base and market. And the thing that makes Netflix such a smart company is that they utilize their data to not only manage licensed content, but to create their own.

In a New York Times article titled “Giving Viewers What They Want,” David Carr writes, “Netflix is commissioning original content because it knows what people want before they do.” The subject of Carr’s article was about how Netflix’s new show at the time, House of Cards, was unlike any other show. It has nothing to do with its content but rather with its inception. House of Cards was one of the first streamed shows, and according to Forbes, its first season was ordered in full. Netflix did not order a single pilot so that they can show test audiences. They already knew that their user base would want to watch House of Cards due to their data analysis supporting it.

Netflix churned out more hits like their collection of superhero shows set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Orange is the New Black, Stranger Things, and The Queen’s Gambit. Netflix’s success was what led to what’s been deemed the “Streaming Wars.” All of a sudden services like Hulu started rivaling Netflix, and then movie studios started introducing streaming services like WarnerMedia’s HBO Max and Disney+ that add content libraries to their respective properties. And with these streaming services, original content was made for streaming.

With streaming becoming so big and popular, the biggest question is how does this affect the entertainment industry, or more importantly, how it affects the type of content we’ll watch in the future?

Netflix’s data science driven production process somewhat clashes with how a movie or TV show is regularly produced for conventional platforms. For the traditional method, it relies on what worked in the past and gut instinct. Film studios rely on the success of past films in order to help them decide what to greenligiht. For Netflix, they only need to see what their data analysts report. For Netflix, a success of a show is already determined before it gets greenlit due to their data analytics. What this suggests is that Netflix isn’t looking for a creative filmmaker or writer that could pitch them a new show. Rather, it suggest that Netflix is only looking for a competent filmmaker that can make the type of show that they already know what they want. In other words, it seems like they’re looking for a simple role player rather than a creative artist.

It’s to no one’s surprise that movies and TV is equally as a business as it is an art form. Netflix commissioning artists and filmmakers to produce content for their platform isn’t something we haven’t seen before, but what is different is the lack of artistic risk that studio executives have a sixth sense for. A lot of the great films and TV shows we’ve cherished in our popular culture were deemed too risky or a guaranteed failure. Cultural icons like Star Wars or even Seinfeld wouldn’t have happened if not for studio executives taking that leap of faith and relying on their intuition.

This seesaw of what’s successful and what’s not is what led to the popular William Goldman quote “Nobody knows nothing.” For a streaming service like Netflix, they’re trying to erase that need for a leap of faith. From a business perspective, it makes sense that Netflix is trying to erase that risk that could lose the company millions of dollars, but Netflix isn’t selling a product that can be bought off the shelf in a last minute Black Friday shopping deal. They’re providing movies and TV shows, products that don’t have an expiration date or a need to be replaced for the newest model. They live in the hearts and souls of people’s memories, and are ways for people to connect. Bringing that cold, calculative approach that Netflix is using to commission their original content can take away the artistic imprint that’s essential to what makes a good movie or TV show.

With other streaming services trying to replicate Netflix’s success, relying on data science rather than artistic risk could be the future of producing movies and television. If I were writing this before March 2020, my concerns would stop at the future of just streaming content, but since I’m assessing the future of producing content after experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, the effects of data science may go beyond the internet.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Warner Bros. decided to release their 2021 slate of films in both theaters and on HBO Max. What appears to be an attempt to gain as much profit as possible during the pandemic could be the future of theatrical releases. From a business perspective, the use of data science and analytics could help assess the success of theatrically-released films a lot better than box office earnings. That being said, though, moving to streaming can mean the further decline of movie theaters. Considering the situation that they were in, Warner Bros. made a smart business decision in testing out what releasing theatrical films on streaming could potentially look like. The first two flagship films that they released on HBO Max was Zack Snyder’s director’s cut of Justice League and Godzilla vs. Kong. Both films have reportedly increased the number of subscribers during their releases (myself included). While not a ground-breaking success that made Warner Bros. automatically think that streaming is the new movie theater, it still offers a glimpse of what’s possible to come.

The films that Warner Bros. released weren’t just any ordinary films; they’re tentpole films that can help sustain a franchise and thus produce more films. If this move by Warner Bros. further encourages studios to rely on streaming services, some movie theaters could end up closing their buildings. Some smaller theater chains like Arclight are shutting down operations due to the pandemic. It’s not a question of whether the theatrical experience is essential to the viewing of cinema, but evaluating the artistic value of how we consume our content is often replaced with the goal of convenience, especially with movie ticket prices preventing people from willing to come to the theater. For theaters, a lot of contributions are affecting its sustainability, and the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic just made the the situation a whole lot worse.

