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Netflix Says ‘Bird Box’ Is a Big Hit. Why Should We Believe Them?

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Sandra Bullock thriller

In the nearly six years since House of Cards premiered on Netflix, viewers have had only one way of knowing whether a particular film or TV show is popular on the streaming service: from Netflix itself. Where Nielsen ratings inform us how many viewers there are for TV programs — and box-office figures highlight how much money each blockbuster made over the weekend — Netflix’s numbers are confidential. So while other companies have an outside arbiter letting us know whether something is a hit, Netflix has created its own reality in order to dictate its own measuring stick. Back in 2016, when Netflix Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos announced that the Adam Sandler comedy The Ridiculous 6 was “the most-watched movie in the history of Netflix,” well, we had to take his word on it. Except, we shouldn’t. That’s not the way entertainment journalism works — and it’s also not how popularity works. Big companies don’t get to tell us what their hits are. That’s what we, the viewers, decide.

These thoughts came up thanks to Bird Box, Netflix’s mediocre horror film starring Sandra Bullock that debuted on the site on December 14. When I saw it back in November, I figured Bird Box would be one more genre exercise that was largely forgotten about amidst the glut of Netflix offerings. In fact, Saturday Night Live recently mocked Netflix for this very thing — the streaming service’s “endless scroll” content strategy makes it just about impossible for any program to really feel special:

But then a weird thing happened over the holidays: My Screen International review of Bird Box became one of the publication’s most popular reviews, an indication that people were watching the film or at least curious about it. (Usually, Screen reviews aren’t the most-read pieces unless it’s a big blockbuster, and sometimes not even then.) And then right before New Year’s, Netflix sent out this tweet:

That’s a remarkable number. It’s also completely meaningless. For one thing, what constitutes Bird Box being “watched”? The Verge pressed Netflix on this point, and a spokesperson explained that “once a view surpasses 70 percent of the total running time (including credits),” Netflix counts the film as being “watched.” So you didn’t have to finish Bird Box for it to figure into Netflix’s computations — as far as they’re concerned, you “watched” it.

Of course, there are other things to nitpick in terms of that 45,037,125 figure. (For instance, Netflix acknowledged that the number corresponds to individual accounts — so if you and your whole family watched Bird Box together on Christmas Eve, it only counts as one view.) But my issue is more philosophical than numerical. Basically, why should I believe Netflix? I’m not suggesting that the company is lying to us. (There’s plenty of outside evidence that tons of folks watched Bird Box.) But I have no way to prove that Netflix isn’t lying.

Netflix would hardly be the first company, of any kind, to distort the information it gives to the public. In fact, Netflix’s business model is built on keeping us in the dark. In 2016, The Atlantic published a piece from How to Watch Television author and professor Jason Mittell, who argued that ratings mean less to the company than the perception of popularity. The whole piece is incredibly insightful, but this paragraph in particular is illuminating:

Netflix … doesn’t care about viewers, only subscribers — its revenue comes from maintaining and expanding the ranks of people who find spending $10 a month to be a worthwhile investment. It accomplishes this not by creating individual hits, but by offering a slate of programs with broad appeal and reach, including original series and movies, as well as a back catalog of older television and film offerings. Like other online-streaming companies, its ultimate goal is to provide sufficient material to justify the ongoing subscription cost, persuading customers to buy into the brand itself. An individual hit is certainly useful toward that goal, but only insofar as it helps expand the service’s reputation and reach.

Case in point: Netflix will spend $100 million on Friends reruns because it wants the cachet of owning the streaming rights to the decades-old series. As Mittell explained three years ago, “For streamers, actual popularity is less important than perceived popularity — Netflix gains the most by having its programming seem more popular than it is, as that helps generate interest from potential subscribers, and helps current subscribers justify their monthly fees for access to the hottest programs.” Nobody knows how many people watch Friends on Netflix, but it’s crucial to Netflix that we know they have the show. The clout is more important than the actual numbers.

