Netflix Dips a Toe Into the Online Viewership Conversation

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.

Bird Box – Marketing Recap

bird box posterBird Box, coming to Netflix this week, is the latest movie from director Susanne Bier. Sandra Bullock plays Malorie, a woman whose ordinary life, along with everyone else’s, comes unraveled when a mysterious force sweeps across the world that causes everyone to go slightly mad and kill themselves.

Malorie survives along with her young children and aligns herself with a group of others in the wilderness. Because the terror shows people illusions of their greatest fear, an eventual trip to find safety requires Malorie to blindfold herself and her children, with birds acting as literal canaries in a coal mine to alert them danger is nearby.

The Posters

The blindfolded Bullock, holding the kids, is the central element of the poster, which communicates the story through the copy “Never lose sight of survival.” The photo conveys a dramatic tension that’s perfectly in line with what we see in the trailer.

The Trailers

Malorie is blindfolded in the middle of the jungle as the first trailer opens for reasons unknown. Flashback to her as a pregnant mother, which should be a happy time, but as she’s leaving the hospital people around her start acting very strangely, including in ways that injure or kill themselves and others. They’ve apparently been seeing visions of their worst fears. She joins a group of people who have holed up for survival. Her kids now older, she takes them out into the world to try and find help, blindfolding them so they don’t see the visions. But that also means they can’t see the dangers approaching.

It’s a tight thriller of a trailer, selling the movie as a more artistic version of some of the end-of-the-world stories that have come out recently. Bullock looks great and I get a very The Mist feeling from the group of survivors who can’t get along with each other but who need to cooperate to survive.

The second trailer, released just a couple weeks ago, starts out by mixing pleasant memories with terrifying footage of the world gone mad. The cause of the madness is said to be not a virus or chemical but “evil” that infects people with visions of their worst fears. It ends with Malorie on the same mission to take her children somewhere safe we saw in the first spot.

Online and Social

There was no official site created by Netflix for the movie, just an Instagram profile where it showed the same sort of intentional planning and publishing it did when promoting The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Advertising and Cross-Promotions

Pre-roll videos were run on YouTube that featured shorter, TV spot-like versions of the trailer but that’s about the only paid promotions I’ve come across.

Media and Publicity

A story in late August included director Susanne Bier among a handful of other female directors with Netflix original films coming out in the late months of 2018, allowing her to talk about her career as well as this movie specifically.

In mid-October the movie was added to the lineup of the AFI Film Festival. Later on Netflix announced it would be one of three films this season to receive pre-streaming theatrical release, something unusual for the company’s original features but a decision made to attempt to increase its chances for awards contention.

The November red carpet premiere at AFI Fest had to be canceled because of the wildfires raging through California. At about that time Bier was interviewed about the movie’s various tones and assembling the substantial supporting cast.

Bullock was interviewed in the weeks leading up to release, but most of the resulting stories focused on her fashion, her kids or what potential there may be for another Ocean’s film. She stopped by “The Late Show” to chat about various things as well.


There’s a vibe, of course, that’s more than a little reminiscent of The Happening, but thankfully Bullock is a much better actor than Mark Wahlberg was or could ever hope to be, so the story similarities are easily overlooked.

More than that, the marketing of this movie creates a more palpable sense of real tension and danger by not only making the stakes more personal – it’s about Malorie’s quest for safety with her family, not just outrunning the wind – and because it’s clear the danger is real, even if it remains unseen.

Picking Up the Spare

Bier spoke about her career to date and how making this film fits into that path, as well as how she’s been effected by sexism in Hollywood. She was later interviewed about the whole theatrical run issue as well as how the story portrays motherhood. Further comments focused on how the success of the film was and should be measured.

Rhodes was was also profiled on what it was like working with Bier and the story he was part of. He then  partnered with Lil Rey in an official Netflix chat about the movie.

The company also released a couple fun featurettes, one where they were auditioning people for the role of Sandra Bullock and one where birds reviewed the movie.

The general public picked up on the “Bird Box Challenge,” meaning trying to navigate somewhere while blindfolded. It was all good fun, but Netflix wound up warning people to be careful so they wouldn’t get hurt. it could be liable, after all, even though it had no role in encouraging participation.

The production designers shared their concept for the creatures that remain all but completely unseen in the finished film.

Nielsen released numbers that back up Netflix’s claims of success for the movie, but it’s important to note that Netflix has disputed claims from the measurement company in the past.

Paulson kept being asked about the movie while promoting Glass.