With all the potential foreshadowing and warning that industry analysts have said about how streaming can affect the entertainment industry, they’re all still predictions. Analysts have said the same about television, so it’s no surprise that history is repeating itself with streaming. If we were to look through a lens of how streaming can make the entertainment industry different rather than in trouble, there are some potential upsides.

With streaming taking advantage of the mobile technology that is essential in everybody’s lives, it’s especially essential to the younger audiences. The profile of the current younger audiences is that they’re more diverse and accepting of new ideas, and they’re the most reliant on technology. The data science of streaming is eliminating that risk of producing content that may seem too risky, which is also a practice that prevents different stories from being told. In other words, movies and TV with diverse points of view are limited in the traditional form of producing content, which leads to accusations of prejudice and discrimination of the studio heads. With that said, we know that these studio heads only care about money, and the data science of streaming giving them a more secure way to obtain that money. With the young, diverse audiences showing that they’re into diverse storytelling in that content, it’ll be reflected in the data, which is where the money is.

To sum it all up, the power and influence of data science on executives can lead to more diverse storytelling and possibly better representation. An example can be seen in the handling of Zack Snyder’s Justice League. In the theatrical release, the character of Cyborg, a Black superhero, has a very limited role. In the director’s cut released on HBO Max, his role was so essential to the story that it drew massive praise from fans and HBO Max’s users.

Movie theaters can also change in a positive way depending on how you look at it. The economic incentive of data science in streaming could push studios to put their blockbuster content onto streaming. Since the masses rely on convenience, and streaming offers that convenience, studios can have a better understanding of how to somewhat beat the market. With movie theaters losing all big ticket items, they would have to adapt. They could do that by bringing in smaller, independent films onto their screens and target their audiences through there. Independent films were losing theater space due to the popularity of blockbuster films, but if studios were to move those blockbuster films to streaming, there would be room left for the indie films. Now the question is if this switch were to happen, would everything feel the same with the exception of streaming taking the blockbusters? Probably not. Movie theater chains might have to limit the number of theaters so that they can invest in markets that are into indie films while studios may need to put a cap limit on blockbuster budgets. But it would be a situation where everyone comes out on top.

The main point of all this isn’t to point out that streaming is good or bad for the entertainment industry. If I were to use the history of the entertainment industry as my evidence, then it’ll prove that streaming is just a different platform for watching content. And with that different platform, everybody will adapt despite Hollywood being plagued with chaos, it thrives on the chaos. I predict that in the next ten years, industry analysts will look back on this moment and just say that streaming is another hump that Hollywood had to get over like they did with television.

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Why Some Movies Need ‘Cancelling’ and Others Given a Second Chance

When the public fails to approve a film or a celebrity, a backlash can occur, leading to a person or movie lacking credibility in the public eye, leading to the person or film being canceled. Cancel culture is a term used to refer to a modern form of ostracism where an individual, a movie, film, or a book, is thrust out of professional or social circles, which can be online, on social media, or even in person. The challenge with this trend in the entertainment industry is the lack of an actual procedure or method to institute the cancellation.

The cancellation happens out of emotions, and it is easy for it to be based on mere propaganda. As such, there have been numerous cases of cancel culture processes being selective. However, this problem is understandably so because it is the public that comes up with the cancellation, and one cannot dictate how the public thinks. Two movies have been victims of the cancellation culture in different ways.

The movies that I am talking about today are Cuties by Maïmouna Doucouré and Music by the singer-songwriter Sia. Cuties is one example of a movie that has suffered negative impacts of the public’s uncontrolled and selective cancel culture. The movie was supposed to be known for its activism against children’s sexualization. However, this is no longer the case since the movie is no longer on Netflix following a heated backlash and review bombs that followed it way before the movie had been fully released. Therefore, it is essential to construct all the events that came before the review bombing to ascertain whether the movie’s cancellation was justified in the first place.

The movie Cuties was produced and released in France as a coming-of-age drama film. The movie received many accolades from various quotas in France and became an all-time award-winning movie. Some of the organizations and events that gave awards to the cast and the whole directorship of the movie included the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Cesar Award for Most Promising Actress, and BAC films where the movie was released in France. However, Netflix exclusively purchased its rights in the year 2020.

The rights purchase was a formal process usually done by Netflix when buying any movie or documentary. The main challenge started when Netflix released a poster and a trailer of the movie to be fully released at a later date. The poster depicted several young girls dressed only in panties and bras, which did not sit well with most Netflix subscribers.

The subscribers could not sit and wait to see the movie first since the backlash, and the review bombing started immediately. The response by Netflix on the whole issue did not help the matter, and neither did a comment by the director. The majority of the people who watched the movie when it was fully released declared that the controversy behind it was the very reason why they watched it. Many of the people who watched the movie claimed that they did not see anything offensive after watching it.

