What Netflix Is Learning From the Massive Success of Bird Box

The streaming service’s surprise hit connected with audiences despite middling reviews and a glut of Christmas content to compete with.


Bird Box is one of those movies that doesn’t stand up to the barest amount of scrutiny. If you were to pause the film on Netflix, where it is streaming now, and ask a basic plot question—such as “How does every character guess that a nondescript home exists as a safe zone from the movie’s ongoing apocalypse?”you might struggle to come up with a good answer. How do the titular birds stay in their box even after the protagonist Malorie (played by Sandra Bullock) capsizes into a river while holding on to them? I couldn’t tell you; better not to think about it. Perhaps it’s fitting that the memes that flooded Twitter in the weeks after the film’s December 21 wide release were largely about wearing blindfolds.

Directed by Susanne Bier and based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman, Bird Box is filled with baffling moments. But the film’s core concept—the reason Bullock is blindfolded in the poster and in so many of the repurposed images that bounced around the internet—is easy enough to grasp. In the movie, the planet is overrun by monsters that the audience never even sees (there are rustling sound effects and looming shadows, but nothing else). If a person beholds these creatures, they’re compelled to die as quickly as possible, usually by their own hand. That’s basically it—the rest of the movie is just a tale of survival in a world you’re not allowed to look at.

When Bird Box appeared on Netflix’s schedule in December, it seemed almost like an afterthought. The company’s big film player that month, in terms of an awards push, was Alfonso Cuarón’s rapturously reviewed Roma, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and is now tipped for Oscar success. Other recent Netflix releases from major artists included the Coen brothers’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and David Mackenzie’s Outlaw King. Bird Box got middling reviews in the midst of the busy Christmas movie season and seemed doomed to be forgotten, a casualty of streaming glut.

Instead, according to viewership figures from Netflix, it’s the company’s biggest-ever hit. Some 45 million accounts watched the film globally in its first week of release, Netflix claimed, although it keeps viewership details under lock and key, making verification difficult. The TV-ratings company Nielsen, which is still working on the best methods to calculate streaming data, largely backed up Netflix’s report, saying Bird Box’s U.S. audience was about 26 million (a little less than half of the streaming site’s worldwide subscriber base lives in the United States). Beyond these impressive figures, the reaction online suggested that Bird Box had resonated and become something of a water-cooler hit.

For a hundred years, the easiest way to measure whether a film is a success has been ticket sales. Opening-weekend numbers, weekly box-office returns, a film’s “hold,” its total gross relative to its budget—these are the basics of how the industry determines which stories, and which stars, are most popular with moviegoers. As Netflix continues to flex its considerable capital and recruit major directors and actors, it’s disrupting the traditional model of films opening in theaters first and being released at home months later. Without theatrical screenings, there’s no data about ticket sales and opening weekends. Companies such as Nielsen are working on cracking open Netflix’s viewing data, but a bigger question remains: How do you define a “hit” in the streaming era?

Bird Box may well be the new template for a Netflix “blockbuster.” The film’s viewership numbers are high, but they aren’t comparable to ticket sales. Netflix subscribers deciding to watch a movie are making a much less loaded decision than theatergoers. The former have already paid their monthly fee, aren’t being charged for pressing a button, don’t have to leave their homes, and can stop the film anytime they want. Those key differences are why the Netflix CCO Ted Sarandos’s comparison of The Christmas Chronicles’ 20 million streams to a $200 million opening weekend (which only six films have achieved in history) was ludicrous.

But a high number of streams, combined with a major internet footprint and word-of-mouth success, is something that Bullock and Bier can point to when trying to attract funding for future projects. No, there’s not a final gross to present to potential investors, but Bird Box was undeniably in the zeitgeist, and Netflix’s global reach helped with that. As the company continues to look for ways to hire big-name directors and stars, it can continue to tout its connection to subscribers and its ability to dominate online conversation.

I ended up watching Bird Box a couple of weeks after the initial hype and found that I largely agreed with my fellow critics: The film is a competent, sometimes gripping survival thriller that skimps on plot specifics. Some of the more ghoulish set pieces clicked for me, though the excellent ensemble (including John Malkovich, Rosa Salazar, Trevante Rhodes, and Lil Rel Howery) was mostly wasted on nondescript characters and tinny, perfunctory dialogue. But as I mentioned, Bird Box thrives on mood, not details—it’s a perfect piece of entertainment to have on in the background, a project centered on a huge star (Bullock) doing typically solid work. That summary may sound uninspiring, but it could also be the blueprint for a new age of blockbusters.