November 3, 2016

'Watching' is the New York Times' Answer to 'What the Hell Should I Watch?'

Watching, a new service from the New York Times, wants to be your film junkie friend.

We've all been there: It's 10PM. You've scrolled through every movie on Netflix, Hulu, and HBO Go. With thousands of options at your disposal, you still can't seem to find one you're in the mood for—and when you finally do, your roommate/friend/significant other vetoes it. 

Watching, a New York Times service that launched today, is hoping to throw you a life raft. Based on your viewing preferences, the website (along with its email newsletter component) aggregates a curated list of the best film and television content available to stream and tells you where, how, and why—or why not—to watch it.

"While there are still giant pockets of classic and foreign cinema that are not accessible through streaming and on-demand services, it is still easier to watch a large selection of movies than ever before," Gilbert Cruz, The New York Times' TV Editor and curator of Watching told No Film School. "Watching hopes to help users solve this decision-making process."

How it works

After selecting one qualifier that characterizes what you're in the mood to watch (ex: "witty," "steamy," or "dark"), one genre, and one subgenre (ex: "cult," "British," "indie"), Watching suggests NYT film and TV critic-approved movie choices. 

When you click on a film, Watching provides you with its pros and cons, such as "Skip if you're easily offended" (Tangerine), or "Watch if you want a brainy science fiction movie enhanced by some action" (Snowpiercer). A GoWatchIt integration scans major streaming services, like Amazon, and more niche ones, like Fandor or SnagFilms, and displays where the film is currently available to watch. If you would rather save it for later, you can add it to your "personal watchlist."

At the bottom of the page, you can also peruse links to some of the best essays, interviews, recaps, and reviews about the title from across the internet.

"Before or after watching a movie, you want to read more about it," said Cruz. "Maybe you want to re-read a few reviews. Maybe an interview with the director. Maybe a deep dive on the cinematography. If you did not like the movie, maybe you want to read a review just so you can go, 'Is this person kidding me? That was terrible.'"

Why it matters

How can Watching compete with an algorithm like Netflix's, which Cruz said the company "has spent millions and millions of dollars and many years working on"? 

"I don't think we'll go that far," said Cruz. Rather than spend money figuring out how to categorize content down to the most granular level, Watching "[offers] a more tailored and human-driven approach," which is almost certainly underscored by the emphasis on critical favorites and supplementary reading materials.

"We definitely plan to focus on directing people to classic movies that we think are worth watching," said Cruz. "But there is a big opportunity—especially as more movies go straight to VOD—to expose or direct people to independent cinema, documentaries, and foreign films. [These] films often play in cinemas for a short period and really have a robust life on home screens."

Of course, Watching isn't without its limitations. The human-driven approach will present an uphill battle for comprehensive editorial coverage. (As of the day of launch, I searched for a recent critical favorite that I know is streaming on Netflix—Herzog's Into the Inferno—to no avail.) Further, some of the editorialized bits read more like synopses than nuanced or flavorful critical takes. But in a world that can feel increasingly indifferent to the fiscal success of independent films, a platform that promotes their discovery is a welcome platform indeed.      

Featured image: 'Mustang,' currently streaming on Netflix.

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