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‘Bird Box’ Appears to Have Had the Best Movie Opening Ever

Netflix claims the movie was viewed by more than 45 million people in its first week of streaming. Let’s put that into a multitude of contexts.
Bird Box
By  · Published on December 30th, 2018

For my last box office column of the year, I was going to look back on the hits and misses of 2018. But something happened in the last week that made for a much more interesting story. Even more interesting than the delayed successes of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and The Greatest Showman this time twelve months ago. This year’s late surprise is from a movie that isn’t even reporting box office numbers. Netflix dropped the bomb on Friday that their original release Bird Box, which debuted on the streaming service on December 21st, was viewed by more than 45 million accounts in its first seven days.

First, let’s put this into Netflix’s own context. They state in the same tweet declaring this success (which many have been skeptical about since nobody outside of Netflix is privy to such data) that Bird Box‘s debut is the company’s greatest yet. Compare the movie to other hits Netflix has copped to, such as 2017’s Bright, which was said to be seen by 11 million people in the first few days, and The Cloverfield Paradox, which only streamed for about 2.8 million people in the same amount of time. One month ago, The Christmas Chronicles was viewed by 20 million people in its first week. As for TV series, Nielsen had reported the first episode of Stranger Things Part 2 reached 15.8 million Americans in three days. We don’t know Bird Box‘s first three days total, but with a per-day average of 6.4 million, three days is 19.3 million.

If that was the attendance for a theatrical feature, we’d be looking at Bird Box being one of the top-grossing blockbusters of all time. There are 18 movies total that sold at least 19.3 million tickets in its first three days of release. The 18th is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. The rest include a lot of superhero movies, and sequels within the Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jurassic World, and Star Wars franchises — the last topping the list with a 28.5 million ticket opening for The Force Awakens. Of course, all theatrical releases have frontloaded box office, at least for their first seven days. Weekends see more attendance than weekdays. So, the best seven-day box office total of all time isn’t 66.5 million. No, Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ record is for just 44.9 million tickets sold in one week.

That’s right, Bird Box was streamed by more Netflix accounts than there were tickets sold for The Force Awakens in the same amount of time. And consider this: those 45 million accounts could have been shared by groups of people, whole families, that watched the movie together or separately. There is no way to tell how many people exactly have seen Bird Box. But there was no way to tell how many people actually went to see Black Panther either since its total — and even its opening weekend — attendance was surely made up of repeat business. And Black Panther has itself been on Netflix for the last four months. Maybe Black Panther has been seen by more individuals than Bird Box. That’s probably true.

Again, though, we’re looking at Bird Box achieving something in just seven days that no other movie has ever seemed to done. Black Panther, which is the top-grossing movie domestically, sold 31.9 million tickets in its first seven days and then reached 76.3 million tickets before it left theaters. Only three other movies even sold more than 45 million tickets in their entire run in North America this year: Avengers: Infinity War (72.4 million), Incredibles 2 (66.3 million), and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (45.8 million). Last year, only three movies “outsold” the Bird Box number. Same with the prior two years. And not one movie in 2014 reached 45 million tickets in its whole domestic release.

Okay, but here’s where I have to point out some very important technicalities. The least of which is the fact that Bird Box didn’t exactly “open” on December 21st with its Netflix premiere. The movie, an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Josh Malerman that is helmed by Susanne Bier and stars Sandra Bullock, received a limited exclusive theatrical release beginning on December 13th. Bird Box‘s true opening week was that theatrical run, though Netflix doesn’t report box office numbers so nobody knows how many tickets were sold or how much money the movie made that week. But it wasn’t on many screens, only playing in locations in three American cities.

The other big technicality is that, while Netflix doesn’t clarify in the tweet, the 45 million are most definitely a worldwide figure. Bird Box likely debuted in all 190 countries where Netflix is available. That’s a bigger reach than box office reporting sites like Box Office Mojo and The Numbers offer, by a lot. Also, nobody breaks down estimates of attendance or ticket sales for foreign territories the way Box Office Mojo does for domestic releases. So, there’s not quite a way to properly compare Netflix’s claim about Bird Box with any movie’s global theatrical success.

But let’s look at this year’s Avengers: Infinity War, which broke the all-time record for best worldwide opening, partly helped by inflation and partly by ever-increasing foreign distribution. We can see an estimate of 27.5 million tickets sold domestically in its first three days. We also know that made up only 40% of its global first-weekend gross, meaning there’s a chance another 41.3 million tickets could have been sold overseas in the same amount of time. That’s if ticket price averages were comparable. For its whole first week, though, Infinity War surely sold more than 45 million tickets (and now it’s on Netflix being seen by many more people). But it’s not that far off, and that’s a huge superhero epic, Bird Box a smallish sci-fi horror film.

One thing we definitely can’t do is act like Bird Box would have sold 45 million tickets in a single week or an entire theatrical run all around the world. Obviously, there’s an ease and a lack of monetary consideration with 45 million people clicking on Bird Box and streaming any amount of it through their subscription to Netflix. It doesn’t matter what percentage stuck with the movie until the end because box office figures don’t cover that minor situation either (though it’s easier to stop streaming than walk out of a theater and try for a ticket refund). But there is no way a large fraction of home viewers of Bird Box would have rushed out to pay an average of $9 to see it on the big screen.

Netflix boasting about their numbers for Bird Box isn’t something to shrug off, though, and it’s nothing to deny. You can be skeptical of the unverified figure, but not what such data would mean if true. Netflix likes to remind us that their reach is greater than most theatrical releases. Even with their further attempts at longer theatrical runs in the US for the respect of cinephiles and recognition from Academy voters, they still don’t like to play by the usual rules, including the idea of box office gross reporting. If anything, they’re proving to filmmakers, if not film geeks, that Netflix is the best platform if the goal is to actually be watched by a lot of people.

Then again, there’s a ton of hype there, as well. Not all of Netflix’s originals do anywhere close to as well as Bird Box did. Not all of them have the appeal of Sandra Bullock as the star. Not all of them gain awareness through memes, whether its real people or Netflix’s marketing team secretly doing it themselves. Not a lot of them have a big push at all. And almost none of them have their numbers revealed let alone championed by the company. Really, the reveal of Bird Box‘s success mainly helps Bird Box, as many more people are going to need to see it for themselves now. And shareholders will see a boost. And Netflix’s reputation for success is greater at the moment.

As someone who thinks Bird Box is mostly worth seeing, particularly for Bullock’s performance in a familiar kind of scenario, I’m glad to see it’s been watched by so many, even if on the small screen (I got to screen the movie in a theater as part of a double feature with Roma). It’s about as good as Netflix gets on a regular basis — as with most of their originals, it’s far from its auteur director’s best work. On the other side of the coin, I would like to see more of these kinds of numbers more regularly. And not just for Netflix’s own stuff. How many accounts have streamed Black Panther anyway?

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.