Netflix finished 2018 by briefly taking off the blindfolds it put over our eyes to shield us from viewer statistics of its streaming offerings. More than 45 million accounts watched its Sandra Bullock-led thriller Bird Box in the film’s first week of availability, the service announced in a tweet.
The stat should obviously be treated with an entire salt mine, as it essentially came from some monolithic Netflix overlord with no proof, no context, and having essentially never revealed viewership information before. In this case, the tweet was published as a 2018 victory lap, coming after the film had flooded social media with memes and spent the majority of the week trending on Twitter.
Wouldn’t we all love to spout flattering facts about ourselves that literally cannot be fact-checked?
But, considered with the proper amount of skepticism, that 45 million number and what it represents—Bird Box is the most popular movie the service has released—is a crucial test case as the industry and viewers at home attempt to understand the true value of releasing a movie on a home streaming platform like Netflix instead of in theaters.
By one interpretation, Bird Box is a more popular movie than Black Panther, Incredibles 2, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and every movie released in 2018 with the exception of Avengers: Infinity War.
While that interpretation is easy to refute, its ramifications raise important questions about Bird Box, Netflix, and the future of film. How does the industry handle and commoditize the success of the film, its director, and its stars? Does this increase the appeal of sending a movie to a streaming service for creators? And what was it about Bird Box specifically, of all the films that have premiered on streaming, that made it such a hit?
First, that Black Panther stat.
If you take that Netflix number seriously—45,037,125 accounts watched Bird Box in the film’s first week—it would translate to a massive box-office haul if the movie had been released in theaters. The reported average movie ticket price in 2018 was $9.18, which means Bird Box would have grossed over $413.4 million dollars in its first week.
That’s less than Avengers: Infinity War, which had the biggest opening week of 2018. But it’s roughly on par with Black Panther, which had the second-biggest opening week with about $461.3 million, including both domestic and foreign receipts.
Netflix said that its 45 million number only includes accounts, not individual people who may have been watching together or multiple users of the same account who may have watched Bird Box at different times. Factor that in, and the hypothetical box-office haul would have skyrocketed. Ergo, Bird Box is more popular than Black Panther (and basically every other movie of the year).
Obviously, had Bird Box been released in theaters, nowhere near 45 million people would have gone to purchase a ticket. The appeal and popularity of the movie is directly linked to its availability in people’s living rooms, on their laptops, and phones. It’s an immediacy that is perhaps more applicable to Bird Box than any other film Netflix has launched.
As more and more memes based on the movie spread through social media, people grew more curious to watch. With the film’s release conveniently timed to a holiday week when many people were home and looking for something to keep them occupied, they actually did watch, too—right then, at that very moment, from their couch. No putting on pants, braving the cold, and purchasing actual movie tickets required.
At a time when the industry is scrambling to figure out how to best get audiences invested in consuming any piece of pop culture, let alone a two-hour movie that doesn’t involve superheroes, the success of Bird Box is inextricable from the success of its viral marketing through online memes.
The basic premise of the film is that invisible monsters have taken over the world, and the only way to escape their wrath—mind control that causes victims to commit suicide—is to shield your eyes. Sandra Bullock plays a mother guiding two young children through a perilous river adventure to safety and, to evade the monsters’ fate, must navigate the journey blindfolded.
It’s a concept that’s ripe for memes in the digital age of comedy, with joke-captioned stills of Bullock in a blindfold so omnipresent on social media that some even questioned how organic the memes were, accusing Netflix of using fake accounts and bots to boost the images’ spread.
That’s a theory that was debunked fairly quickly, both by social media experts whose investigations saw no basis for the conspiracy suspicion and by Netflix itself, which said through a representative that “the meme content happened on its own and spread organically.”
One logical explanation goes back to Bird Box’s timing: The kids were on break. It was the holidays. Teens, college students, and, yes, media professionals typically responsible for such things were home with a lot of time on their hands. (That Netflix was forced to release a warning not to walk around blindfolded, as people started filming themselves doing the “Bird Box Challenge,” certainly attests to that.)
But it takes more than just young people to make something as popular as Netflix claims Bird Box was. It would likely need to be what is called a “four-quadrant movie,” which means it performs well with all the major demographics of the movie-going audience: both male and female, over and under 25 years old.
