How much longer do we have to wait?
In the first few weeks of Hollywood’s grand experiment of circumstance, where studios take movies previously bound for theaters and release them on other platforms, there was the realization that the reporting of box-office results was going to be put on pause. Studios have, for many and various reasons, never really shared VOD numbers. And the streaming services have similarly never been forthright and transparent with their viewership information.
Because releasing that data had never been a regular feature prior to the pandemic, it wasn’t surprising it wasn’t shared in the initial months. But now it’s been several months, long enough for things to have shifted from “highly unusual” to “still not ideal but hardly the exception to the rule” and those results are still not consistently forthcoming.
Which is not to say that some numbers haven’t trickled out here and there.
As reported by Pamela McClintock at The Hollywood Reporter, Universal made a big deal of reporting numbers from its initial experiment with releasing Trolls World Tour via PVOD. Recently Netflix released another of its occasional snapshots of what’s become popular there, including recent features like Enola Holmes, Project Power and more. But because those numbers aren’t subject to any sort of third-party verification and can’t be compared to anything else, it’s nearly impossible to determine what exactly they mean.
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the viewership data from Netflix – and Amazon Studios, which recently claimed massive numbers for Borat Subsequent Moviefilm – are the rough equivalent of those that would come from Comscore and other sources for theatrical box office results. The question then becomes this:
If the movies are so popular, why is something like The Old Guard such a small part of the cultural conversation?
After all, if tens of millions of people have actually watched Enola Holmes, then where are the tens of thousands of GIFs being shared on Twitter? Where are the bushel loads of think-pieces? Where, in short, is the buzz that should accompany a success of that magnitude?
The answer, it seems, is in how drastically the marketing for these movies differs from those that traditionally would receive theatrical release.
First let’s look at some numbers.
According to Netflix’s statement, Enola Holmes was watched by 76 million households in its first four weeks. While we don’t know exactly what “watched” means (it could mean 10 minutes, it could mean 90 seconds, it could be the whole film), we can view it in the context of Pew’s research stating the average U.S. household consists of 2.58 people.
From there let’s be conservative and say half of those 76 million households watched the entire movie. That’s 38 million households.
Now, in order to try to create an equivalency between that and the kind of reporting we would get from a theatrical release, we take that 38 million and multiply it by 2.58 to get a little over 98 million. That 98 million, then, is the approximate number of movie tickets that would have to have been sold for the movie to perform that well if it were released in theaters.
To put that in context, Avengers: Endgame sold 94.2 million tickets in 2019, making it the highest grossing film of that year. Enola Holmes, then, would have outperformed every other movie of last year, including Frozen II, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and others.
A very different marketing pitch
Some have dismissed Netflix’s numbers – and with good reason because of the lack of transparency – because of just that kind of apples-to-apples comparison, as well as because there aren’t the same tectonic cultural shifts that accompany those major theatrical releases.
Allowances have to be made, though, for the substantial differences in how these movies are consumed. That list includes:
- The ease of streaming something versus actually going to a theater
- The lack of incremental cost for streaming each title
- The lack of additional cost for each individual watching the movie
Here’s where we get into the differences in the marketing campaigns for a major theatrical release like Avengers: Endgame compared to a major Netflix release like Project Power.
Marvel Studios had to convince you that one weekend – opening weekend – was the optimal time to see the movie, lest you miss out on a major cultural moment and have the experience ruined by loose-lipped strangers online or in person. To do that it sold the film as the biggest of events, one that had to be experienced in theaters, with lots of movie stars and familiar characters. It had to be worth $10-20 per person, not including concessions, dinner, gas and time spent traveling to and from the theater.
Netflix, in contrast, just had to convince you the movie looked interesting enough to turn on when you were able. It didn’t even have to be in one sitting, and you didn’t even have to be solely paying attention to it. You just had to be sufficiently motivated by the trailer or any of the number of in-app promos it placed for the film.
That’s a much lower hurdle to clear, one that makes me inclined to more or less believe the viewing numbers it releases, especially after doing the math outlined above.
While I’ve never been a huge fan of box-office horse races (like anything else, numbers can be made to mean whatever you want them to), it would be great if Netflix, Amazon, Disney+ and other streamers started putting out verified, legitimate numbers. Likewise, studios could benefit from providing 1-to-1 reporting on VOD. But it seems like we’re going in the other direction, with studios becoming less transparent in their results, not more.
In the meantime, we would all do well to keep what numbers are available in the context of the platforms they come from and adjust accordingly.