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At Movielens.org, everyone's a critic
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University of Minnesota computer science professor Joe Konstan oversees Movielens.org. Thousands of Movielens users have issued nearly 11-million ratings of 7,000 films. (MPR photo/Chris Roberts)
Some people have a hard time finding a movie critic they agree with. The University of Minnesota has come up with a system that might help. It's called Movielens-dot-org.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Thursday night is movie night at the St. Joseph Missouri home of Richard Fitzgerald. He and his best friend have a standing date to screen films recommended to him by Movielens.org. Recently, he rented the movie, "The Village" and was underwelmed. It must have been a film Movielens didn't endorse.

"No," he says. "Actually it was recommended to me by Movielens and I didn't like it."

Fitzgerald says the web site has an uncanny ability to cater to his cinematic tastes. "The Village" was a rare thumbs down.

"I could see why it would have predicted that I would have liked it, because it's kind of in the same genre of some of the movies that I've liked, and I just happened to not like this movie," he says. "Typically it's within a half a star of what I would rate."

Fitzgerald is one of 55,000 users across the country who to varying degrees rely on Movielens' collective wisdom. The service is free, and because it's run by the U, no commercial interests have a hand in it.

Visitors simply enter the site and critique 15 different films using a five star rating system. University of Minnesota computer science professor Joe Konstan says the Movielens engine then sifts through the information, looking for relationships between users with similar tastes or movies with similar traits.

"And then when you come to the site and it gives you a list of ten new DVD releases you might like, it's taken those from this large mass of other people who agreed with you, and looked for the things that they thought were most promising," he says.

Movielens.org has been a U project since 1997. Over the years it's amassed 11-million ratings of some seven thousand films. Konstan says as users rate more and more movies, opportunities begin to open up.

"You can go in and search for movies by genre or year and it will recommend the ones it thinks are best, or you can put in a name, it'll tell you what it thinks of it," he says. "You can even sign up with your friends and get back a list of movies it would be good to go to together because all the people in your buddy group seem like they would like that movie."

Konstan says Movielens isn't trying to supplant the film critic you read in the paper or see on TV. It's just another tool for people who love movies. For his part Star Tribune Movie Critic Colin Covert doesn't feel too threatened. In fact, he's a user.

Well, kind of...

"A long time ago I did register on this thing and I just haven't looked at it," he says.

That's because in Covert's view, Movielens falls short in providing a qualitative analysis of films. He says there's no explanation why a movie might mesh with your tastes, just a list of some you might like.

While we were on the phone he went to the site and noticed a number of titles Movielens recommended to him, including "Smashing Time," a somewhat obscure 1967 British comedy. It didn't rouse Covert's curiosity.

"If somebody told me what they thought I would like about "Smashing Time" I would maybe be intrigued to see if I could find a copy," he says. "As it stands there's just not a whole lot of information explaining why Movielens thinks that this would be one I would enjoy."

Covert says Movielens is probably most valuable in finding older films people didn't know existed or might otherwise have passed by.

"For more up to date information, I think you ought to go to your friends the day after they've seen a movie, or grab the paper on opening day and see what the critic has to say about it," he says.

The U's Joe Konstan says they've been experimenting with incorporating actual written reviews into the system, and it may happen some day. He says the U maintains a strong interest in Movielens because it's a virtual laboratory.

"For people who care about human interaction with technology, the idea of a system where you know a thousand people are going to come by in the next week, and you can invite them in to try something new, is something you would never dismiss lightly," he says.

Konstan says another reason the U continues to operate Movielens is because so many of its users, armchair movie reviewers they are, enjoy it, even depend on it.

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