Late last week Netflix sparked a late year spike in conversations when it dropped this Tweet like an aunt announcing her divorce while the whole family is gathered in Grandma’s living room on Christmas Day.
The information offered in the Tweet was unique on a number of fronts, most notably for how it breaks from Netflix’s default position of not offering any metrics on the viewership of any one piece of content. It’s broken that rule on a few occasions in the past, but for the most part the company is tight lipped when it comes to sharing audience data. Because it isn’t advertising supported, it simply doesn’t need to.
According to Netflix, 45,037,125 members – about a third of the company’s streaming subscriber base – watched at least 70 percent of the movie. That clarification silenced some of the speculation the company was inflating viewership numbers by counting anyone who accidentally selected it, or who started it but bailed on the movie five minutes in.
The reason that clarification is important is it goes against the standard set by many other online video powerhouses. For YouTube the threshold to be counted as an official “view” is 30 seconds while for Facebook it’s a scant 3 seconds. Those differing numbers reflect in many ways the different ways each respective company believes its users consume media in general. YouTube is for short pithy videos while Facebook understands people will move on quickly as they scroll through the feed.
For Netflix the boasting caps a season where it was looking to dominate the cultural conversation with a number of high profile releases from serious filmmakers. Bird Box came from director Susanne Bier and comes after other original films from Joel and Ethan Coen, Tamara Jenkins, Alfonso Cuaron and others, some of which received limited, awards-qualifying theatrical releases. So it wanted to show off how successful its bet on original content, one it’s undertaking at massive expense as other media companies are pulling their licensed movies and shows, was.
Of course the numbers would mean more if they were presented in some sort of context so we could compare them to some of the other original features the company has released. And Netflix does not use a service like Nielsen to provide third-party validation for the few numbers it decides to randomly release.
None of that makes the number meaningless, though, even though Mathew Ingram offers many good questions that have been asked in the last few days, including whether they would watch it again or recommend it to someone else.
Those are good questions, but they’re the same ones that could be asked of any movie. As I said when replying to Ingram, there are lots of problems even if we’re talking about box office receipts. How many Bumblebee tickets were sold to parents taking their kids, parents that had no interest in actually seeing the movie and definitely wouldn’t recommend it anyone else? How many were sold to a date that suffered through the movie because they wanted to compromise with their significant other?
That’s one of the inherent problems with the theatrical experience: It counts all those disinterested members of the paying audience when calculating the success of a film. A movie that grossed $100 million may be benefiting from the $X million spent by chaperones, dates and others who didn’t want to see it but had to for one reason or another.
In that way, Netflix’s number is more meaningful than the box office results for most movies. If theatrical results are inflated by counting those who have no interest in the movie but are there because of parental or romantic responsibility, Netflix’s results are lower than they should be. According to the company 45 million subscribers watched three quarters of the movie, which translates to 45 million + X actual audience since more than one person may be watching. Not everyone is going to be actively interested, but at least 45 million people made an intentional choice to watch most of the film.
That’s more akin to the “pass along” number that’s been pervasive in the newspaper industry for decades. That metric has been used by media companies to account for readers of physical papers who aren’t buyers, simply picking up the copy that was left on the seat of the train or on the cafe table. Those companies love that number because it is much bigger – two to three times the actual circulation – and garners higher advertising rates.
If Bird Box had been given a wide theatrical release, an audience of 45 million would have meant a box office take of $397 million, catapulting it immediately to the #5 slot on the list of top performing movies of 2018. Of course that never would have happened since it’s extremely unlikely it would have played in more than a few hundred theaters nationwide, and so nowhere near 45 million people would have been able to find it near them, much less chosen it as the way they wanted to spend two or three hours of their time.
With Netflix engaging in a round of theatrical releases for its prestige films, the conversation of whether or not streaming cheapens a movie has come back up again, a vestige of the stigma long attached to “direct to video” titles. But day-and-date streaming releases broaden the reach of these movies that used to be available to only a small portion of the audience, particularly those who live in well-off urban locations. Bird Box, then, was able to reach a much larger audience because there was no additional hurdle such as geography or showtimes to overcome. It was simply there.
The question of how accurate Netflix’s number might be remains a good one. But let’s remember that studios and theater chains don’t release the number of tickets sold to a movie, or rarely do so, focusing instead on dollar amounts. Those dollar amounts are subject to inflation, are skewed by premium formats such as IMAX and other factors.
An apples-to-apples comparison is difficult, then, as is independent verification of Netflix’s boast. It would be interesting to see the company more regularly tout the viewership of its original features so some sort of picture could be painted of how popular those features are. Just as interesting would be a shift in box office reporting that included tickets sold, not dollars earned. Until then it’s not really in Netflix’s best interest to keep putting out those metrics as it’s a game none of its competitors are playing.