How Bird Box changed the way Netflix works

Ian Sandwell
·7-min read

From Digital Spy

Two years ago, at Christmas 2018, Netflix dropped a new Original featuring a major star (not its first, by any means). After Bird Box's opening seven days, though, they took the unusual step of announcing that it had been watched by a whopping 45,037,125 accounts, making it the biggest first seven days ever for a Netflix Original movie.

It's unusual because the streaming giant is generally so guarded over its viewing figures and it did lead to some scepticism that it wasn't clear just what that number meant.

Netflix later clarified that it meant each of those accounts had watched at least 70% of the movie, so it wasn't a case that some accounts had just stumbled on it and it autoplayed before they turned it off. Each of those 45 million accounts – around one-third of Netflix's global subscriptions – might have watched the movie more than once, but Netflix confirmed it only counted them each once.

Related: Netflix's Bird Box explained

There's no real way of translating that into box-office figures because there's a big difference between going to the cinema and buying a ticket, as opposed to just pressing play at home in your Christmas pyjamas.

However, there's no denying that Bird Box was a huge success for Netflix. The fact that it (unusually) trumpeted the numbers indicates how pleased it was with them.

What's more, it appears to mark a major change in the way Netflix works when it comes to marketing its own movies.

Photo credit: Netflix
Photo credit: Netflix

Not including movies made by other studios (that Netflix has acquired and retrofitted as a 'Netflix Original'), there were almost 100 Netflix Original movies in 2018 and you'd be hard-pushed to remember even half of them. A common complaint is that the service just doesn't push new movies, meaning that unless you're looking for something, you won't find it. (Unless the algorithm has decided you might like it.)

That was far from the case with Bird Box, as it was heavily promoted on Netflix over the festive period. Arguably, it was easier given that it had a major Hollywood star in Sandra Bullock, but even Bright with Will Smith didn't receive as much prominence for most users.

But what especially helped Bird Box was that its high concept and striking imagery of Bullock's character blindfolded lent itself to the social-media goldmine: memes. Within those record-breaking first seven days, there were countless memes across Twitter, Instagram and more, so there's every chance people ended up watching the movie just to find out what they were seeing.

It did spawn some conspiracy theories that Netflix was seeding the memes themselves given just how many there were. After all, Bird Box may have a Hollywood star and a killer concept, but it's hardly Marvel and the reviews didn't exactly position the movie as a must-see (it currently stands at 63% on Rotten Tomatoes).

There was also the bizarre situation that effectively saw Sandra Bullock positioned as the "lady from Bird Box", with some Twitter users acting like they had never seen her before, despite her being in big movies like Gravity and Ocean's 8 in recent years.

Netflix vehemently denied any such claims that it was behind the viral spread of Bird Box, adding that the memes "spread organically". Either way, it capitalised on the movie's growing popularity on social media, with the Netflix Film account getting in on the meme act.

This recently led to Netflix warning people against trying the Bird Box Challenge, a depressingly real thing that has seen people take on everyday tasks blindfolded like the characters in the movie.

"Can't believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE. We don’t know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes," a post on Netflix US's Twitter account read.

Of course, this likely just led to more people becoming aware of such a challenge (but hopefully not trying it). The more cynical among you would say Netflix wanted to make a point that one of its movies had spawned such a social-media challenge, but really, it's the kind of thing a company has to respond to just in case it gets blamed for any injuries.

What is interesting about the Bird Box Challenge is that Netflix did use such a thing in promoting the movie.

Before Bird Box was released, the company challenged select Twitch gamers to play their favourite games while blindfolded. You can still see the videos on Twitch if you want, but it's clear that Netflix knew from the get-go the potential behind Bird Box's cleverly straightforward premise.

Photo credit: Saeed Adyani - Netflix
Photo credit: Saeed Adyani - Netflix

This isn't to say that Bird Box was the first time that Netflix focused on social media to promote its movies. The year before, To All the Boys I've Loved Before made an instant celebrity of Noah Centineo, largely thanks to a lot of social media love.

To capitalise on this, the much-anticipated sequel announcement from Netflix came not from a press release, but a social-media video featuring Centineo and co-star Lana Condor.

Bird Box, though, is notable for not immediately seeming like a movie for a younger, tech-savvy audience, but one that Netflix transformed into a must-see movie for avid social media users. It makes complete sense as it's a couple of clicks from seeing a social-media post to adding Bird Box to your Netflix list or playing it straight away.

Sure, there is no guarantee that this approach will work as well for every Netflix Original movie. Bird Box was undoubtedly helped by its pre-Christmas release and the prospect of watching a brand new movie with a major Hollywood star, so add in the social media phenomenon and Netflix was riding the wave of a perfect storm.

While Netflix's major TV shows have long been must-see events, its movies haven't enjoyed such a sterling reputation, though the likes of Extraction and Enola Holmes have gone some way to correcting that impression.

But it's Bird Box we have to thank for lifting those blindfolds and encouraging people to pay more attention to Netflix Original movies.

Bird Box is available to watch on Netflix.

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