Entertainment companies have every right to cast themselves and their products in the best light in order to attract our business. But they shouldn’t be allowed to control the actual number-crunching that determines a success or a flop. For instance, Aquaman is a massive hit that’s on its way to grossing a billion dollars worldwide. I can complain about that — I did, in fact — but I can’t dispute the fact that many, many actual human beings have paid money to see the film. The audience has spoken — theater chains have tabulated the dollars and told us that the movie is a sensation.

Those box-office charts matter: Why would you take it on faith if Warner Bros. said Aquaman was a hit? That would be like the bad old days of the music industry when the Billboard album chart was highly unscientific. Back before 1991, as music writer Bryan Wawzenek explains, “The magazine used a survey method, in which staff members called record stores and retail outlets all over the U.S. and took the managers’ word on what had been selling during the past week.” As a result, payola was rampant: Wawzenek points to a 1992 New York Times piece in which the head of an indie label complained, “The major labels gave away refrigerators and microwaves to retailers in exchange for store reports.” But once a new system, SoundScan, came into existence in 1991, actual album sales were tracked, and as Wawzenek notes, the music landscape changed forever:

It turned out that people were buying a lot more metal, hip-hop, country, R&B and alternative rock albums than the old system claimed. The change on the charts was immediate. The change in the industry was almost as fast. Artists that had been relegated to their genre pools (from Nirvana to Ice Cube to Garth Brooks) were now free to swim in the mainstream.

No counting system is perfect. Movie tickets cost much more than they did a generation ago, skewing how popular a film is relative to one from decades ago. Shrinking album sales have forced Billboard to factor in Spotify streams to figure out what people are listening to. There’s always guesswork involved. But that guesswork is based on numbers that entertainment companies can’t manipulate. The whole idea of popularity is that it’s decided by consumers. As much as studios want to guarantee their projects will do well, ultimately, they’re at the mercy of the great unwashed masses — you and me — who vote with our wallets.

Bird Box may very well be a hit. Sandra Bullock is a beloved, Oscar-winning actress, and her horror film — about a post-apocalyptic society where you must cover your eyes so as not to see images that will drive you to suicide — has a juicy Quiet Place-like hook. But until Netflix actually opens its books and lets us see how its films and shows perform regularly, I’m with Hollywood Reporter television critic Daniel Fienberg:

The reason why you show people your numbers is so that your hits can be celebrated as such. The only way a studio can have successes is if they also have failures — context matters when you’re throwing big numbers around. Bird Box might be a zeitgeist-y sensation that speaks meaningfully to our era. But how do I know for sure? It’s ironic that Netflix is trumpeting the popularity of a movie in which people mostly stumble around blind. When it comes to their own viewership statistics, that’s how the company prefers things.

Here are three other takeaways from Bird Box.

#1. Enjoy this quick guide to the films of director Susanne Bier.

Much of Bird Box’s success has been attributed to Sandra Bullock, which makes sense since she’s been at the helm of several smashes over the last decade, including The Blind Side, Gravity, The Heat and Ocean’s 8. But we should also probably credit the woman who directed Bird Box, Susanne Bier, with whom you might not be familiar.

Bier has had an odd career. The Danish filmmaker received international acclaim in the early 2000s thanks to the relationship drama Open Hearts — fun fact: Zach Braff tried to do an American remake — and the war film Brothers, which got turned into an English-language drama starring Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal and Natalie Portman. Overall, she’s had far more success away from Hollywood: Prior to Bird Box, her English-language films were the commercial and critical failures Things We Lost in the Fire (with Halle Berry and Benicio del Toro) and Serena (the other film that Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence made together that wasn’t Silver Linings Playbook or American Hustle or Joy). Meanwhile, she won the Foreign Language Oscar for her 2010 thriller In a Better World, and her 2006 relationship drama After the Wedding (an Oscar nominee) is getting remade with Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore.

Bier also directed the Emmy-winning 2016 miniseries The Night Manager, her first unqualified English-language hit. Funny enough, when I saw Bird Box, one of my thoughts was, “Poor Bier: She rarely seems to have a knack for English-language drama.” And I do think Bird Box is a failure, even if it indeed is a phenomenon. But if you liked the film and want to try out more of her stuff, I recommend Brothers, which is an intense portrait of a soldier (Ulrich Thomsen) who’s believed to be dead and his wife (Connie Nielsen) and brother (Nikolaj Lie Kaas) who start to fall for one another as they bond over their grief. (Meanwhile, the soldier is busy trying to stay alive in hostile terrain in order to get home.) Brothers doesn’t have the catchy hook of Bird Box, but it’s far more involving and harrowing.

