More than 30 million people watched Netflix’s latest Adam Sandler comedy, Murder Mystery, according to Netflix. As noted by The Guardian, ‘if two people watched the movie on each account, and you imagine them all paying the average $9 price of a cinema ticket, it would give the film an opening weekend of $556m, the third-largest ever.’ Netflix have, of course, been happy to brag about this point to anyone who will listen, and most publications reporting on the numbers have been happy to parrot the figures given to them by Netflix. We saw this happen when they claimed Bright was a similar kind of record breaker, followed by Bird Box (remember that one?), as well as the alleged 80 million subscribers who tuned into the streaming service’s rom-coms last Summer. The usual arguments broke out over whether Netflix is truly the future of cinema and if, in a bleak season for the domestic box office, the traditional studio system can compete. These are all worthy debates to have, but before we even get to that stage of the equation, we need to deal with another matter: Why the hell should we believe Netflix on these numbers and why do we keep reporting them without an ounce of skepticism?
Netflix is a company that operate within a fascinating series of contradictory parameters. They are unavoidably visible but forever secret about their business plans. They brag about climbing subscriber numbers but are in eye-watering amounts of debt to fund their original programming. They say they want to smash apart the old ways of entertainment but are equally eager to cozy up to that system for profit and prestige alike. For some, they remain the scrappy underdogs of pop culture, despite their growing power and arguably monopoly over the streaming market. As figures like Spielberg push back against their model of the movie viewing experience, it becomes all too easy to help Netflix bolster that image of themselves as radicals rather than the natural progression of the status quo. Far too often, it feels like we’re stuck between the two extremes of praising Netflix as the be all and end all of film and television or decrying them as the cause of its ultimate downfall. But how could we not fall into those traps when they so often send us into unexplored territory?
It can be hard to talk about Netflix for all those reasons and more, but the simple truth is that even the most adept of us in the field of pop culture journalism are more likely than not to trip up in reporting on the service because we’ve never done it like this before. Box office numbers are available with ten seconds of Googling, but Netflix stridently don’t play by those rules. They just send out glowing press releases or weirdly negging tweets and that’s enough. The lack of verifiable data is forever a thorn in my side, not to mention everyone else in my field as well as the entertainment business. It doesn’t help that Netflix are so inconsistent about this. Not every original film, series, or documentary they release gets this treatment, but boy are they keen to let you know how many viewers tune in for Adam Sandler!
A side effect of this strategy is that it completely skews how we view success in this field now. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. As box office numbers fall and Peak TV means the end of water cooler viewing, the numbers we used to gauge a hit by ten or even five years ago no longer apply. On the positive side, that means series with smaller audiences or a more purposefully niche appeal aren’t beholden to old-school network standards anymore, but how do we even know what the standards are when one of the biggest content providers on the market won’t tell us? It sucks to see Netflix hype up a show to the nines, talk about it endlessly as a success, then cancel it because they claim its numbers weren’t good enough, as they did with both Santa Clarita Diet and One Day at a Time after their respective third seasons. Networks are infamous for cancelling seemingly well-performing shows at the drop of a hat for no perceivable reason, but there’s something especially galling about when Netflix do it because their entire business model is built upon the image of themselves as invincible gods with bottomless wallets. If they’re so determined to not play by the old rules then why are the ones they stick to now so painfully familiar?
I think there’s an eagerness to just swallow what Netflix give us in terms of this ‘data’ because it buoys the industry in a way that the confirmed numbers simply don’t. Unless you’re Disney or one of the exceptions to the rule that comes along now and then, breaking through in a big way with increasingly pessimistic audiences is harder than ever. People want to stay at home, and often it’s the only true affordable option, so of course it makes sense to assume tens of millions of people curled up with a middling Adam Sandler movie that wasn’t part of any wider cultural conversations. We know viewing habits are changing and some films just don’t warrant ‘the cinematic experience’ anymore for large swaths of the population. They probably wouldn’t pay full price for a ticket to Murder Mystery but hey, it’s on Netflix, so why not?
It must be exciting and frustrating in equal measure for film-makers or showrunners seeing those numbers as the way of the future but only because Netflix say so. The promise of truly accessible and democratized pop culture is tempting, but it remains smart for us to be skeptical about what Netflix are selling. It’s not as if another multi-billion dollar corporation needs blindly adoring fans to act as their unpaid publicists. It’s exhausting enough when we do that for Disney.