Of course, as we mentioned before, this would be pure speculation. Netflix has never released such statistics about any of its movies. But if true, it would be Netflix’s first hit of the kind. The closest comparison would be Bright, the Will Smith sci-fi epic that Nielsen estimated debuted to 11 million viewers last year—though, again, those are not official numbers.
In other words, when Kim Kardashian is tweeting about your movie, it has ascended to a whole new level of the zeitgeist. What accounts for its purported wide appeal?
Certainly, there’s Sandra Bullock. This is a Sandra Bullock Movie, with the celebrated actress back in the thriller mode that helped launch her to fame (Speed, A Time to Kill) and proving her A-list draw once again. The movie may have received mixed reviews, but there’s no denying it as a showcase for Bullock.
The film is yet another example of the commercial viability of diverse casting: a woman over 50 is the star, Moonlight breakout Trevante Rhodes is the male lead, and reliable character actors Lil Rel Howery, Parminder Nagra, BD Wong, Rosa Salazar, Jacki Weaver, Danielle Macdonald, and Bullock’s Ocean’s 8 co-star Sarah Paulson are in supporting roles. (In fact, only one white male actor, John Malkovich, could be considered a major character. Go figure!)
Then there’s the film’s content itself. Many critics ribbed Bird Box for its algorithmic plot, but that might be precisely the reason for its popularity.
Reviews equated the film to a thriller by Mad Libs, appropriating a random assortment of the genre’s biggest trends and loosely tying them together: horror movie where you lose the ability to interact with the world (A Quiet Place), post-apocalyptic outbreak survival thriller (It Comes at Night), motherhood as narrative engine (Hereditary), long family journey through dystopia (The Road), terrifying creatures fostering inter-human distrust (The Mist), and strong female lead figuring out how to outwit creatures we don’t understand (Arrival).
Critics might decry Bird Box as a patchwork quilt of derivative themes. But to Netflix viewers who make decisions based on curated recommendations, that may be exactly the point. Liked A Quiet Place? Watch Bird Box, A Quiet Place but with eyesight. Liked The Road? This is that, but with Sandra Bullock. And so on…
Now that Bird Box is a hit, does director Susanne Bier, whose last feature film, 2014’s Serena, grossed only $176,391 domestically, join the ranks of Hollywood’s most in-demand filmmakers? Or, because Bird Box is a streaming film and that kind of success isn’t quantifiable with box office receipts, does it not have as much of an effect on her profile as, say, directing Black Panther did for Ryan Coogler or helming Wonder Woman did for Patty Jenkins?
It certainly proves that Bullock is as valuable a leading lady as she’s ever been. But, again, it’s hard to peg just how much extra industry clout that gives her. Bright may have been the last big movie hit Netflix had, but it’s largely remembered as yet another critical flop in Will Smith’s career, not more evidence of his box office power.
And how does a rising star like Rhodes use Bird Box as a future bargaining chip? We’ve seen how starring in a hit Netflix TV series has been a boon for the careers of breakout actors from Stranger Things, Orange Is the New Black, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, GLOW, and more. But given the industry’s traditional, snooty delineation between TV and film success, it’s hard to assume the same fawning will occur over streaming movie stars.
As the answers to those questions start to work themselves out in the weeks and months to come, we do have one prediction for how this Bird Box news cycle will affect the industry—and Netflix itself is to blame for it.
As Netflix has racked up an impressive slate of original releases from major filmmakers—the service could win Best Picture this year with Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma—many have wondered what sort of statistics the streamer has shared to convince them that going with the platform is worth it.
There have been whispers that certain filmmakers are aware of how many people have streamed or seen their Netflix films. But the tidal wave of headlines that came after Netflix tweeted how many accounts had seen Bird Box might cause filmmakers to demand that their numbers be made public, too. This is an ego-driven industry after all. It’s a marvel that things have remained behind closed doors for this long.
Bird Box clearly represents a shift in the industry when it comes to the future of streaming services and original film. Perhaps it’s a little on the nose, but still exciting, that when it comes to what that shift means, everyone is still blind.