Long Read: “How Netflix Reverse Engineered Hollywood”

Since quite a few of us are loyal Netflix subscribers, thought some of you might find this interesting. In the Atlantic, Alexis Madrigal lets his Nerd Flag fly:

If you use Netflix, you’ve probably wondered about the specific genres that it suggests to you. Some of them just seem so specific that it’s absurd. Emotional Fight-the-System Documentaries? Period Pieces About Royalty Based on Real Life? Foreign Satanic Stories from the 1980s?

If Netflix can show such tiny slices of cinema to any given user, and they have 40 million users, how vast did their set of “personalized genres” need to be to describe the entire Hollywood universe?

This idle wonder turned to rabid fascination when I realized that I could capture each and every microgenre that Netflix’s algorithm has ever created.

Through a combination of elbow grease and spam-level repetition, we discovered that Netflix possesses not several hundred genres, or even several thousand, but 76,897 unique ways to describe types of movies…

Netflix cooperated with my quest to understand what they internally call “altgenres,” and made VP of product innovation Todd Yellin, the man who conceived of the system, available for an in-depth interview…

If we reverse engineered Yellin’s system, it was Yellin himself who imagined a much more ambitious reverse-engineering process. Using large teams of people specially trained to watch movies, Netflix deconstructed Hollywood. They paid people to watch films and tag them with all kinds of metadata. This process is so sophisticated and precise that taggers receive a 36-page training document that teaches them how to rate movies on their sexually suggestive content, goriness, romance levels, and even narrative elements like plot conclusiveness.

They capture dozens of different movie attributes. They even rate the moral status of characters. When these tags are combined with millions of users viewing habits, they become Netflix’s competitive advantage. The company’s main goal as a business is to gain and retain subscribers. And the genres that it displays to people are a key part of that strategy. “Members connect with these [genre] rows so well that we measure an increase in member retention by placing the most tailored rows higher on the page instead of lower,” the company revealed in a 2012 blog post. The better Netflix shows that it knows you, the likelier you are to stick around.

And now, they have a terrific advantage in their efforts to produce their own content: Netflix has created a database of American cinematic predilections. The data can’t tell them how to make a TV show, but it can tell them what they should be making. When they create a show like House of Cards, they aren’t guessing at what people want…

I’ve been a customer since March 2003, and I can verify that the ‘suggestions’ system has vastly improved over that period. Because the intersection between Studio Ghibli and BBC police mysteries is not ‘Scooby-Doo’, thank you very much!

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41 replies
  1. 1
    Baud says:

    but 76,897 unique ways to describe types of movies…

    So just a fraction of Balloon Juice post categories.

  2. 2
    raven says:

    Well, they didn’t really “create” House of Cards.

  3. 3
    Groucho48 says:

    All that is well and good, but, Netflix still sucks at recommending movies I would like. Most of their suggestions were movies I’d already seen on Netflix or movies which I had no interest in. I’d often find out about movies from blog posts and recommendations on various forums.

  4. 4

    Netflix thinks I’m some kind of gore freak with a gun fetish that loves vampires.

    All I really watch is Star Trek.

  5. 5
    Violet says:

    @BruceFromOhio: Google thinks I’m a 65 year old man.

  6. 6
    Higgs Boson's Mate says:

    Silly Netflix. All I watch are documentaries, no, really, and yet it keeps recommending something titled “Lesbian Spank Inferno.”

  7. 7
    scav says:

    It’s no doubt very well for those avoiding the unexpected and flocking to chain restaurants because the food will be the exactly the same everywhere. Bubble walls are being re-enforced for those that hug them and the lazy. Three channels total and physical theaters might have been rather more like the draft in terms of breaking across class and regional frontiers than once expected.

  8. 8
    srv says:

    Meh, IMDB has been way better a predictor than Netflix’s algorithms in my experience, saving you ignore the ratings until three months after a blockbuster to wash out the fanbois.

    Lot of great sub-genres not available on Netflix can be found on youtube, worth hunting for.

  9. 9
    Poopyman says:

    This is the Al Madigal from The Daily Show?

  10. 10
    Violet says:

    @Poopyman: Not according to the picture at the end of the article.

