Saturday, August 4, 2012

No "short wait" to revisit the original

I'll be seeing Total Recall this weekend.

The 1990 version, not the 2012 version.

Call it the remnants of an Arnold Schwarzenegger binge from earlier this year, when we watched both the second and third Terminator movies. Or call it the remnants of a Paul Verhoeven binge, which has included viewings of Starship Troopers and Robocop since the beginning of 2011.

But my wife had never seen Schwarzenegger and Verhoeven's only collaboration, so I decided to correct that. And around the beginning of August seemed like a good time to do it.

In a way, I was a bit surprised it was so readily available from Netflix. I tend to think there are certain real-world events that put a strain on Netflix' finite supply of any given title. Like, the curiosity about the original movie created by its remake.

Not the case here. Total Recall never slipped into "short wait" status even briefly, that I saw.

And that's actually what I want to talk about today -- not the predictable antipathy I feel toward Len Wiseman's version of Total Recall, opening today, but the demand on that supply for the original Total Recall.

Shouldn't there be others out there, like me, who rebel against our perpetual cycle of remakes by wholeheartedly embracing the original? And want to share the pleasures of the original with those who have not previously had, er, the pleasure?

I've wondered about this before. Like most businesses, Netflix surely structures its inventory based on expected demand. If a title is really popular -- say, Star Wars -- then Netflix probably keeps a dozen copies at any given distribution center. (I'm just throwing out numbers here -- I only have a vague idea of how large each distribution center is, and how many distribution centers there are.)  But if the movie is not very popular -- say, The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain -- then one or two copies per center would suffice.

But what happens if a real-world event comes along to throw the predictable supply-demand ratio out of whack?

This idea occurred to me first in relation to Filmspotting, my favorite film podcast, which I seem to be referencing more and more regularly on this blog. As often as they can manage to squeeze it into their overstuffed viewing schedules, the hosts of Filmspotting like to host marathons based on certain themes: a particular director (Robert Bresson was a recent subject) or a particular subsection of the cinematic world (see: Contemporary Iranian Cinema).

The idea behind these marathons is to expose their listeners to films they haven't seen, and might not be likely to see if not for this artificial creation of a viewing appointment. And Filmspotting has many, many listeners. This is again something that's hard to measure, but each week they read a list of new donors, listeners who have seen it fit to help subsidize the costs of putting on this podcast. (To my great shame, I have yet to donate.) So if you add all the new donors to all the previous donors, as well as assume that there is a much greater number of freeloaders like me, you could reasonably guess that the podcast has as many as five thousand listeners. But really, that could be on the conservative end. There could be 10,000, even 15,000. It's hard to say.

Okay, let's assume that there are 10,000. If even 1/10th of those listeners choose to participate in one of these marathons, and at least half of them are getting their movies from Netflix, that's 500 more copies of Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar than would be needed under ordinary circumstances. Okay, Filmspotting has a pretty sizable foreign audience. So let's say that only 300 more copies are needed.

Shouldn't the demand for 300 extra copies of Au Hasard Balthazar make it an extremely rare commodity?

I didn't participate in the Bresson marathon, but I did watch two of the films in the Contemporary Iranian Cinema marathon, one of which, Jahid Jahidi's Close Up, I had to acquire as a physical disc through the mail. Yet there was no lack of availability of this movie on Netflix. I got it delivered to my home in a timely manner.

How many copies of this movie might Netflix bother to house nationwide? Fifty? In an ordinary year, they might not even rent Close Up 50 times all year, to all of their customers.

There's a lot of speculation here, and only a little to do with Total Recall.

Well, I've got my copy, and either tonight or tomorrow night, my wife and I will be traveling to a version of Mars full of three-titted prostitutes. Jealous?

I hear that a new version of Miss Three Tits appears in Wiseman's remake, so you have an easy mechanism for getting your own mutant boobs this weekend. They just won't be as good as the mutant boobs I'm seeing.


Don Handsome said...

I've thought about the availability of discs on Netflix quite often throughout the years and I don’t think I’ve ever noticed a direct impact of real world events on the availability of certain discs. I think this is because the wait indicators ("Long", "Very Long", etc.) are bullshit.

I don't think they are real time at all and I think they essentially represent for Netflix a methodology of managing expectations. Surely, with some new releases, expectations SHOULD be managed so I don’t really fault them for this strategy, but I do think that they wait indicators are triggered manually or at least not actually tied to actual distribution center availability figures. I continually test this theory as I organize my queue by placing ALL movies with indicated waits at the top of my queue. Currently I have 13 movies with waits indicated at the top of my queue. I just sent a movie back today and tomorrow when I get a new movie sent out, I can almost guarantee you that I will get one of those 13 "wait" movies sent to me. It might not be the first one, but it will be one of them. It almost always works this way.
Netflix is just managing expectations here and they do that very simplistically by choosing new releases and flagging them as movies with waits. I think that they also manage expectations on films with extremely short supplies. Breaking the Waves, for example, is in my queue and it inexplicably shows a wait indicator...a quick look at amazon explains this as it sells new for $99 (meaning it’s out of print on DVD right now, I'd guess). I would doubt that they actually don't have the copies in house at Netflix, I just think they've flagged it as a scarce resource (because Netlix isn’t paying $99 for something that could break at anytime in the mail) and are managing my expectations.
So, in the grand scheme of things, I just don't think Netflix is fast enough to reflect things like a bunch of people wanting to watch the original instead of or before the remade Total Recall, and unfortunately I don't think they give a fuck about Filmspotting.

Vancetastic said...

Interesting theory. No, they certainly don't give a fuck about Filmspotting, but if the wait indicators were triggered by the supply diminishing, then they wouldn't have to give a fuck -- they would just know that they didn't have the movie in their inventory at the moment so the wait indicator would go up.

I like your method of testing the wait time via pushing supposedly unavailable titles to the top of your queue. Anything to uncover the faceless bureaucracy that is Netflix.