Meanwhile, the management of Netflix had become victims of criticisms, including political pressures from various individuals, including Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, Senator Mike Lee of Utah, and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii. Despite the backlash and review bombing that seemed to have taken the day, several pointers in the whole drama that show the cancel culture applied in this movie by the public were not justified. First, the movie was produced and directed in France, a European country that shares different values from most Americans.

It is essential, therefore, at this stage, to ask whether the problem was the movie or the cultural differences that exist between Europe and the United States, which seems to be more conservative. Second, in one of the responses by Doucouré, the movie director noted that the conservative Americans who had not watched the movie in the first place were behind the review bombing.

This comment speaks a lot about the cultural differences behind the movie cancellation, especially concerning the cultures. The response by Doucouré raises another aspect worth considering. When review bombing and backlash came up, the Netflix viewers had not views the movie. The uproar came up as a response to a poster and trailer that Netflix posted. Therefore, it is essential to consider whether the problem was the movie itself or the trailer and poster that Netflix used to market the movie.

Netflix might have accepted that the poster was not appropriate, especially when Doucouré admitted to having received a call from the co-CEO of Netflix apologizing for the poster that they used without consulting her. However, Netflix also came up with a second poster that did not over-expose the girls. Therefore, it cannot be fair to cancel a movie based on a mistake made by Netflix when the original content of the movie had pure intentions.

On the other hand, it is good to review the intentions that the movie had and see whether the people participating in the review bombing knew it. The movie features an 11-year-old girl known as Amy, who is an immigrant girl from Senegal. She does not like the Muslim culture she is being exposed to by her aunt. Peer pressure from her age mates makes her get into aspects like twerking that she learns from her neighbor Angelica. The same peer pressure would later move her to post a photo of her vulva online to get social approval. This becomes detrimental even to her acting life, where Yasmine replaces her. The story does not end well for Amy, who goes to the extent of pushing Yasmine to a ditch and failing to act in a play to the end.

The movie intends to show how the hyper-sexualization of young girls is always detrimental in the long run. The movie should discourage young girls from the peer pressures they may get from social media to be hyper-sexual. However, it uses an example of hypersexualized girls to draw the lesson.

The primary challenge that brought about the review bombing is that viewers did not take time to watch the movie and understand the main intention and message that the movie sought to draw. In this case, the problem is the poster that Netflix used and not the movie. Doucouré claimed in several instances that the people criticizing the movie did not realize that she was on the same side of the argument as them. Authorities gave the same claim in France in their defense of the movie. France claimed that the criticisms were against the free space of creating discussions and conversations in the film industry.

Cuties, therefore, became a victim of negative backlash and review bombing, which are precursors to the creation of cancel culture. It is good to compare the movie with prior movies that might either have been canceled or were not canceled despite having negative characteristics warranting their cancellation.

Take an example of another Netflix movie, 365 Days, that also received review bombings due to the cultural erosion that it seemed to be portraying. However, the movie Music by Sia is an example of a movie that has all the reasons why it should be canceled, yet it was not canceled. The movie has been widely criticized for its use of a character known as Music, who acts as a non-verbal autistic half-sister of Zu’s protagonist.

The primary concern from the negative reviews about the movie has been much to do with why Music should play an autistic character, yet many other people are suffering from autism who could also play the role very well. The critics also came from people with autism who claimed they could play the role in an even better manner than what the able-bodied character did.

The problem was further worsened by the movie director and management, who took the matter lightly through their responses. Music is a perfect depiction of a movie that completely goes beyond the set societal norms where disabled people ought to be given the respect they deserve. The portrayal given by Music while acting as one with autism is a complete disrespect to people with autism. The character comes out as a mockery to people with autism. Comparing this with the well-intentioned movie, Cuties leaves one with questions on whether cancel culture is applied fairly in all situations.

It is easy to come across situations where a well-intentioned movie gets canceled while a movie that should be canceled remains on the screen despite the backlash. This selectiveness leaves several lingering questions that may need to be answered. One such question is whether cancellation should be based on the reviews given and the hashtags that trend either in favor of the movie or against it. This should be weighed against the need of having proper review commissions that can look into a movie before giving a verdict about it and advising viewers on the way forward.

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Is Netflix Responsible for the Golden Age of Documentaries?

Documentaries have always been put in a box. The educational format of the genre created a bit of a stigma surrounding them and they were thus never considered to be profitable. The days of documentaries being depicted as nerdy and boring, however, seem to be long gone. So what changed? In a Variety article titled “Filmmakers Attribute Growing Demand for Documentaries to Streaming Sites,” Eli Countryman makes her conclusion right in the title, as she summarizes the FYC Fest documentary roundtable, where documentarists discuss this phenomenon and the nature of modern documentary filmmaking. 

