How Netflix Creates ‘Taste Communities’

Wired: “The Defenders provides Netflix with a unique case study. Instead of merely allowing it to find out if someone who likes, say, House of Cards also will like Daredevil (yes, BTW), it tells them which of the people who landed on Daredevil because of House of Cards will make the jump to The Defenders.”

“Wildly different programs lead people to The Defenders’ standalone shows. The top lead-in show for Luke Cage? Narcos. But for Iron Fist, it’s a Dave Chappelle special. Someone who watches Jones probably will watch Cage, but beyond that the groups of people—Netflix calls them ‘taste communities’—gravitating toward those shows enjoy very different programming.”

“Every Netflix user belongs to three or four taste communities. It’s easy to say that this influences what appears in your recommendations, but it’s not quite that simple. Membership in those communities does more than dictate the top 10 comedies appearing in a row of your queue, it determines whether comedies appear there at all … Each time you open Netflix it exposes you to 40 or 50 titles. Netflix considers it a win if you choose one of them.”

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MoviePass: Like Netflix for Theaters

Vulture: “The subject of the week in Hollywood is MoviePass, a company from the co-founder of Netflix and Redbox that’ll let you go to the movies once a day, every day, for just $9.95 a month — just barely more than the average price of a single ticket, and less in cities like New York and Los Angeles. While MoviePass has been around for a little while now, it’s in the news at the moment because of that new, comically low price point, as well as the controversy it’s provoking among theaters.”

“What the company hopes to offer over time is a large base of proven, frequent moviegoers — and the proprietary information that comes from having access to their every ticket-buying decision. It’s a Big Data move, one that will utilize investor money to subsidize a money-losing business model in the hopes that other revenue streams will eventually open up, most likely coming from the likes of AMC, who might one day offer MoviePass tickets at a discount and use the consumers’ behavioral information to improve advertising, curation, concessions, and so on.”

“MoviePass’s challenge is that it threatens to cut into the revenue stream of Hollywood’s most loyal customer, with the added, ethereal benefit of ‘data,’ a concept with which theaters already have a complicated relationship, considering the struggles of tracking and the unpopularity of in-theater advertising. And ultimately, it isn’t good for anyone in the business of movie-making if people become used to the idea that they should be entitled to all movies for ten bucks a month. Just look at the music industry.”

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Fake Music: How Spotify Pads Profits

Ben Fritz: “As anyone who has used Spotify knows, popular playlists are often featured when you open the app, above recommendations based on what you’ve listened to. So what’s the problem? Reports in the New York Times and elsewhere suggest that Spotify may have special deals with so-called ‘fake artists,’ paying them less than the standard share of its revenue that goes to Arcade Fire or Beyonce for each play … Listen to whatever you want, in other words, but might we suggest these appetizing options that carry a better profit margin for us?”

“Netflix also highlights its own shows first: “The more that people watch Netflix originals, of course, the more the company can control its own destiny rather than engaging in sometimes-difficult negotiations to buy content from other studios and networks.”

“You probably don’t care about ‘fake artists’ on Spotify for the same reason other recording artists and record labels do: Because they worry they’ll make less money. But just as it’s important to know who owns your favorite newspaper or who contributes money to your elected officials, you should care about what Spotify and other streaming services would like you to hear or watch. Because it may be the songs and videos that make them more money, not the ones you’re most likely to enjoy.”

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Disney Machine-Learns for Laughs

Quartz: Disney “is using machine learning to assess the audience’s reactions to films based on their facial expressions, it wrote in a new research paper. It uses something called factorized variational auto-encoders, or FVAEs, to predict how a viewer will react to the rest of a film after tracking their facial expressions for a few minutes.”

“The FVAEs learn a set of facial expressions, such as smiles and laughter, from the audience, and then make correlations between audience members to see if a movie is getting laughs or other reactions when it should be—a much more sophisticated version of how Amazon and Netflix make suggestions for new things to buy or watch based on your shopping or viewing history.”

