As Movies Become Commoditized, Toronto’s Search Engine Seeks True Love

Focus Features

The commoditization of film continues apace. By the counts on, theatrical feature releases have reached 648 for the year. That’s about two films per day, a rate that promises another 98 movies by December 31, even if we don’t get a year-end rush. The 2018 total, if current patterns hold, would be about one-tenth of a movie short of 746, up slightly from 740 in 2017, a record for modern Hollywood.

Counts from the MPAA put the numbers even higher. By the association’s reckoning, domestic feature releases peaked at 777 last year, up 8 percent from 718 in 2016. Friday alone will bring at least nine new films, led by Warner’s 4,000-screen-plus Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald.

Apparently, missed a few. But who can blame them at a time when many films are becoming an indistinguishable blur? The images from Beautiful Boy, Ben Is Back, Leave No Trace and even A Star Is Born — worthy films, all — run together in a confusing montage of love, damage and struggling relationships. Narrative films pile atop documentaries, as On the Basis of Sex chases RBG and Welcome to Marwen follows Marwencol, while Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor? await their more fictive follow-ups. Sorting through the horror films, never mind the Marvel universe, I leave to someone else.

Cameron Bailey

It’s little wonder that Cameron Bailey, artistic director and co-head of the Toronto International Film Festival, this week found himself introducing something called “The Recommendation Engine.” It is a search mechanism designed to help confused viewers sift through 300 or so movies from the this year’s TIFF by asking them preference questions, then coughing up titles. “There’s no way anyone can see everything, so we created a tool to help film lovers catch up with films you may have missed,” Bailey explained in an introductory email.

But the problem is a little deeper than a surplus of choices or a dearth of viewing time. As films, many of them quite good, flood a market that has been opened wide by on-demand services, they get diluted. Very few — such as Crazy Rich Asians, I Can Only Imagine or Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — surprise by leaving a commercial or cultural mark. Most simply disappear into the stack, buried by the next wave of soon-to-be lost movies.

In business jargon, films are being “commoditized” — turned into nearly interchangeable products that can best be identified and delivered to their likely consumers by a Recommendation Engine. Kind of like online dating, and about as likely to end in true love.

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