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Netflix’s new Flixtape service, which makes playlists of six movie or TV titles that users can send to friends, sounds like great fun—for about five seconds. Give it about a minute’s thought and it makes a whole lot less sense. Netflix wants you to think of this new feature as a mixtape for movies and TV shows. Everybody loves the mixtape, right? But where songs last a few minutes each, a TV-show episode runs at least 30 minutes, and movies can run for hours. Who has time to sit through that kind of marathon viewing?
Flixtape is free, but you’ll need a Netflix subscription to watch the videos in the playlists you’ll create. But your time is valuable, and I can’t recommend that you waste much of it using Flixtape. You might impress someone with your curating skills, matching up titles into some kind of cohesive theme, or you could send your significant other a list of goopy romance titles, but it doesn’t really do anything that’s terribly useful.
Flixtape is buggy and clunky in its debut iteration. Point your browser to flixtape.netflix.com and you’ll be greeted by an animated graphic comparing the service to the mixtapes of old, back when people used to record collections of songs on a cassette tape to give to friends. Then you’ll be offered two options: Pick a list of canned mixes (“Made for You”), or “Make Your Own” by typing in a title or a keyword. Click the “inspire me” button to see some suggestions.
I started by picking the suggested “The Summertime Flixtapes,” which included Moonrise Kingdom (great!), the surfing documentary The Endless Summer (good), Wet Hot American Summer (okay), Grease (um, okay), but also High School Musical 2 (sorry, but no) and something called Staten Island Summer, which I have never heard of and that has earned a whopping one-and-a-half-star user rating on Netflix’s site.
Then I tried to make my own mix. The first step is to type in a keyword or keywords that will be the title of your Flixtape. The service will respond by providing three movie or TV titles, and giving you the option to add three more (or to replace the suggested titles). My Pulp Fiction Flixtape came up with titles that had nothing to do with pulp fiction (the literary genre) or Pulp Fiction (the Quentin Tarantino movie). My “Super Cool Happy Hamster” mix just caused the system to spin around in confusion. The second time I tried it, it practically shrugged and gave me Forrest Gump.
Then I tried “Documentaries,” and it did, indeed give me documentaries, though it wasn’t a very interesting mix. It seemed like just six random documentaries, with no rhyme or reason, ranging from Blackfish to a documentary about Wal-Mart. A “further suggestions” bar below had about six or eight other titles, including Exit Through the Gift Shop, which I love, but which didn’t really help spice up the mix much. I felt I needed something more.
So I tried a “Classic” mix. The search word “Classic” did give me some classics, including To Kill a Mockingbird and Disney’s Robin Hood. Then came the challenge of trying to find three more classics for my mix. Users have the option to type in titles, but not actors or directors. I started randomly typing in titles and came up with “no matches.” Then I realized I needed to navigate to Netflix in another browser window and start searching there. (The Flixtape search engine is extremely limited.) After much searching, I found some, including Otto Preminger’s Laura and Robert Altman’s 3 Women. I went back to Flixtape, typed “Laura” in the field, and it gave me “no matches.” Then “3 Women.” No matches. Just “women.” No matches.
At this point, I think I broke Flixtape, as it presented a “Server Error (500)” message. Oops. After a while, the site came back, and the search feature appeared to be working again. I was able to add Laura. But then as I started another personalized mixtape, I found I was unable to add Roman Holiday, even though it’s available; I was able to add 50 First Dates instead. What is this service trying to tell me?
Finally finishing a mix, I started working on the “cover,” and again the service just isn’t very intuitive. It instructs you to drag the little pencil icon, which changes little doodles stationed in the corners of the cover, but there’s no logic behind it. I found a panda face, a box of popcorn, and a creepy heart with two hands protruding from the bottom, holding each other. It took a little while, but I managed to get away from the creepy heart and stop it on the panda and the popcorn. The photo in the center of the cover is simply a still from one of your six titles, but you can’t pick which one.
When your mix is finished, you can copy a link for it, or simply post it to Facebook or Twitter. The recipient, of course, must have a Netflix membership to watch the titles or the list is mostly worthless. Later, I learned that my chosen recipient could not even open the Flixtape I sent her on her iPad.
Finally, for myself, I tried a “Western” mix, which gave me House of Cards, among other things that were decidedly not Westerns. (House of Cards seems came up a lot.) It seems essential that you use very specific search terms: “Western” didn’t work, for example, but “Westerns” (with an “s”) did. My results included Django Unchained and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly, which are fine, but also Ron Howard’s The Missing, which I don’t care for. I added Meek’s Cutoff, The Homesman, and River of No Return, but I couldn’t find another favorite Western to swap for The Missing. When I made my “Westerns” cover, it didn’t have any kind of Western-related doodles, so I settled for a car and a smiling sun.
The main failure of Flixtape stems from the limited inventory in Netflix’s library, which is becoming more and more like a used bookstore, good for browsing but not always useful when you’re looking for a particular film. If you’re making a flixtape and you’re a creative curator, you’ll want to look for specific titles. If you’re making a baseball flixtape, for instance, you’ll immediately search for, say, Field of Dreams, Bull Durham, orThe Pride of the Yankees, none of which are currently available on Netflix. After a long time poking around, you’ll discover, instead, The Sandlot, Major League, Hardball, and a trio of documentaries, Fastball, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, and Knuckleball.
That’s about it, and that’s fine, but it’s inevitably disappointing and not as creative—or as fun—as one might hope. Unless Netflix is committed to making improvements in a hurry, I would guess that many movie fans will try Flixtape once, become frustrated, and never go back.