  11. 11
    WereBear says:

    @Higgs Boson’s Mate: Silly Netflix. All I watch are documentaries, no, really, and yet it keeps recommending something titled “Lesbian Spank Inferno.”

    How do you know it’s not a documentary, huh?

    Mr WereBear got a Chromecast for Christmas, and we got 30 free days of Netflix. I was pleased with their suggestions, and the more I use the system, the more accurate it has a shot at being.

    So far, we intend to stick with them.

  12. 12
    lamh36 says:

    Question: Does Netflix show episodes of Law & Order:SVU on their streaming program!

  13. 13
    efgoldman says:


    Bubble walls are being re-enforced for those that hug them and the lazy. Three channels total and physical theaters might have been rather more like the draft in terms of breaking across class and regional frontiers than once expected.

    Huh? Sounds like a drunk academic with a PhD and post-doc in a very small and arcane sub-increment of a very small and arcane field.

  14. 14
    BD of MN says:

    I do wish that Netflix would let each account have a couple of separate profiles so i wouldn’t get recommendations based on the crap, er, stuff my kid watches….

  15. 15
  16. 16
  17. 17
    rreay says:

    @BD of MN: it does. It even calls them profiles.

  18. 18

    @BD of MN: Are you certain it does not? mine appears to do exactly that.

  19. 19
    BD of MN says:

    Lol… i’ll have to check that out…

  20. 20
  21. 21
    scav says:

    @efgoldman: Oh? Well, I wish I was drunk, but geography isn’t exactly small and arcane, even if the locals are remarkably ill-informed about large chunks of it. Abuse me at will, but not the field.

  22. 22
    Anne Laurie says:

    @lamh36: I checked; only Season 8 is available for streaming right now “but they’re working to acquire the license for the rest as soon as possible”. (First 14 seasons are available on disc & you can ‘reserve’ the current season.)

  23. 23
    OzarkHillbilly says:


    So far, we intend to stick with them.

    Careful. The NSA is watching what you watch…

  24. 24
    Fort Geek says:

    @BD of MN: It’s got profiles. I’ve got one set up for my nephew (who watches British comedy, horror movies, and such) and one for myself. I tend to go for documentaries, Samurai flicks, and stand-up comedians right now.

    You might have to log in via a Web browser instead of one of the other options (I use a browser, nephew uses his PS3) to be able to get to the account settings.

  25. 25
    kindness says:

    No Game of Thrones though.

  26. 26
    ruemara says:

    I’m more interested in what this system means for television production, particularly, these new internet shows with some real Hollywood names in them. If I get hired on a show that doesn’t have to pull in a 20% market share to be considered a winner, then I can think about the future. Mind you, I would work on crappy scifi and action because I love crappy sci fi and action.

  27. 27
    WereBear says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Won’t be any different from what I talk about on social media :)

    Let me tell you, such outlets, plus our DVD collection, has eroded my tolerance for commercials to practically zero. Not to mention highlighting the erosion which has taken place.

    A full Star Trek episide, 1967, was 54 minutes long. Kolchak, the Night Stalker, 1974, 50 minutes. Mythbusters, 2003, 43 minutes.

    Typical hour long show now? 36 minutes.

  28. 28

    I tried Netflix, but wasn’t sold. I found their online interface clunky and just wanted a list of damn movies to rent, not wait for a suggestion.

    Plus, what if I enjoy high resolution? I can rent a bluray for $1.25.

  29. 29
    BD of MN says:

    @Fort Geek: in my own derp-fense, i only use the wii and hadn’t seen that feature…

  30. 30
    Anne Laurie says:

    @The Other Bob:

    I tried Netflix, but wasn’t sold.

    We don’t have cable, which is why I subscribed in the first place — to watch shows like Six Feet Under a year after the rest of the world. And even ten years ago, the local rental options (crappy Blockbuster, ‘family friendly’ public library) weren’t much use to us. Now I’ve got a long queue of Round Tuits on both the DVD and streaming lists, so Netflix has succeeded at ‘customer lock-in’ with us…

  31. 31
    lamh36 says:

    @Anne Laurie: damn. thx for the info.

