Are streaming services positioning content to define what films go viral?

When you log onto your favorite Video on Demand (VOD) or Over the Top (OTT) service, be it Disney+, Netflix, Amazon Prime or any other, the titles that appear on your homepage have been carefully selected for you. 

Many of us love this about streaming services. The personalization algorithms mean that you’ll be welcomed online by titles you’re likely to enjoy. 

Streaming algorithms use your viewing history to suggest new titles which, based on what genre, directors or film categories you previously watched, are best for you. These algorithms determine what you see when you log in, and more often than not, positions content in a way that not-so-subtly affect your viewing decisions. 

Thanks to this curated login screen (and a continuing pandemic that’s pushed OTT into our own top-ten activity list), streaming services have become uniquely positioned to be modern-day tastemakers: able to create a hit, revive old IP’s or create new value in a once-dead film or franchise. 

The New Taste Makers

Consciously or not, streamers and OTT services have turned themselves into tastemakers, and our pandemic-induced dependence on OTTs means that streaming services (rather than traditional promotional channels) are influencing what content will become a hit. Which in turn is  giving those services with in-house productions a competitive edge.

According to UK research firm Ampere Analysis, “While Netflix originals make up about 30% of all the movies and TV in the company’s catalog, they typically represent about 50% of the titles presented on its home page.”

Ampere claims that genres which are “overrepresented” on the Netflix home page – such as Crime and science fiction, “consistently figured in the Top 10,” alluding to Netflix’s influence on our viewing choices. 

“[These genres] stand more of a chance of getting in the Top 10, because what consumers are seeing upon login is the content Netflix wants them to watch,” explains senior analyst at Ampere, Lottie Towler.

This content positioning doesn’t just promote in-house produced content. It can also turn a thirty year old movie into a OTT classic, creating new value for what might have otherwise been a dead IP.

The Rise of the Comfort Flick

Comfort food, phone calls with old friends and fluffy slippers have marked the pandemic-experience of most Americans. It’s no wonder that comfort-flicks have now found their way into our living rooms, too.

When the 90’s classic Michel Jordan-meets-The Looney Tunes film Space Jam appeared on Netflix, it was an instant nostalgic hit. According to the Wall Street Journal, Kiyaire Rose, a 23-year-old dropshipper in Atlanta, watched the movie ”roughly 15 times in the first month it appeared on Netflix.

“I watched it twice back-to-back the first day. At night if I can’t fall asleep, I just let it play,” Rose said to the WSJ. “People go back to things they’re familiar with. It’s just therapeutic to me.”

If Space Jam wasn’t already launching it’s sequel, now would be time for the IP owners to double down and make one. Even with the reboot Space Jam 2 set to (finally) premiere in July of 2021, owners of the franchise are likely thrilled at Netflix’s popularizing of their vintage IP. (Whether a deal was struck behind the scenes to promote the IP via streaming is unknown.) 

Reviving classic hits isn’t the only VOD specialty of the day – streamers can also bring veritable flatliners back to life.

The Flop, Flips

VOD has also created a new opportunity for movies that flopped at the box office to redeem themselves with at-home-audiences. 

Freaks, a low-budget movie that netted less than $300,000 at the box office, was one such film poised to be quickly forgotten. Until it made Netflix’s Top 10, that is. 

Netflix had just launched its “Top 10 list” feature when Freaks debuted on the service, and thanks to social media and this new “most-watched” list, the flop, shall we say, flipped. Freaks made it up to number two on the Top 10 list, remaining in the Top 10 for nearly two weeks. 

According to the Wall Street Journal, their streaming popularity “helped [the directors] schedule meetings with Hollywood studios about potential film and TV projects,” an opportunity that wouldn’t have existed pre-VOD. The film’s online popularity proved to producers and studios that this could be an IP whose future is worth investing in.

“This is a game changer for filmmakers who can now show other people in the industry how their film is doing,” co-director of the film Adam Stein explained. “Here is a verifiable stamp of achievement.”