Culture

What Netflix doesn’t want you to know about how its synopses are written

A (kind of) arduous quest for the truth.

Culture

Culture

What Netflix doesn’t want you to know about how its synopses are written

A (kind of) arduous quest for the truth.

There are plenty of Netflix users who don’t care about the content descriptions, because they're preoccupied with literally anything else going on in our pre-apocalyptic world. But you would be surprised how many people have forceful opinions about those summaries, good and bad, at least according to Twitter. A typically positive experience comes from @IndiaAlmighty (“The people who write the synopses for Netflix are so concise. I love it.”) and @heydom (“Sometimes, reading through @netflix movie synopses is better than watching Netflix.”). On the other side of the fence, we have people like @quackattack259: “Whoever writes the synopses for Netflix needs firing. I'm sick of googling things for a proper one before I watch shit.”

Netflix synopses can be concise, sassy, opaque, or on-the-nose. They reveal something about the movie, of course, but also the person who wrote them. The one for 2014’s Frank (“In a band led by a papier-mâché head, a so-called outcast better bring it. Let's have a toast to the weirdos.”) and 1989’s Heathers (“Vicious words, deadly pranks, and pretty little suicide notes. Welcome to the most popular clique in school.”) are written with a smirk. The ones for 2015’s Bad Asses on the Bayou (“You almost feel sorry for the hoods who kidnap a bride before her wedding when you realize who’s hunting them down.”) and 1984’s He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (“Five magic words turn a beefcake into a barbarian. The world’s yours when you have a battle cat and a broadsword.”) are completely indiscernible for viewers unfamiliar with those film and TV franchises.

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Netflix descriptions aren’t all so conversational or tongue-in-cheek. The inconsistency of style, even among content from the same creators, also made me curious. For example, the hover description for PBS’s NOVA: Deadliest Tornadoes is intriguing: “They ravage towns and ruin lives. It’s up to scientists to learn why… and where they’ll strike next.” Personally, I would have ended with an ellipsis too to maximize the suspense. You can never have too many ellipses… Either way, that description is still miles ahead of the snoozer attached to PBS’s NOVA: Why Sharks Attack: “Shark experts analyze the changing behavior patterns behind rising shark attacks and increasing numbers of predators in waters frequented by humans.” Good luck getting me to click on that.

Meanwhile, some of Netflix’s descriptions have been straight-up wrong. “Hey @netflix, this description is wrong. Older Ted is telling the story in 2030, not 2029,” wrote one user about an episode of How I Met Your Mother. “@netflix this description for Keeping Up Appearances is wrong. It's Elizabeth's brother Emmet, not her boyfriend,” wrote another.

I had to learn more, so I emailed a representative from the company to see how these synopses come to life. Was there a training course that taught prospective summarizers how to write succinct sentences? Just who was tasked with watching that Rob Schneider movie? In a major blow to my curiosity (and pride), the rep replied that they would be passing on speaking to me for an article. I wrote back asking if there were any details they could share, and was again rebuffed: “I don't have anything to share, but thanks for checking.” First of all, you’re welcome! And second of all, what? Why, I wondered, wouldn’t Netflix want to let me in on the wondrous mystery of their movie synopses?

I had many questions, especially considering how Netflix’s descriptions have changed over time. The synopses that came on the labeled DVD sleeves in the early 2000s were often more detailed than the ones on the streaming site today, including information about who starred in the film or if it was by a notable director nestled into a description of the plot. But in the decade that has passed since Netflix first introduced their online option, streaming has changed not only the way we watch and access films, but the way we choose them as well.

In 1998, at the height of my VHS consumption, a flashy cover was the deciding factor between renting First Kid starring Sinbad, Jingle All the Way starring Sinbad, and Homeward Bound II: Lost in San Francisco starring Sinbad. According to Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America's Eyeballs by Gina Keating, it was around this time that movie studios denied the company, then in its infancy, permission to use box art and descriptions in their enterprise, even after they made a deal to partner with movie website AllMovie.com. “The Netflix team decided to scan in photos and titles from the boxes anyway and wait for the cease-and-desist letters,” Keating writes. But today, as I browse through an array of streaming services, each with their own futuristic quilt of thumbnails, it’s the Sinbad movie with the snappiest, least-boring description that’s most likely to get my attention. (Alas, none of the mentioned Sinbad films are currently available on Netflix.)

