- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 27, 2006

NEW YORK

Does it sometimes seem that Netflix knows your tastes better than your friends, your spouse or even you?

“You loved it,” the DVD rental site will remind you, offering a movie for sale that yes, by golly, you did love.

Now it can tell you what everyone else loves, too. A new feature lets you pop in a ZIP code to find what’s popular anywhere — from Anchorage, Alaska, to Kalamazoo, Mich., to Tallahassee, Fla., to anywhere else recognized by the post office.

You have to take the Netflix folks at their word — the company doesn’t give out specific numbers. Nevertheless, it’s an entertaining look at tastes across the country. New Yorkers, perhaps not surprisingly, seem to like French films a lot — but not as much as films about New York. In Miami, Cuban films dominate the list. And so on.

An important caveat: The geographical list gives you not the top rentals in a particular area, but just titles people there ordered “much more than other Netflix members.” So, we wondered, how would a straight top-rentals list look for various areas? Would the same interesting regional qualities play a role?

The answer: Not so much. Turns out we all like pretty much the same things.

Take “Crash,” for example. The surprise Oscar winner about racial strife in Los Angeles was No. 1 not only there, but on all but one of the lists we asked Netflix to provide: Boston; New York City; Billings, Mont.; Albany, N.Y.; and Miami. It came in second in Mobile, Ala.

Mobile’s first choice, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (the film that spawned Brangelina), was in the top three on all lists — except for Boston, where it came in fifth. And so on. The Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” was in the top 10 everywhere except Miami. “Hotel Rwanda,” about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, was in the top 10 everywhere but Mobile. Clint Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby” and the Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson buddy comedy “Wedding Crashers” also were universally popular.

“Yes, I think taste is uniform across the country — and across the world, and the millennia,” says Richard Walter, a film professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. “People everywhere respond to the same kind of drama, the same characters, the same conflict.”

That may be true basically, but modest differences appear once you get beyond the top tier of films, says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners.

“Pirates of the Caribbean is going to work everywhere, period,” Mr. Fithian says of the Johnny Depp movie that’s the year’s biggest hit, “but there are enough differences to be statistically relevant.” Family pictures, for example, play a few percentage points better in the middle of the country; R-rated fare plays better on the coasts. Foreign films play best in big cities but are spreading somewhat.

The new Netflix feature stemmed from internal research the company already was doing. “We thought, ‘This is cool,’” says Steve Swasey, spokesman for Netflix Inc. “Let’s show people what they’re asking for in their neighborhoods.”

He wouldn’t give numbers but said the weekly lists are tabulated using a complex analysis of how members add and subtract from their queues. Scientific or not, the results are often intriguing — and show that in many (but not all) cases, we like to watch, well, ourselves.

To wit: This week in Alaska, “Northern Exposure,” the TV series about quirky Cicely, Alaska, tops the list in both Fairbanks and Juneau. In Phoenix, people loved Kevin Costner in “Wyatt Earp: Special Edition,” which features Tombstone, Ariz.

In the District, a documentary on a local drug dealer tops the list. In Hawaii, it’s a film about a surfing star — from Hawaii. In Savannah, Ga., No. 2 is Mr. Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” about an infamous murder case in the city.

In New York City, Ric Burn’s historical series “New York” tops the list. “New York Stories” is up there. And yes, Woody Allen’s “Manhattan” makes the top 25. So does “L.A. Story” on the Los Angeles list, which is topped by “Mi Vida Loca,” about the city’s Echo Park neighborhood.

However, type in Fargo, N.D., and “Fargo” is nowhere to be found. At the top of that list is Disney’s “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” a family film. A bit south in Sioux Falls, S.D., you can’t find “Deadwood,” which is based in the state — but the HBO series is right on top in Burlington, Vt.

In Odessa, Texas, the top choice is “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada,” but you can’t find “Friday Night Lights” — about a high school football team from Odessa. You can find that film, though, on the list for Paris, Texas.

And no, film buffs, we looked. Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas” is not on the list for Paris, Texas.

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