Netflix release dozens of new films, television series, stand-up specials and documentaries every month, so it stands to reason that at least one of them would break out in a big way. Their array of content is so vast and varied that something has to click with the masses upon release. The streaming giants were probably hoping it would be Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s critically acclaimed drama that carries their hopes of Oscar glory on its artfully composed shoulders. Instead, the new favourite is Bird Box.
Directed by Susanne Bier, the Danish Oscar and Emmy winner who made The Night Manager, the film is an adaptation of the 2014 novel of the same name by Josh Malerman. Sandra Bullock stars as a woman who, along with a pair of children, must make her way through the wilderness blindfolded to avoid demonic creatures that cause people to commit suicide. It’s a high concept, to be sure, and one whose central image of Bullock in a blindfold could not help but draw comparisons to that other 2018 apocalyptic movie of forced sensory deprivation, A Quiet Place. The film’s reviews have been solid, if unspectacular, and it premiered on the platform with minor fanfare, following Netflix’s decision to cancel its original red carpet premiere. Yet, according to Netflix themselves, the film has had the biggest seven-day viewership for any of its original films to date. They claim that over 45 million viewers tuned into Bird Box. Of course, this being Netflix, it’s best to remain cynical about such numbers and their lack of independent verification. But there’s something worth dissecting in this film’s perceived success, from those oft-quoted viewership numbers to its frequency as a social media meme to what it says about our expectations for the undisputed giants of streaming.
Essentially, why Bird Box?
The film itself is fine in the way that only makes sense for viewers as a Netflix product. As much as the streaming service wants to define itself by acclaimed properties and critical clout, viewers are more driven by comfort. According to a 2017 report by Nielsen, only 20% of the time spent watching subscription-video-on-demand services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime is dedicated to original content. The other 80% is for back-catalogues of nostalgic content and the work of other studios. Your audiences may be intrigued by Stranger Things or Making a Murderer but they’re going to stick around for Friends (and don’t Netflix know it, as evidenced by the eye-watering $100 million a year they’re paying Warner Bros. to keep their mitts on that show).
Bird Box isn’t a familiar entity but it sort of is. It’s somewhat disingenuous to compare it to A Quiet Place or claim the film is somehow ripping off John Krasinski’s surprise horror hit from early 2018. Bird Box was based on a novel and the timeline required for it to actually be a rip-off simple isn’t there. However, it fits in neatly with the concept of duelling, wherein competing studios release films of a similar storyline or concept within quick succession of one another in order to gain the upper hand. Think of how Dreamworks Animation decided to screw with Pixar by releasing Antz when they knew A Bug’s Life was coming. People like what they’ve seen before and for all the jokes Bird Box has inspired, there’s something to be said about Netflix having a film that inspires comparisons to A Quiet Place, one of the year’s most talked-about titles, available to watch in people’s homes without having to leave the house to check it out.
The instant availability of the film certainly helped its fortunes. Netflix is very helpful for satisfying that ‘sure, why not’ urge we all possess. Maybe you’ll wait for the reviews to roll in before seeing that latest cinematic release, or you may sit it out due to lack of funds or time in your schedule. But when you can check it out straight away from the comfort of your couch and live-tweet the experience, what do you have to lose beyond a couple of hours of your life during the festive season?
I’m always hesitant to actively connect a film’s social media popularity to its success. It’s tough to find statistics where a direct correlation is present. Think of how much your Twitter feed has been dominated by Oscar movies these past few weeks then look at the box office numbers for most of them. It’s easy to get an inflated sense of popularity through this arbitrary metric. However, the meme frenzy of Bird Box certainly hasn’t hurt the film in terms of drumming up interest. There are a lot of jokes to be made from that image of a harried looking Sandra Bullock in a blindfold trying to row a paddle boat across a murky lake. It adds to the communal experience of Netflix and is actively encouraged by the company. Their plans to partner with four Twitch streamers in performing the ‘Bird Box Challenge’, wherein gamers would play popular titles blindfolded, went awry when people started doing it for day-to-day activities. Netflix advised people not to try the challenge for safety fears, and once again, even though everyone joked about it, they do say any publicity is good publicity.
If you’re at home for Christmas and you’re dreading those arguments with your family over what to watch, Bird Box feels like a platonic ideal. You can explain the plot in once sentence, it stars a beloved actress, it doesn’t ask much of you, and you don’t have to leave the house. Frankly, I would have trouble getting my family to care about Roma or Shirkers or any of the other acclaimed titles on Netflix, but Bird Box? It’s completely up their alley.
All of this makes the reasons for Bird Box’s popularity seem utterly unenthusiastic. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a sigh or a shrug. It’s on so why not? But that still feels simplistic. Real hype is incredibly difficult to manufacture. Plenty of publicists and marketing companies have sweated for years and spent millions of dollars trying to make certain films or brands happen to no avail. You can create the illusion of popularity but it’s all too easy to sniff out its artifice. Twitter got this movie and worked with it, and as much as Netflix can encourage such memes, they can’t build that fervour themselves.
The question surrounding Bird Box that excites me most is where does this take Netflix and its stars next? Does Sandra Bullock gravitate more towards the platform for her future releases in the way stars like Jennifer Aniston have? Does Susanne Bier and her team take those reported viewership numbers to every studio in Hollywood and become a much-deserved directorial power house (or, at the very least, does Marvel snap her up?) Will genre film-makers and screenwriters see Netflix as a better home for their high-concept mid-budget fare over the traditional system? How does this strengthen Netflix’s status as both streaming and entertainment giants in a year where competition is tougher? Bird Box is probably not the sort of film they were hoping to define themselves by, but the Netflix brand is as its most potent when it appeals to comfort and instinct.
Header Image Source: Netflix