The 2014 film “Beyond the Lights” has way more in common thematically with “Notting Hill” than it does with “A Different World” or “Being Mary Jane,” which, like “Beyond the Lights” both feature majority-black casts. But you wouldn’t know that if you hadn’t seen either film and were going solely based on the “more like this” recommendations powered by Netflix’s enigmatic algorithm.
Wednesday, writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood took issue with this publicly. Writing on Twitter, Prince-Bythewood, who also directed the classic “Love and Basketball,” argued that by categorizing films by race rather than genre, Netflix was doing a disservice, one that’s repeated over and over in Hollywood when movies about universal themes get relegated to niche categories simply because they have majority-black casts.
We know Netflix is pretty oblique about the workings of its algorithm. We also know that Netflix employs a small army of humans to binge-watch their content and help categorize it.
We weren’t expecting them to give away any secrets, but we did reach out to see if Netflix had anything to say about Prince-Bythewood’s point. We never heard from them, but Prince-Bythewood told The Post she received a call Thursday from Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos. She said they had a “good conversation.”
According to Prince-Bythewood, Sarandos explained that films such as “Beyond the Lights” and Ava DuVernay’s “Middle of Nowhere” were sorted by genre in Netflix’s merchandising banners such as “romantic movies featuring a strong female lead.” The categories that you see when you first log in to Netflix’s streaming service, along with “continue watching,” “popular on Netflix” and others, scoop up and categorize films by genre.
“It is reflective of what it should be,” Prince-Bythewood said.
The “more like this” recommendations — the ones Prince-Bythewood was tweeting about — are a little different.
“Beyond the Lights” is about celebrity. It’s about coming into one’s own and standing up to a demanding momager who doesn’t have your best interests at heart. It’s about sacrifice and making stupid decisions in love and having the courage to try to correct them. Nothing about that specifically says “black.” The recommendations related to “Notting Hill” include other films featuring its stars, Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. That’s not the case with “Beyond the Lights” and its stars, Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Touch”) or Nate Parker (“Red Hook Summer”). Mbatha-Raw and Parker have far fewer titles under their belts than Grant and Roberts, of course, but they do have other work that’s streaming on Netflix.
Bythewood said Sarandos told her the “more like this” recommendations were based on statistics.
“Let’s say for ‘Beyond the Lights,’ people who watched my film and graded it, it captures what they have also watched,” Bythewood explained. “It’s a unique algorithm just for that. ‘More like this’ is different from the merchandising banners, which is the first thing that people see on Netflix and the way most people use Netflix.”
The racial uniformity of “more like this” tends to be specific to black dramas, according to Bythewood and Sarandos. For some reason, people who watch black comedic titles such as the Wayans brothers’ “Haunted House 2” are more likely to also watch shows and movies with white people in them, netting more diverse recommendations. Boxing movies tended to beget more boxing movies, regardless of the race of the cast.
“He said as more people discover and watch, those choices in ‘more like this’ are going to start broadening,” Bythewood said.
So, problem solved, right? Well, not exactly.
The issues for “Beyond the Lights” and other films with majority-minority casts stem from a larger problem. Remember the “surprise” success of “The Best Man Holiday?” That was pretty typical of the soft bigotry of low expectations films with majority-black casts often experience. There was an enormous flap when USA Today haphazardly categorized it as a “race-themed” film, but that wasn’t just one ill-advised blip unique to USA Today. That short-sightedness Bythewood said, often originates with movie studios.
“The makeup of your cast — the issues, they affect everything,” Prince-Bythewood said. “They affect how much you get for your budget, how much is in marketing/publicity, who it’s marketed to and publicized to, how many screens you get, what happens internationally. It is a maddening journey to be on. It just feels like you’re constantly fighting. And again, I’m up for the fight. Being an athlete has helped me tremendously because I have the stamina and aggression and competence to fight.”
“Beyond the Lights,” which cost approximately $7 million to make, grossed $15 million.
“Every film I’ve done, I’ve been very, very fortunate to work in the studio system in that you make a film and you know it’s going to get released … With ‘Beyond the Lights’ creatively — amazing experience,” Bythewood said. “The film that was up on screen was what was in my head, and that does not always happen in the studio system.”
But Prince-Bythewood detailed her frustrations working with Relativity, the company that distributed “Beyond the Lights,” on a strategy for marketing the film. She wanted to market the film to women of all races as a love story and said it was a fight convincing Relativity to enter it in the Toronto International Film Festival, where it received a standing ovation from the festival’s largely white audience. The word she used over and over to describe the difficulty of getting the studio to see “Beyond the Lights” as more than just a “black film”: “maddening.”
“It was only marketed to what they call ‘the black audience’ as if the black audience is all one thing and we all like the same thing, which is not true,” Prince-Bythewood said. “We’re not a monolith. … Why limit the audience? Why limit the amount of money you can potentially make?”
Relativity recently filed for bankruptcy.
Prince-Bythewood has also tweeted about “Beyond the Lights” not getting a theatrical run in the United Kingdom, despite the fact that two of its stars, Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Minnie Driver, are British and part of the film is set in the U.K. It’s very clear that the U.K. is home for Mbatha-Raw’s character, Noni — it’s where she returns for a moment of glory at the film’s end.
The Bechdel Test Fest organized screenings so it could be shown in Britain’s Picturehouse theater chain, but it never enjoyed a wide release there. Instead, “Beyond the Lights” went straight to video-on-demand and DVD.
“Why leave money on the table?” Prince-Bythewood asked. “I don’t get it.”