how to find hidden gems on netflix

Do you know how to use Netflix’s secret genre codes?

by Sophie Monks Kaufman
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27 March 2018, 7:30am

Netflix: Last year it had over 117 million subscribers worldwide. Multiply that by every ex-girlfriend who still has a login, every brother’s friend from school who has a login, and every mother-in-law who shares a subscription and well, you’ve got a digital streaming service that is so powerful it doesn’t need to acquire award-winning films and shows, it can make its own. In February, CFO David Wells announced plans to spend over $8 billion in 2018 on original Netflix content -- including 700 television series and 80 films.

At the 2018 Oscars, Bryan Fogel's doping-in-cycling expose, Icarus, netted Best Documentary, becoming the first Netflix original movie to win an Academy Award. Meanwhile at the premier arthouse fiesta that is Cannes Film Festival, elitist feathers were ruffled last year when two Netflix titles were programmed. Boos rang out across the Palais des Festivals when the red Netflix logo appeared on screen before Bong Joon Ho's fantastical capitalism satire Okja, and Noah Baumbach's acerbic family comedy The Meyerowitz Stories.

The old guard have dismissed Netflix for its disregard for the cinema, but what it’s achieved is nothing short of a revolution. The dilemma facing most people however is, with over 6000 films and 1000 TV shows, it’s near impossible to plumb the depths and find the thing you most want to watch. So, if you, like me, find yourself horizontal on the sofa, thumb slug-like on the remote scrolling through “New Additions”, then “Trending Now”, then, “Independent Films with a Strong Female Lead”, before settling on re-watching season four of Ru Paul’s Drag Race, here are some ideas on how you can dig up those hidden gems.

Find trustworthy curators
Once upon a time -- shall we say 2014 -- film journalists focused their reviews to coincide with new releases hitting cinemas every Friday. Sure, we were aware of the burgeoning streaming industry, and how it played merry hell with the idea of curated distribution (an exception being MUBI, which I'll cover in a sec) but it seemed like a niche somewhat beneath our towering concerns. Fast-forward to 2018 and most outlets are in the process of embracing, or at least accepting, the fact that Netflix and its less-blinged-up equivalents are a major supplier of movies to audiences. (Like a good member of Film Twitter, I am now resisting the urge to bang on about why it's important to see films at the cinema.)

A little searching will reveal an outlet with its eye trained towards titles that match your taste. The Guardian publishes the feature What's on Netflix and Amazon This Month, flagging staff picks of new films and TV shows, with links to longform reviews. For a leaner, purely informational source check out Vodzilla's exhaustive list of What's Coming Soon To Netflix. On this note, the sensual, Yorkshire-based, gay love story God's Own Country is coming soon to Netflix (on 31 March) -- cue that baby up.

If you prefer to dose up on information via social media, follow @OliLyttelton. The film journalist turned film and television writer has been doing the lord's work by recommending a film available on a UK streaming service every day since 3 January 2018. Netflix is in the mix, but so too are -- deep breath -- Amazon Video, Amazon Prime, iPlayer, BFI Player, NOW TV, Filmstruck and MUBI. FilmStruck has been operating in the US since 2016 but only arrived in the UK in February. It is the cinephile's dream, with a focus on classic films and a partnership with the revered Criterion Collection. Elsewhere, MUBI's major selling point is the 30 factor. There are 30 films available for only 30 days, before a new title displaces an old one. MUBI also earns relevance by programming titles to reflect happenings elsewhere in the film world, so as a director's new work is released in UK cinemas, an older, overlooked gem will appear on their site.

Embrace chance with Netflix roulette
A silver-lining about Netflix becoming a monolith is the cottage industry of services that have sprung up around it. Is your brain frazzled from the barrage of choices that colour your every waking moment? Why not take a spin on Flix Roulette. In the name of investigative journalism, I played this game with pleasant if none-too-revolutionary results. The interface is soothingly simple. Three check boxes cover genre, type (movies or TV shows) and IMDB (a rating out of 10).

Quite apart from the addictive high of repeatedly hitting 'spin again' like the glazed simpleton too much screen time enables, the selection was a rewarding haul. I ended up with Carol and Boogie Nights, both stone-cold stunners by two of the most compelling directors working today, and it's never a bad time to watch or rewatch either. Y Tu Mamá También has Gael García Bernal in it and sometimes, what more do you need? But the real revelation was the obscure title the roulette wheel led me to. Kumu Hina is a documentary portrait of a transgender Native Hawaiian teacher, described in an enticing Indiewire review as “a subtle but inspiring tale”.

Embrace order with secret codes
This is the truest and most useful Netflix revelation and remains somewhat under the radar despite the fact that intel surfaced years ago. Instead of browsing by scrolling through endless gumpf, or diving into the inanely broad categories positioned front and centre on the homepage, you can copy a subgenre code onto the end of a Netflix URL and -- voila -- a secret realm. The website What's on Netflix has an extensive list of the codes, from Adult Animation [11881] to Campy Movies [1252] to Spiritual Documentaries [2760], and all you need do to reap the relevant riches is input the corresponding number in this format: netflix.com/browse/genre/INSERTNUMBER

I had a play around and it was thrilling! The Netflix homepage can create the illusion of a homogenous range of viewing options. Once you start watching those signposted titles the algorithm means that you end up seeing and watching more of the same without noticing the joyful range of esoterica which exists below the surface. I searched Cult Horror Films [10944] and found John Carpenter's Christine, I searched Classics [31574] and found George Lucas's American Grafitti. Both are films that I've casually wanted to see for years, revealed as if by magic!

Because Netflix loves to customise, even these search results default to the “Suggestions for You” option. To hack this, switch to search results ordered “A-Z”, “Z-A” or “Year Released”.

Show it who’s boss
So, yes, on the note of customisation: algorithms can be good if you play them by your rules. Living online can be a slog of rating experience: Tripadvisor, Amazon, eBay. Every service begs for feedback when sometimes you just had a neutral time and have nothing to say because you're en route to forgetting the experience. It's wise to decide how much time you have for rating titles you watched on Netflix. Perhaps ignore the middling fayre, and the insulting trash, and only rate flicks which instilled such enthusiasm that you want to tell the world. (This is also good advice for everything you might consider saying online. If you don't thoughtfully curate your own platforms you too could end up spamming people with mediocrity!)

Finally, things to avoid
Social media associated with Netflix. These platforms just push the latest showcase titles with deafening marketing pizzazz!

Staying too long on the Netflix homepage. No one needs that level of white informational noise invading from all sides.

Letting anyone other than those with perfect taste borrow your account. Maybe you love someone but do you love them enough to let them screw with your ordered universe? (Coincidentally this is the subject of Paul Thomas Anderson's latest film, Phantom Thread).

Have additional tips for transforming Netflix from a consumer hell into a personal dreamworld? Let us know @i_D