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ClerkDogs adds human touch to computer recommendations

December 9, 2008 |  4:56 pm

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In 2006, online movie rental service Netflix issued a challenge to geeks everywhere: develop a movie recommendation system that is better than its own Cinematch system and walk away with a cool $1 million.

Stuart Skorman, the entrepreneur behind one of the earliest online video stores, Reel.com, is turning the Netflix Challenge on its head with a new movie search engine launching in Beta form today that relies on knowledgeable video store clerks --  not computer algorithms -- to help people find movies that match their tastes and moods.

Dubbed ClerkDogs (an obvious nod to directors Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino), the service relies on 22 former video store clerks who individually rate the films and develop recommendations based on a range of film attributes, including character depth, suspense, black humor and complexity, along with the obvious stuff, such as genre. The staff, most of whom work part-time, meet regularly to make sure they are all rating consistently.

ClerkDogs prompts users to start their search by entering the name of a movie they love, say, the dysfunctional family comedy "Little Miss Sunshine."  It finds films with the same level of screwball humor, offbeat sensibilities and character depth, including the 1971 cult classic "Harold and Maude,"  the 1994 drag queen comedy-drama "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and more recent fare, such as the 2004 indie hit "Napoleon Dynamite."

Each film in ClerkDogs' 5,000 film-database (for now, it's heavy on crime and suspense genres) has a plot synopsis, its rating, acting and directing credits, professional movie reviews, a list of awards and movie trailers. There's also a link to buy the movie from Amazon.com.  Searchers can also fine-tune the results, using a set of sliding controls to find a film with more or less of a particular attribute, say, more cerebral fare.

Skorman said ClerkDogs sought to combine the curated, customer-focused experience of his video store chain, Empire Video, with the convenience of his online video store, Reel.com, which was among the first to integrate automated recommendations and e-commerce.

"It's like finding a needle in a haystack, finding the movie you need," Skorman said. "Computers can help. What we're doing is radically different, but a lot better, in terms of it being more fun for the customer."

Mike McGuire, a media researcher at Gartner, said ClerkDogs was at the vanguard of a wave of new movie discovery services that could be used in concert with online video-on-demand offerings, or with devices that bring Internet movie services to the TV.  The challenge for these services is not promoting blockbusters, but coaxing to explore the deep catalog.

However, introducing a new generation of film aficionados to Akira Kurosawa's 1958 film "The Hidden Fortress" brings a new set of complexities, McGuire said. Not every movie has been cleared for online viewing.

"That can be kind of frustrating," McGuire said. "You look for cool recommendations, type in your favorite film, only to find out there's nothing available. That's one of the challenges as we move online."

--Dawn C. Chmielewski

Brian O'Halloran, left, as Dante and Jeff Anderson as Randal in "Clerks," photograph courtesy of Miramax Films

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