The Netflix Prize and the Case of the Napoleon Dynamite Problem  NOV 24 2008

Clive Thompson writes up the Netflix Prize -- which offers $1 million to the first team to improve upon Netflix's default recommendation algorithm by 10% -- and the vexing Napoleon Dynamite problem that is thwarting all comers.

Bertoni says it's partly because of "Napoleon Dynamite," an indie comedy from 2004 that achieved cult status and went on to become extremely popular on Netflix. It is, Bertoni and others have discovered, maddeningly hard to determine how much people will like it. When Bertoni runs his algorithms on regular hits like "Lethal Weapon" or "Miss Congeniality" and tries to predict how any given Netflix user will rate them, he's usually within eight-tenths of a star. But with films like "Napoleon Dynamite," he's off by an average of 1.2 stars.

The reason, Bertoni says, is that "Napoleon Dynamite" is very weird and very polarizing. It contains a lot of arch, ironic humor, including a famously kooky dance performed by the titular teenage character to help his hapless friend win a student-council election. It's the type of quirky entertainment that tends to be either loved or despised. The movie has been rated more than two million times in the Netflix database, and the ratings are disproportionately one or five stars.

This behavior was flagged as an issue by denizens of the Netflix Prize message board soon after the contest was announced two years ago.

Those are the movies you either loved loved loved or hated hated hated. These are the movies you can argue with your friends about. And good old 'Miss Congeniality' is right up there in the #4 spot. Also not surprising to see up here are: 'Napoleon Dynamite' (I hated it), 'Fahrenheit 9/11' (I loved it), and 'The Passion of the Christ' (didn't see it, but odds are, I'd hate it).

After finding that post, I wrote a little bit about why these movies are so contentious.

The thing that all those kinds of movies have in common is that if you're outside of the intended audience for a particular movie, you probably won't get it. That means that if you hear about a movie that's highly recommended within a certain group and you're not in that group, you're likely to hate it. In some ways, these are movies intended for a narrow audience, were highly regarded within that audience, tried to cross over into wider appeal, and really didn't make it.

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