Reducing My Massive Movie Watchlist

In March 2020, I noticed my movie watchlist had grown to an unmanageable 179 movies. I calculated that it would take over 12 days of nonstop watching to see everything. I have watched it grow and grow over the years. It wasn’t serving any purpose, so I examined what I want out of a watchlist and how I want to use it.

What is a watchlist?

Some of this will sound basic, but I found that I was subconsciously making assumptions that fall apart under scrutiny. A watchlist, of course, is a list of movies that one intends to watch. On IMDB and other sites, any release in the database can be added - including TV shows, episodes, shorts, and maybe even video games.

How watchlists change

  1. A movie is added to the watchlist
  2. A movie is watched and removed from the watchlist
  3. A movie is deleted from the watchlist without watching it

These are the only 3 ways your watchlist will change.

1. Reduce movies added to the watchlist

It takes seconds to add a movie to the watchlist, but over an hour to remove it the “proper” way by actually watching it in full. Unless you are very judicious, your attempt to get to watchlist-zero will fail here. The problem is just too unbalanced. You can’t go to Alfred Hitchcock’s IMDB page and add every movie he ever directed. I have reframed my watchlist mostly as a bookmark system - movies I am less likely to come across again. Hitchcock’s movies are well-represented on “best movies of all time” lists. So it’s not likely that I would forget about Psycho just because it’s not on my list.

It’s easier than ever to find new movies to watch. Through /r/TrueFilm headlines alone, you could get 25 films a week - with 3 times that if you read the comments. Then there is TSPDT, IMDB, and BFI. You can get a film book and pull out every title. There are countless film journals packed with movies you’ve never heard of.

I often read online after watching a movie, and end up with other similar movies I want to add to my watchlist. I have to remind myself that if I ever hit watchlist-zero, I won’t be out of movies to watch. I can go through the movies I like, see who directed them, and get one new film from each director, and already have another 200 movies. TSPDT has a list of the top 2,000 movies as well as almost 20,000 movies it uses to make its top-rated list.

We live in abundance, so the only real purpose of a watchlist is to mark movies you think you will like more than a random pick from the sources I mentioned. Now that I’m many years into this, I also add a note for my odder picks. Years later, you don’t always remember why a movie is on your watchlist.

2. Increase the rate of movie watching

Very basic, but until I confronted it, I had no hope of catching up. I have been moving frequently and hadn’t bought a TV. I prefer TVs for movie watching instead of computer monitor, but that basically meant I would only watch 25 movies a year. I have a TV now. I also got over my issue with watching on a computer. For my computer, I picked out movies that didn’t rely on visual spectacle.

3. Deleting movies is good

First off, I decided what my watchlist was for and removed anything that didn’t fit. It is not for TV shows or shorts. I’m not going to sit in front of my TV for a 6 minute short unless it’s part of a larger program. And the way I watch TV is different from how I watch movies, so it needed to be kept separate.

Then, I went through what was left (160+ movies) and made some hard choices. This is an ongoing process for me similar to KonMari. As I said above, if a movie doesn’t speak to you more than a random well-liked movie, it doesn’t belong on your list.

Some movies I added from conversations with friends or acquaintances. What am I trying to prove? Part of it is showing that along with giving recommendations, I can also receive them. But this should be mutually beneficial. If people don’t watch my recommendations, I don’t owe them anything. I also had to remember the context in which the movies were brought up. Usually, they were not framed as the most interesting movies ever. Sometimes, they are mentioned in passing on a podcast or in an online comment. Do I even have the same tastes as these people? If it isn’t appealing, it can be deleted. This is supposed to be fun, not a job. If you aren’t having fun, something is wrong.

Deleting can happen while you’re watching a movie. Sometimes I’ll add movies “just in case”. When 20-40 minutes go by and I find that the case has not been met, I can move on. In rare cases, I add a movie knowing that I am not likely to finish it. The Island of Doctor Moreau (1996) had crap written all over it, but I got to see the famous Brando ice bucket scene, and peaced out only watching another 30 minutes of other scenes.

Watchlist management

With the number of movies on the watchlist now reduced, we can also address placement within the watchlist. Luckily, this is simple. I used to keep my watchlist in chronological order, stretching back 7 years to those movies I kept putting off. There was something interesting about being able to follow my tastes over time. It was also exciting to give “justice” to the films that had sat neglected for half a decade, and watch them instead of the movies I just added.

Unfortunately, this practice caused a lot of problems. Inevitably, the top of my watchlist was the hardest stuff to watch. I thought Netflix called this the Schindler’s List problem, but I can’t find anything about it. “Hardest” doesn’t just mean content - it can also mean stuff without a good release, or movies that cost $80 to import from Japan.

I have a new strategy that is working well. I exported my watchlist before I made any changes, in case I wanted to go back and see how long a movie was on my list. I reordered it so multiple movies from the same director were next to each other. (I have a soft rule to only allow one movie per director, which is waived if the films are extremely different.) I would always ask myself “isn’t X movie also on my list?”, and this answers that question: I can easily compare the two at will. On IMDB, simply removing and re-adding a movie puts it at the bottom. With this quick process I was also able to put the movies I can’t watch now farther down the list.

The top of the list is prime real estate. It’s what you see first on IMDB with no scrolling. It’s psychologically fulfilling to consistently watch those top movies change as they are watched and removed. So, I have a mini-watchlist within the first 5-10 slots on my watchlist. They cover a range of genres. Critically, there is a mix of hard and easy movies. When I’m in the mood to watch something, I don’t want to sabotage my progress by staring down a 3 hour subtitled film when I’m not in the mood. I also can’t face the indecision of picking out one movie from 100 while my food is getting cold. These problems could stop me from watching anything.

This process also gets at the purpose of a watchlist in the first place. I’m interested in all these movies, but promoting movies to the mini-list is a way of re-engaging with my watchlist and discovering the movies that are begging to be watched. The movies I can’t miss before I die. This is how I realized I needed to watch Batman & Robin, which worked out very well for me.

Your mini-watchlist should be ready to rock instantly. In my case, that’s having Blu-Rays on-hand. Sometimes it means having custom subtitles synced up. If you stream, your mini-watchlist needs to be entirely stuff that you can stream right now. Not having an action-ready mini-list means you are liable to scroll past the mini-list. This promotes indecision and dread, and can end with you not watching anything. If you make a mini-watchlist, make sure it doesn’t grow too large. Otherwise, you will succumb to the same psychological trap the main watchlist puts you in.

I don’t recommend micro-managing your list order. Most list interfaces are clunky, and beyond the top few movies, it’s pointless overhead. Your tastes might change by the time you get to movie #100.

In a separate but related stream, I have been working on a Python program to visualize the movies I watch. Running it occasionally has been a good way to look back on the year and see my progress.

Those who can’t do, teach

After all I said, my watchlist is still at 116. I have watched 81 movies this year (with 6 weeks to go), up from 47 last year and 19 the year prior. Not every movie I watch is on my watchlist either. (I know I love Speed Racer; I don’t need to put it on a list and take it off every year). The COVID pandemic also cannot be ignored. I have more time to watch, but can’t watch in a room with friends. Movies can get monotonous when they are one of a few activities available.

Still, for the first time in 7 years, my watchlist is trending towards zero instead of infinity.