It’s been 10 years now since the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” hit theaters, and it might have done much more than we give it credit for in helping small, quirky indie films finding an audience. Prior to 2004, it was much more difficult for an offbeat indie with a small budget to find proper outlets toward becoming a cult film. In just the last decade, we now have places like Kickstarter give new outlets for quirky indies to find funding and easier distribution. With small independent films finding audiences online as well, the Internet has changed the whole perspective on another movie like “Napoleon Dynamite” managing to turn a profit.
Regardless, the term “The Napoleon Dynamite Problem” is a term that still exists as a reminder that such a film is sometimes impossible to read when it comes to giving automatic recommendations on places like Netflix. This all stems from the Netflix software called Cinematch that was written about in The New York Times over six years ago and how it’s used to this day to calculate algorithms on film comparisons.
In the above piece, it was noted how difficult “Napoleon Dynamite” was to read in giving similar recommendations because of its overly quirky nature. Anyone who saw the film a decade ago remembers how polarizing it was in providing the most extreme polar opposite opinions of any movie in recent memory. While some deemed it a classic, others thought it was the worst movie experience they ever had. Because of this, Netflix has always had trouble giving proper recommendations for it (and similar movies) based on those opposing opinions.
Since then, though, it seems more people have warmed to “Napoleon Dynamite”, probably thanks to its TV airings where you can take more time to enjoy the quirks. This doesn’t take away from the “Napoleon Dynamite Problem”, though, and how relevant it still is in whether going quirky is really a good idea to capture attention or if it places such a film in too much of an obscure bracket. In the indie world recently, you can’t say there’s been many films made with the same overly quirky quotient.
Does an Indie Film Still Have to Be Quirky?
It seems that when people think of a small-budget indie film, they automatically assume it’s going to be something quirky and well outside the mainstream. With numerous indie films up for Oscars this last year that were far from offbeat, the idea of being that way just because you can may not be going over well with the general public. In some respects, “Napoleon Dynamite” might have tainted the quirky nature of indies into becoming a stigma of pretentiousness.
When it comes to quirky, some of it has gone mainstream anyway when you include Wes Anderson in the mix. His level of quirkiness is so assimilated into pop culture now that his set decoration style and method of dialogue in his movies are being imitated everywhere. You could say the deadpan style of dialogue in Anderson’s fare also has a direct line to “Napoleon Dynamite” where you could hear some of the most eyeball-rolling and hilarious deadpan dialogue ever uttered in a film.
We still see plenty of quirky films in the indie circuit, including such recent movies as “Submarine” and even more recent “Frances Ha.” They haven’t reached the level of cult status, however, like “Napoleon Dynamite” did. And those films probably continue to confuse Netflix’s recommendations system due to their wide critical opinions. Does it place more pressure on indie film directors to create a movie that still has indie qualities without self-awareness of being so off the wall?
It seems indie films have found a more interesting balance of tackling mainstream issues while still defying by-the-numbers storytelling. “Dallas Buyers Club” is a good example in a very indie film having a few quirks while still being accessible with a mainstream issue. As more outside sources start to fund indie films with real Oscar potential, it may take indie films away from as much quirkiness as we once saw, if for the sake of falling in line with Netflix recommendations to get more people watching.
Yes, when it comes to Netflix’s recommendations algorithm, it might be nearly as important now for the future viewing of an indie film as Google and Yelp are to businesses.