Pulling rank

Damn you, Flickchart.

For the past several months, I have toiled — unpaid, mind you — as one of 23,000 beta testers at www.flickchart.com. It's a website designed specifically to frustrate and antagonize the user, to stimulate heated debate among friends and internal self-loathing. Yet I can't break away, and considering my output pales in comparison to most of its devotees, I'm not the only one.

"‘Damn you, Flickchart' is probably the No. 1 phrase we hear on a daily basis," laughs Flickchart co-creator Jeremy Thompson at his weekly get-together in an Altamonte Springs tavern alongside Flickchart's other founder, Nathan Chase, who also drums for local band the Pauses. The two have worked together for years as a programmer and designer, respectively, at a traffic-school company and still do, balancing work and families with this late-night pursuit.

One day, Thompson and Chase, both 30 and Stetson University grads, were arguing about the merits of the IMDB Top 250 list of the user-ranked greatest movies of all time. How could Pulp Fiction possibly be listed higher than The Empire Strikes Back? Within a week, they had devised a rough version of what would become Flickchart, based on an algorithm devised to force users into making a firm choice between two random films.

"Hopefully you're reliving some of the scenes in your mind and you hate making a definitive pick," says Thompson, who speaks with the familiar rapid-fire excitement of a geek, a quality somewhat at odds with his Barry Pepper-like salesman demeanor. "With a list, you don't feel as bad, but with this we want it to hurt to have to make that choice."

That algorithm, which has operated for more than a year based on an invite-only beta version, goes live to everyone else this week. What the public now faces with Flickchart is, especially for cinephiles, an often
heartbreaking (Jaws or The Graduate?), sometimes hilarious (Religulous or Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie?) crucible of personal taste. With each selection, the movie you prefer is placed into an ever-changing, personalized list. That pick's year of release and its genre are factored into other, more specific lists. And, of course, depending on what movie you passed up for that choice, it's placed within an all-time ranking. You have the option to say that you "haven't seen" a movie, which itself goes into the making of a very public list so that other users can not only see what you like, but what you've missed. Naturally, this can lead to vehement attacks on your film-geek cred.

"You do have to be honest," says Thompson. "Especially with what you haven't seen."

"One of the ideas we had that would be another way for us to make some money is that we want to be able to have it show all your friends and show what's the highest-ranked movie on your list that your friend hasn't seen," says Chase. As the one in the duo with a child, Chase's Everyman quality is enhanced by a quieter, more contemplative and, frankly, exhausted temperament. He lets Thompson do most of the talking but when he speaks up, it's usually with a grin and he always finishes with a big laugh. "So your friend Bob hasn't seen Goodfellas and maybe you want to buy it for him as a gift," adds Chase. "That's an interesting thing that came out of it. The whole ‘haven't seen' list has a life of its own. I had never seen The Neverending Story until last year, so I have absolutely zero nostalgia for it. We watched it in the park when Enzian ran it. The credits rolled and I went, ‘Well, that was terrible.'"

The most surprising aspect of Flickchart is its ability to make the user surprise himself. For example, in the last few months I've faced over 5,600 head-to-head match-ups, which has given me a personalized list of over 2,500 of my "favorite" films. Thompson and Chase urge users to select the one they actually like the most, rather than the one they think is technically "the best," in order to avoid carbon copies of every other Best Movies list in existence (Citizen Kane, The Godfather). It turns out that the film I appreciate more than almost any other is Die Hard. Sure, I love the film, but until I was forced to admit it, I never knew how much. For the record, my actual No. 1 on Flickchart is E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, though if you were to simply ask me, my favorite film of all time remains 1939's Ninotchka. Ninotchka just doesn't come up often enough to rank that high — such is the random nature of the list. The site's global No. 1 film, at press time, is The Dark Knight, proving you can't completely avoid the appeal of the new.

For all the sleepless hours I put into the list, however, it doesn't compare with the slavish fanaticism of dozens of other beta testers. Currently, the two biggest devotees have ranked more than 59,000 and 54,000 match-ups respectively, and both only joined in July.

"That's incredible that somebody has sat down and made that choice that many times," says Chase.

"We're trying to keep building more in to keep it interesting and lively," adds Thompson. "We want to get all the newest movies in there so you can eventually come right out of the theater `and` you can go, ‘Oh, I've gotta rank that. That was awesome.' But how awesome was it? You'll only know once you do it."

Correction, Sept. 14, 2009: The original version of this article attributed a quote to Jeremy Thompson ("People will jump on your ass, like, 'What the fuck?'") that, upon careful review of the taped interview, may have been spoken by the author of the piece. We regret the error.

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