    I’ve cut off my upper cable channels, and I’ve gone to only having basic *, So I’m unable to watch the daily Law&Order:SVU marathons that come on USA network all the time.

    I turned off my Netflix because I didn’t ever really watch much of the tv on streaming and I’ve watched alot of movies so I never really got into watching the movies on Netflix.

    But it’s only $8 a month. I wish I could pay for a full year though and be done.

    **trying to cut cost and save money where I can. cutting off upper cable saves me $80

  32. 32
    Randy G says:

    For the price of a streaming-only account I love Netflix. That said, I have zero interest in a huge majority of what Netflix labels my Top Picks, so I rarely place credence in anything they might recommend anywhere, whether by category or star ranking. And after weeks of trying to get used to their newly-synchronized app on my Roku 3, I still hate it. At least they haven’t retrofitted it to my older Roku boxes.

    btw, the best Netflix-related app I’ve used isn’t even by Netflix….. it’s the Instant Watch Browser on the Roku, which nicely summarizes everything that’s newly added, expiring in the next few weeks and coming in the next month. (Don’t know whether it’s available on other platforms.) Well worth many times over the one-time few dollar charge.

  33. 33
    SiubhanDuinne says:


    Netflix thinks I’m some kind of gore freak with a gun fetish that loves vampires.

    All I really watch is Star Trek.

    Your point?

  34. 34
    Steeplejack says:

    @BD of MN:

    Nelson Muntz “Ha-ha!”

  35. 35
    NotMax says:

    They paid people to watch films and tag them with all kinds of metadata.

    Who watches the watchers?

    Seriously, would lay down good folding money that the vast bulk (if not all) of those supposedly parsing the films are in or not very far removed from a certain demographic age bracket coveted by advertising.

  36. 36
    KXB says:

    On New Year’s Day, I went to see American Hustle. Very good movie, but probably overpraised. Jennifer Lawrence steals pretty much every scene she is in. Cost of the ticket = $9 – good for one time only

    My Netflix subscription (streaming plus 1 DVD) = $15.98 per month for as much viewing as I want. Right now, streaming Futurama in order, per my sister’s persuasion. I liked the episodes I did see, and while I was at my parents house, I caught some of the more recent episodes on Comedy Central, which had a surprising amount of emotional depth, from Bender’s anger at his Creator for making him mortal, to Fry and Leela accidentally freezing time, while they still age and fall in love.

    OTOH, the most recent DVD I got was the recent Star Trek movie. Even if I were not a lifelong Star Trek fan, I would still find that movie a huge disappointment, ripoff, waste of time. (SPOILER) Really, J.J. Abrahms? Khan Noonian Singh is a white guy? I gotta go back and pick up with Deep Space 9 to wash my brain.

    As others have noted, it is shocking how little time of a 60 minute show is actually devoted to storytelling, and how much is eaten up with commercials.

  37. 37
    Cassidy says:

    ZOMG! They collect metadata!

  38. 38
    NotMax says:


    With you on that latest ST turkey (did not see the previous one).

    Was subjected to it on a flight (whoever decided it would play even halfway well on those tiny screens should be pink-slipped).

    The needle on my internal crap tolerance meter pinned about 20 minutes in, and gave up on paying any attention whatsoever to its overblown (and over blown up) attempt at melodrama. Apparently, any skill among the cast at a little something called acting was not a requirement for the cast.

  39. 39
    NotMax says:


    That should be @KXB in #38.

  40. 40
    KXB says:


    The first movie was OK – once you accept it will be different. Some reboots work well – the Battlestar Galactica reboot was much better than the original. Cumberbatch was just any typical summer sci-fi villain, there was nothing that made him become Khan. Ricardo Montalban had more panache, and the fact that even people who do not follow Star Trek know of his performance tells you how awesome he was.

    I was a poor science student, but I know for damn sure there can be no way young Spock can talk to old Spock at the same time and not have the universe collapse on itself. And the “death” scene was a travesty.

  41. 41
    Alex Milstein says:

    @lamh36: Yes. But only that last five or six seasons thru 2012.

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