On Friday, Netflix said that over 45 million accounts on its service had watched its latest original movie, “Bird Box,” the Susanne Bier-directed thriller that follows Sandra Bullock as she tries to survive an unseen presence that causes people to kill themselves.
According to Netflix, “Bird Box” broke its record for the most watched Netflix film over seven days. (It premiered on the site on December 21.)
It wasn’t the first time the streaming giant has boasted about one of its projects having a major impact with its subscribers. But it did mark a first by the company in making public the number of accounts that had watched a project: 45,037,125, to be exact.
That number instantly grabbed the attention of the industry.
Instead of a broad (but vague) declaration — like when Netflix said in its third-quarter earnings report that Susan Johnson’s rom-com “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” was one of the “most viewed original films ever with strong repeat viewing,” or earlier this month when Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, said its holiday title “The Christmas Chronicles” had the “most impact” of any in the movie’s star Kurt Russell’s 56-year filmography — this was something of substance.
Or was it?
Though Netflix revealed the huge number, it didn’t give specifics. How many of those 45 million watched the movie from beginning to end? What were the demographics of the viewers? Those are the types of stats that movie studios and TV networks release about their content.
Netflix has historically been guarded about its data, even keeping the information from the filmmakers and producers who have made the projects for the company. Netflix sees data as a competitive advantage and does not want to give it away unless there is something to be gained.
But over the weekend, as the industry publicly debated how real that 45 million number was, Netflix gave another rare reveal: It defined a “view.”
A Netflix representative told Entertainment Weekly that it counted a “view” once 70% of the total running time, including credits, was surpassed. Netflix also specified that an account “may include multiple views and viewers but is only counted once.”
Despite the clarification, people inside Hollywood are skeptical.
“I’m a huge fan and proponent of Netflix, but to believe that nearly one-third of all of their subscribers not only watched 70% of the movie but did so in the first week of it being on the site is all but unfathomable,” one producer told Business Insider over the weekend. “I want to believe it but just can’t. It’s not a watch for the faint of heart, after all.”
That 45 million number has not been verified by a third-party measurement company in the way TV ratings and box-office results generally are.
Others industry insiders wondered about the performance of Netflix’s other recent high-profile titles that didn’t get a data shoutout.
“Not a peep about how many subscribers watched ‘Roma,'” one industry insider said, referring to the company’s Oscar hopeful.
But the biggest debate that the “Bird Box” viewing stat prompted was about how to compare it to box-office returns.
Some even argued that the movie would have had the biggest opening week in box-office history:
“That assumes that 45 million people would have gone to the theater to see the film, which I do not believe would have been the case,” the producer Rebecca Green (“It Follows,” “I’ll See You in My Dreams”) told Business Insider. “Netflix is not up against the same barriers as theaters. They don’t have to account for consumer logistics — figuring out what theater is playing the film you want to see, getting up and leaving home, especially in the snow, purchasing tickets. Because of this, in no way does one Netflix viewer equal one ticket sale at the theater.”
The biggest irony of the “Bird Box” box-office conversation is that Netflix did show it in theaters. But the company has not released its box-office gross for the movie. (It has never released the box-office figures of any of the movies it released in theaters.)
Green — who, along with producing, created Dear Producer, a website that champions and mentors others in the profession — said she believes that the latest Netflix news is nothing but a publicity stunt and that Netflix’s lack of transparency about data hurts filmmakers.
“My goal is to create original content for wide audiences, but how do I cater to an audience if I do not know what they are turning in to watch?” she said. “‘It Follows’ has been on Netflix for two years, and I have no idea how many people have viewed the film. ‘I’ll See You in My Dreams’ has been on Amazon Prime for two years as well, and I have no idea how many people have viewed the film on that platform. Why share the stats for one film but not the others, aside from wanting to create buzz?”
Green said that transparency from a company like Netflix could be a game changer in the industry. In an era when the inclusion of women and people of color is a rallying cry in Hollywood, Netflix could help push it forward.
Two movies that Netflix said were among its biggest this year, “Bird Box” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” were directed by women and had women in lead roles; “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” was directed and written by women and had a Vietnamese-American woman as its lead.
“If we had metrics showing that these films were performing well, getting these kind of films financed would be a lot easier,” Green said.
Netflix did not respond to a request for comment from Business Insider.