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Netflix's Movie Library Is Kind of Terrible, But Does It Matter?

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Like so many good stories, this one starts on Reddit. Approximately 4 years ago, a Reddit user ran a test to see how many quality films were in the Netflix streaming library. The Redditor used the IMDB’s Top 250 list as a starting point, checking to see how many of those films the streaming giant had. The answer was 49, so roughly 20 percent of the list.

If you’re a Netflix subscriber, you know what happened next. Over the years, Netflix’s movie library has declined in both quantity and quality. Hunting for a movie to watch is a challenge. The people at Streaming Observer decided it was time for a retest. Using the current IMDB Top 250 list, they ran the same search. This time, Netflix had 35 titles, or 14 percent of the list. The site also found that Netflix has 15 percent of IMDB’s Top 100 movies.

That’s a drop, but not as big a drop as I would have expected. To parse out what this means, I spoke to Streaming Observer editor in chief Chris Brantner. The report offers two takeaways, he said: First, Netflix is focusing on original over licensed content, and two, it’s focusing on TV shows over movies.

Netflix is adding to its own perception problem, Brantner believes, by doing a poor job promoting its original movies. A recent Screen Rant essay pointed out that many Netflix originals, such as "Cargo" and "6 Balloons," have done well with critics, but the company doesn’t make much noise about them.

As a result, Brantner sees Netflix movies getting a bad reputation, the streaming equivalent of direct-to-DVD.

“When you hear about a Netflix movie I think a lot of people’s first thought is, ‘Oh, that’s not going to be very good,’ which may or may not be the case,” Brantner said. It’s a problem Netflix doesn’t seem in any hurry to deal with. A few years back, a Netflix exec told Brantner that 66 percent of subscribers don’t even watch movies.

Netflix’s strategy is clearly to build up its exclusive content as a hedge against other streaming services. While WarnerMedia and Disney will soon launch high-profile OTT services, they’ll never have "Stranger Things" or "Orange Is the New Black."

“As more and more people put out these services, it makes more and more options available with more and more competition,” Brantner adds. “I guess it remains to be seen who is going to be able to stick around for the long haul, but I think Netflix is in a pretty good position.”

However, movie fans feel neglected by Netflix. To them, I’d like to suggest Fandor, which costs $5.99 per month by itself and is included in Sling’s Orange and Blue bundles. Or try Kanopy, which is free from many local libraries. (WarnerMedia killed the streaming service FilmStruck in October, which says something about the popularity of critically loved movies, but Ovid.TV is aiming to fill the gap.)

Good movies are out there, but you don’t hear people talking about them. Even when a high-profile recent movie is available on HBO or Showtime, people don’t talk about it. But they do talk about their favorite streaming series—a lot.

TV quality has gone up, and short-run streaming originals are the reason why. They’re more involving than movies. Directors have more room to tell a complex story. They’re almost always better than what you see at the multiplex.

Streaming original series have become the dominant art form of our age. Movies held that title for decades, but now short-run TV series have taken over. Netflix has moved its focus from movies to TV shows because TV shows are simply better and everyone knows it. While the service’s declining movie library might seem short-sighted, it’s actually visionary. Netflix has enough quality film to round out its library, but it puts most of its production money into original series where it routinely creates the best offerings around.

So does Netflix actually have a quality gap? No, it’s leading where it counts.

[This article appears in the January/February 2019 issue of Streaming Media Magazine as "Netflix’s Movie Library Is Kind of Terrible, But Does It Matter?"]

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