The documentary panel in the roundtable conversation included: Garret Bradley, Amanda McBaine, Ron Howard, Bryan Fogel, David France, and Nicole Newnham and was hosted by Variety’s Matt Donnelly. The article begins by acknowledging the “expanding market” for documentaries and docuseries and the panelists fairly quickly attribute much of the rising demand to better accessibility. It is widely known that streaming platforms and most notably Netflix drastically changed the landscape, trends, and demand of cinema, and it certainly influenced documentary filmmaking as well. The panelists point out that in previous decades documentaries were targeted to a very niche audience. Newnham explained that streaming created an outlet for both documentarists and the audiences that had been previously hard to come by, and that, in turn, heavily increased the demand. Because of the wider availability, people are gaining awareness of this art form and are realizing that they enjoy it.

The panelists remain generally positive about this era for documentary filmmaking and the increase in demand from streaming platforms, as the whole point of a documentary is generally for a large number of people to see it. Higher demand also increases funding, which means, as the host Matt Donelly informally points out, that documentarists don’t have to “die” over getting funding for their projects. Higher funding arguably causes an increase in the overall quality of the documentary itself, as filmmakers can afford more crew, transport, and better equipment, and thus create work that is comparable to high-budget fiction films and therefore attracts more watchers.

Bradley argues that people are naturally drawn to documentaries, as “so much of filmmaking, regardless of the genre, is about us understanding ourselves as human beings and as a culture,” and that documentaries explore that in a more direct way. Audiences today are hungry for more original content, and documentaries offer an endless variety of topics previously unspoken about. Arguably the artistic form of the genre has evolved as well. So many documentaries are, in their core, stories that we can relate to and are therefore told in a dramatic, often intense manner.

More and more people are pushing for various social or environmental causes, and through the large number of documentary content being produced, they can appreciate the art form more. Documentarists are equally becoming more conscious of their directing style and topic approach. Regarding her film dealing with disability, Newnham explained how important it was to work with James Lebrecht, who lives with a disability himself, to tell a story that would cater to all sorts of audiences and tell the truth. The panelists dove into the question of “who is allowed to tell the story” while sharing their experiences and David France enthusiastically pointed out the trust that has been built over the years between documentarists and the audience. It is important to remember, however, that documentaries are never unbiased, and the truth that is presented should always be taken as one’s perspective.

Interestingly, Newhman described the challenges she faced during the editing process, as they attempted to steer away from archetypal tragic stories we associate with disability. She drew attention to how conditioned our brains are to view a stereotypical story in a certain way. This further demonstrates how documentaries, like any other genre, are narratives and are influenced by the filmmakers, the editing, the music, and the overall stylistic choices. McBaine mentioned the challenges she faced with her own bias when creating her political documentary and how vital it was for her to try to remain objective. “You have people who are talking politics that offend me to my core,” she said. “But you listen. You might learn something about your own politics, but also your own assumptions, and your own expectations.” As she was talking about her approach to documentaries as a filmmaker, this philosophy can undeniably be applied to the audiences as well. 

Not every aspect of today’s documentary filmmaking seems to be positive, however, and the panelists agree that being tied to streaming platforms can have its drawbacks, especially when dealing with controversial topics. Bryan Fogal mentioned that although there is currently a high demand for documentaries, there is a conflict within the filmmaking world. According to him, there is a “fight between what people should be allowed to see and human rights vs. business interests and what they are gonna allow people to see,” clearly referring to either streaming platforms or production companies.

There seems to be a fear when taking on topics political in nature, as the subjects discussed and often heavily critiqued may be affiliated with the production houses. This is important to consider as nowadays many streaming platforms, such as Netflix or HBO create their own content, which means they simultaneously hold control over both production and distribution. This is an aspect of filmmaking that does not seem to be talked about as vocally and needs to be addressed. It also further highlights the fact that documentaries can never be fully biased, as streaming platforms focus mainly on marketability. 

Still, documentarists are excited about the so-far steady increase in demand of their work that streaming platforms create and the new opportunities within the industry that present. Besides the platforms themselves, it is also important to consider the higher availability of equipment. Whereas blockbusters and most fiction cinema require high-quality equipment, it is not always essential to documentary filmmaking. With more and more access to affordable cameras, phones, and various gadgets as well archival footage and the ability to conduct interviews over several communication technologies (Zoom, Skype, etc.), seemingly anyone can create a documentary. Although higher demand caused by streaming platforms also raises quality expectations of the films, it means that more people can be introduced to documentary filmmaking and get their start in this genre. It remains to be seen how long documentaries will remain trendy and whether the high demand will eventually run out, but for now, it seems that we truly are in a golden age of documentaries.