#2. Do your other senses actually get heightened when you lose one? And what does that have to do with “dark dining”?

In Bird Box, a global epidemic breaks out: When people see a horrifying, mysterious sight, they’re driven to kill themselves. The only way to survive is to blindfold yourself while in public. (If you’re indoors, you have to be careful that all the blinds are drawn.) As a result, much of the film involves Bullock’s character in an extremely vulnerable position as she sightlessly tries to stay alive, particularly when she’s transporting two children down a river to find possible sanctuary. Still, I couldn’t help but thinking: If we lived in Bird Box’s terrifying reality, would our other senses actually get sharper? That’s a thing you hear people say, but is it true?

Apparently, yes. A couple years ago, Stanford University’s Neurosciences Institute attempted to explain how the brain accommodates for a lost sense. According to undergraduate Donovan Tokuyama, “Our brains typically organize themselves based upon function: we have the auditory cortex for sound, the visual cortex for sight, the olfactory bulbs for smell, and so on. … [I]n individuals who are born blind or lose [their] sight early in their childhood, the brain ‘rerouts’ the normal sensory pathways such that non-visual information is sent to the visual cortex.”

In essence, the brains of the blind receive information from the other senses that create a “visual” picture, even though the individual cannot actually see. And that’s how those other senses become sharpened: “Since certain signals will not be reaching the brain, the other senses will expand out of their usual locations in the brain and into the area of the missing sense. Thus, these senses are overrepresented proportionally in people who lack a certain sense.”

That’s kinda interesting, but while doing research on this topic, I stumbled upon the concept of “dark dining,” a 20-year-old phenomenon in which some restaurants serve meals with the lights out to “enhance” the dining experience. As Santa Monica’s Opaque puts it, “We seat you in a literally pitch-black dining room where you will be guided and served by blind or visually impaired individuals that have been specifically trained to serve meals in the dark, offering guidance and reassurance for sighted guests.”

I’ve never been a culinary trailblazer, but thankfully Ellen was on it back in 2011. God, this sounds gimmicky and borderline offensive. There have to be better ways to appreciate eating a filet mignon.

#3. I would be the first character to die in a post-apocalyptic thriller. I’m fine with that.

In Bird Box, Bullock is part of an ensemble that includes John Malkovich, Trevante Rhodes and Jacki Weaver, and in these types of movies it’s customary to wonder: Hey, in what order are these stars going to die? Obviously, Bullock is the main attraction, so it’s a safe bet she’s gonna hang around for a while. But by that same logic, you can feel confident assuming that if you don’t recognize a particular actor, he or she is probably going to get killed early on. After all, you won’t miss that person.

Usually, characters who die early in horror/post-apocalyptic films are disposable and kinda dumb. The other, better characters have superior survival skills, which is why they live longer. It’s tempting to mock those early fatalities — boy, what a bunch of idiots they are — but I’ve always seen it differently. If I was ever put into a situation like Bird Box (or A Quiet Place or Cabin in the Woods or 28 Days Later), I’m pretty sure I’d die pretty quick. I have no ability to survive after society breaks down. And honestly, that’s fine. Who’d want to trudge through a post-apocalyptic hellscape anyway?

That probably sounds pretty cowardly. But I’ve never understood friends who brag about the fact that they’d totally thrive once the zombies take over. Listen, life isn’t always great, but even the shittiest day tops The Walking Dead — why would you pine for such a reality to prove how boss you are? It feels like another weird dick-measuring competition that I have no interest in engaging with.

Also, people in these kinds of horror movies always look so miserable. I can barely tolerate camping — if the whole grid ever shuts down, I’m basically toast. And I’m thin, so I wouldn’t even make good food for the other survivors. Frankly, you don’t want me in the post-apocalypse. Let me get eaten by the alien or bitten by the zombie so the rest of you can run to safety. At least I won’t have to worry about not having cellphone service anymore.