“By placing four infrared cameras and infrared illuminators above a theater screen, the researchers were able to identify 16 million facial landmarks, or expressions, from more than 3,100 theatergoers during 150 screenings of nine Disney movies … the data was then analyzed with a computer. (Before this gets too creepy, Disney isn’t tracking your every move at your local theater. The experiment took place during screenings at one particular 400-seat theater. And audiences likely had to choose to participate.)”

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‘Experiences’ May Not Buy ‘Happiness’

Slate: “There’s a whole slew of social science research that suggests that to maximize happiness, it’s best to spend your money on activities, not material goods … But new research from the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, or HAS, adds a wrinkle to the discussion—its new paper suggests that perhaps in embracing this idea, we have been slightly unfair to our stuff.”

“The research, published by Tamás Hajdu of the Institute of Economics at HAS and Gabor Hajdu of the Institute of Sociology at HAS … found that the difference in satisfaction conferred between the different purchase types was both incredibly small and not statistically significant.” They report: “Although both experiential and material expenditures were positively associated with life satisfaction, we found no significant evidence supporting the greater return from experiential purchases.”

“Most research still suggests that money makes people happier when it’s spent on activities. In fact, even this research found that to maximize happiness, you should spend a little more on experiences—it just also found that this “gain” in happiness was incredibly, perhaps unnoticeably, small.”

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Game On: The Future of Sports Arenas

The Guardian: “With its own dedicated fromagerie, microbrewery and Michelin-calibre restaurant, it might be easy to forget you have come to watch the football when you are reclining in one of the premium lounges of Tottenham Hotspur’s new £750m stadium. The 61,000-seat behemoth will feature the longest bar in the country, heated seats with built-in USB ports, a glass-walled tunnel so you can see the players before the game and even a ‘sky walk’ allowing fans to clamber over the roof of the arena.”

“Besides the fancy catering, the football pitch itself has to work a lot harder, too. This is the first field of its kind designed to split into three parts and slide seamlessly under the seating stands, revealing an astroturf field beneath for American football, positioned at a lower level to ensure perfect sight lines for both modes of play. Acoustic consultants were brought on board in order to guarantee maximum amplification of crowd noise, ensuring a “wall of sound” will resonate from the 17,000-seat south stand.”

Christopher Lee, an architect, “says the next big frontier is holographic representation, describing a world where players might be beamed on to the field from thousands of miles away.” However, architect Jacques Herzog “says his focus is always on capturing the local specificity of the place, designing a venue that somehow responds to the fan culture of the team in question, whether that’s a glowing lantern for Munich, a sharp white temple for Bordeaux, or an archaic masonry complex of vaults and buttresses for Stamford Bridge.”

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Movies & Toys: Box-Office Bingo

The New York Times: “With the decline in DVD sales speeding up and the box office stalling on a global scale — even as movies become more expensive to make — studios like Warner for the first time are looking to merchandise as an engine. Film companies will release 25 movies with toy tie-ins this year, according to Bloomberg analysis, up from roughly eight annually in the past.”

“More than ever, consumer products are influencing moviemaking decisions — namely, sequels and more sequels. Retailers are more willing to devote shelf space to tie-in products when there is already proven interest … the opportunity is too great for studios to pass up, and Exhibit A is Disney. Over the last five years, operating income at Disney’s consumer products and video game business has roughly gone from $1 billion to $2 billion … Disney is the world’s No. 1 licenser, with themed products generating $56.6 billion in retail sales last year.”

‘It is not a coincidence that Warner, Universal and 20th Century Fox have turned to Disney veterans to invigorate their merchandise divisions.” Pam Lifford, the president of Warner Bros. Consumer Products, “spent 12 years at Disney Consumer Products, leaving in 2012, when she was an executive vice president … Jim Fielding, former president of Disney Stores Worldwide, took over consumer products at Fox in January. Vince Klaseus became Universal’s consumer products and video game chief in 2014 after a long run at Disney.”