It was up to me to get the answers on my own. I began with a three-month-old Synopsis Manager job listing on the jobs listing site Indeed, according to which some portion of the descriptions are generated by a team headed by a manager based at the company’s Los Gatos, California headquarters and made up of writers and editors who work remotely. Apparently, the all-important style guide is ever-evolving and considering one of the job qualifications is “Experience with A/B testing,” it’s possible the company uses A/B testing to figure out which descriptions catch our eyes most.

Netflix descriptions have changed from the good old days of getting a DVD in the mail.

Netflix descriptions have changed from the good old days of getting a DVD in the mail.

I then contacted Keating, who responded that she doesn’t know how Netflix generates their movie descriptions now. “They have used contractors to write movie descriptions and closed captioning in the past, but I don't know if they still do it,” she said. Keating had no explanation for why Netflix would be secretive about the way they generate their synopses now.

I got in touch with one of those former contractors: Ealasaid Haas, a movie reviewer and technical writer who wrote synopses for the company in 2004 and 2005. Haas confirmed my suspicions of how the system at least used to work. Haas worked the job remotely, hired on at a time when she says the service was adding a large selection of Bollywood movies. “Basically, I would get a spreadsheet with a list of the movies and then a little bit about the movie so I could make sure I got the right version of the film. I would then Google around, figure out what the movies were about, and I would write that like one-paragraph synopsis that goes on the outside of the Netflix sleeves,” Haas told The Outline. She also said that she didn’t work from a style guide (something that, judging from the recent job listing, has likely changed) but was given guidelines about general details to include, such as if the film had won a major award or featured a well-known actor.

From Haas’s description, the job sounded pretty straightforward. Why, I wondered during our conversation, would they want to hide that? Then Haas dropped a bomb: “As I'm sure you have noticed those don't always actually match the content of the film very well which is because they did not pay us well enough for us to actually watch the movies,” Haas said. “So we would write the synopsis based on what we found online. That could be kind of challenging.” Bingo, I thought. That’s what Netflix doesn’t want us to know. No, not the possibility that they pay their writers poorly, but the possibility that SYNOPSES WRITERS DO NOT WATCH THE FILMS These synopses are based off other synopses, a feedback loop that would've given Baudrillard fits.

“Think about it,” Haas said. “The sheer number of synopses that they needed done, if they paid even just minimum wage, two hours of minimum wage plus an extra 20 minutes for writing the summary is going to add up really fast when they're bringing in thousands of movies at a time into their collection.”

To be fair, Haas did work as a synopsis writer over a decade ago. The writers may very well get the chance to watch the movies they summarize. Then again, maybe they don’t. I took this revelation back to Netflix, who was suddenly very willing to share more details about their synopses writers:

“All Netflix synopsis writers are full-time, experienced, professional writers hailing from digital and print journalism, film scholarship and creative writing backgrounds. Many have 10 or 20+ years of experience and this also includes bilingual staff who bring regional content expertise. Their key objectives are to create 100% accurate synopses and provide the most trustworthy entertainment experience possible to help give viewers important contextual information about a title.”

The rep went on to explain that the folks who write synopses for licensed content don’t have to watch the movies they write about. There’s so much information freely available online that it’s not worth the investment to have synopses writers watch everything. But when it comes to Netflix Originals, the company claims their writers do watch those programs in their entirety “making sure they have all of the information necessary for accuracy and capturing the right tone for the synopsis.” Synopses are also fact-checked, though as some Twitter screenshots show, not everything gets caught.

When I asked about their style guide, the company responded that they follow AP style “with some Netflix-specific tweaks” No word on how sassy or not they decide to make their descriptions — though to be fair, by this point the biggest mysteries had been solved.

In all honesty, the truth isn’t that exciting. But the question still remains, why was Netflix so secretive about this in the first place? Why did it take my pestering Haas and Keating with questions before the company finally revealed that their synopsis writers are 9 to 5 hacks like the rest of us? Such is the mysteriousness of the PR world. Everything’s a secret until, by necessity, it's not.

The news that Netflix synopsis writers don’t watch everything they write about could potentially shake the streaming world to its core, but it’s a risk I’m willing to take. Until I learn more, keep this question in mind as you settle down to watch your favorite program: Did the person who helped me consider this film get to have the pleasure of doing what I’m about to?

The answer just might be: Not on Netflix’s time, buddy.