Netflix and the Invention of Genres

Image representing Netflix as depicted in Crun...

Most film lovers have already spoken their eulogies to the video store. For those of cinephilic stripe, the excitement of going into a video store and serendipitously stumbling upon a gem hidden among rows of DVDs is now but a wistful memory. Aside from a few choice independent retailers in Vancouver (Limelight, Black Dog), most video stores here and in many other cities have fallen like so many vinyl record stores before them. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

What to do to fill the void? I’ve begrudgingly come to accept that online streaming and video-on-demand outlets, no doubt responsible for the death of your beloved local rental establishment, are the digital rebirth of the video store. Where we once went to Rogers and Blockbusters to get our flick fix, we now log-in to Hulu Plus*, click on through the selection offered by Shaw Video on Demand or sit through the sluggish load of iTunes.

Netflix currently seems to hold the throne when it comes to the most used, accessible and comprehensive streaming site. No, it is certainly not perfect (especially the Canadian version). And yes, there are still times when I long to browse the DVDs on the musty shelves of my local video stores looking for an obscure nugget, the enthusiastic chatter of acne-laden teenage clerks geeking-out  in the background. But the digital age makes an evolution in the way we consume films a necessity. At present, no one seems to be doing a better job of transferring the internal cultural of the video store online than Netflix.

One of the ways Netflix has sought to replicate video store culture is through their user recommendation system. As a stand-in for the wealth of knowledge previously provided by video-store clerks, Netflix recommends films for each individual user based on the films they have already watched. As an indirect result of this, the site has developed an entirely new set of genre categorizations. As other Netflix users will note, the Netflix home page shows films grouped under ultra-specific groupings that defy traditionally broad genre categorizations. In addition to the traditional “Romance” and “Action” categorizations films are labeled “Understated Independent Dramas” and “Romantic Movies featuring a Strong Female Lead”. The genre categories offered to users on their account are specific to their taste, based on films that they have previously watched.

I am both fascinating and bemused by the highly specific way Netflix categorizes their films, and I think it warrants a closer look. What does an “Understated Drama” look like? Just how strong are the female leads in “Emotional Movies featuring a Strong female lead” ? I hope to answer these questions by investigating a different Netflix genre categorization each month. I’ll look at five films in that genre and review each film, both as a standalone piece and in terms of the genre that Netflix has assigned it.  I hope to learn a bit more about the accuracy of Netflix’s genre titles and to evaluate whether or not this constitutes a need for more specific categorizations in film. I also hope to uncover some unsuspecting Netflix gems, so that we can all get our $8 dollars a month worth.

First up: Emotional Movies Featuring a Strong Female Lead


  1. XXY (Lucia Puenzo, 2007)
  2. Secret Sunshine (Chang-dong Lee, 2007)
  3. The Tree (Julie Bertuccelli, 2010)
  4. Like Crazy (Drake Doremus, 2011)
  5. Imitation of Life (Douglas Sirk, 1959)

Note: This project was partly inspired by the fabulous Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast hosted by the unparalleled Matt Singer and Alison Willmore (the duo that brought you the IFC News Podcast). A spin-off of the also excellent Filmspotting podcast, SVU reviews films available on-demand via streaming. I’ve yet to find commentators more fun to listen to than Willmore and Singer, and their suggestions are always reliable. Check em’ out!

*Dear Hulu, Please make your service available to Canadians. It’s cold and barren enough up here as it is.


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