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Hit Factories: Making Songs Like Sausages

BBC: “A new study by Music Week magazine shows it now takes an average of 4.53 writers to create a hit single … Ten years ago, the average number of writers on a hit single was 3.52 … Even solo singer-songwriters like Adele, Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran, whose identities are deeply ingrained into their music, lean on co-writers …. So why is this happening? Are songwriters increasingly lazy or lacking in talent? Or are they second-guessing themselves in the search for a hit?”

“According to Mike Smith, managing director of music publishers Warner/Chappell UK, it is simply that the business of making music has changed.” He comments: “Think back 20 years and an artist would take at least two or three albums to really hone their craft as a songwriter. There is a need to fast-forward that process [which means record labels will] bring in professional songwriters, put them in with artists and try to bring them through a lot faster.”

“Writing camps are where the music industry puts the infinite monkey theorem to the test, detaining dozens of producers, musicians and ‘top-liners’ (melody writers) and forcing them to create an endless array of songs, usually for a specific artist … British songwriter MNEK, who is one of 13 people credited on Beyonce’s hit single Hold Up, says the song is essentially a Frankenstein’s Monster, stitched together from dozens of demos.” He explains: “She played me the chorus. Then I came back here [to my studio] and recorded all the ideas I had for the song. Beyonce snipped out the pieces she really liked and the end result was this really great, complete song.”

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Vegas Shuffle: Invasion of the Drink Bots

The Wall Street Journal: “As Las Vegas has transformed into one of the world’s most-visited tourist destinations, casino operators are re-examining the perks that historically lured gamblers. Over the past year, casinos have started charging for parking at resorts on the Strip … Now operators have started scrutinizing complimentary drinks, introducing new technology at bars that track how much someone has gambled—and rewards them accordingly with alcohol.”

“It’s a shift from decades of more-informal interplay between bartenders and gamblers … On a recent night at a bar inside the Paris Las Vegas casino, Jamie Balazs and her father were getting used to the new drink-monitoring system. They had just been instructed on how much they needed to put into the machine to allow booze to flow. A bartender told her to push the “max bet” button four times, she said. She said she understood the desire to weed out freeloaders who aren’t gambling but found the instructions off-putting.”

“Her father, Jim Fletcher, was in town with a group to celebrate his 70th birthday. As a top-tier member in Caesars Entertainment Corp.’s rewards program, he felt the new system was ‘insulting’ … Bartender James Tanner said the system has made his job easier because he can avoid awkward debates with customers who were lingering at machines but not really playing.”

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Pie Face: A New Era in Toymaking

The Washington Post: “Pie Face, a game in which a dollop of whipped cream is served up from a plastic “throwing arm” to someone who has positioned his face in its path … was the single best-selling item in the games category in 2016 and the fourth best-selling toy overall, according to market research firm NPD Group.”

“Pie Face is a symbol of a new era in toymaking, one in which social media is allowing the industry to marshal you, the everyday shopper, to become a product’s most powerful advertiser. And its mega-popularity has helped fuel a flurry of action from toymakers to create games that offer a ‘shareable moment’ — a brief visual morsel that parents and grandparents will post on Instagram or Facebook and that teens will put on Snapchat or YouTube. It’s a new breed of toy that can’t just be fun for players in real time. It has to be demonstrative. Performative, even.”

“Social trends go boom and bust at warp speed, and so toymakers say that they have to move at a breakneck pace to capitalize on them. Such was the case with Speak Out, another Hasbro creation. In this game, players wear a mouthguard-like plastic mold that stretches their faces to look cartoonish and makes it hard to talk. Players must say a phrase to a partner and get them to guess their garbled words. The idea for it was sparked by Web videos of people putting in dental mouthpieces and getting the giggles when they tried to speak clearly.”

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