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‘Bird Box’ Has Opened Up a Weird Can of Worms

Netflix’s hit new movie has spawned a meme, which brought about a backlash, which has now brought about business opportunities.
Bird Box
By  · Published on January 11th, 2019

Who saw this phenomenon coming? I guess we were all, uh, blind to the power of a Netflix Original horror movie. Since its debut on the streaming service on December 21st, Bird Box has been one of the dominant pieces of pop culture discourse. First, there were the jokey memes, which many suspected were started by Netflix themselves. Then came the revelation that the movie had one of the greatest debuts not just on Netflix but in any distribution form, worldwide. Meanwhile, fans and attention-seekers of all ages began participating in the “Bird Box Challenge,” blindfolding themselves while doing anything from mundane daily routines to difficult and dangerous tasks. Three weeks later, people are still talking about it, for better or worse, and it’s actually spiraling a little out of control.

The better involves the continued discussion of the movie’s success. I honestly enjoyed Bird Box and especially Sandra Bullock’s performance when I saw it in a theater in early December, save for some of the choices made by writer Eric Heisserer (adapting the novel by Josh Malerman) and director Susanne Bier in the second half of the movie, so I’m happy for its popularity — or quantity of views, at least. This week, Nielsen revealed (via The Hollywood Reporter) further data collected about the “ratings” of Bird Box on Netflix, reporting that more specifically from the company’s claim of more than 45 accounts streaming the movie in the first week worldwide, here in the US the total viewers neared 26 million (more than the opening weekend attendance of The Avengers or Jurassic World). And word of mouth kept viewings up, with the movie peaking on its eighth day of release.

The worse is the Bird Box Challenge, which has gone from being a silly meme to garnering warnings then criticism and now back to silly exploitations of the idea throughout the real world. The challenge meme has had fans trying to top others online by documenting themselves in crazier and crazier stunts, some of them involving young children (after all, Bullock’s character in the movie is attempting to row a boat down river with two little kids in tow). Once the challenge appeared to actually be putting people in danger, Netflix issued a tweet urging its customers not to participate. Well, they told people not to hurt themselves with the challenge and wind up in the hospital. They didn’t actually say to stop doing it completely. Regardless, how do most people respond when they’re told not to do something? They do that thing.

If that wasn’t enough, the challenge has upset the visually impaired community. Blind and partially sighted folks have spoken out collectively and individually about how the Bird Box meme diminishes the reality of living without sight while exploiting a disability for the sake of a few laughs and social media likes. The irony is that the movie itself is rather sensitive about visual impairment and presents the community in a positive light in the end as survivors of the strange supernatural occurrence killing off the rest of the world. Now, groups including the National Federation of the Blind in the US and the Canadian National Institute of the Blind have been condemning the challenge, arguing that it gives participants and their followers the wrong perception of blindness.

Other groups, such as the Texas nonprofit Lighthouse for the Blind of Fort Worth, are taking the opportunity to spread awareness. Obviously, people are going to keep doing the Bird Box Challenge, but maybe they can do it with proper training. And also take a moment to empathize with all those visually impaired persons who don’t get to take a blindfold off at the end of their first attempt to do things without sight. Here’s what the organization posted on their Facebook page as an offer to sighted fans looking to take part in the meme:

The next step in this whole craze is the commercial exploitation. This week, we at FSR have received press releases about two businesses promoting themselves through their relevancy to Bird Box‘s popularity or announcing an unsanctioned (as far as I can tell) tie-in event. First, there’s the Hurricane Group’s Crate Club, a subscription service where you get tactical gear chosen by a former Navy SEAL sniper. “Have you ever wondered how you would survive in a post-apocalyptic world like Bird Box?” asks the email from a PR firm. “Don’t wait until it’s too late to get the necessary survival skills for any scenario. Learn what tools you need to survive and most importantly how to use them.”

Second, and much more extensive, is the special dining event being held by Long Island’s Milleridge Inn for one night only on January 11th. It’s not enough that they’ve set up an experience where you eat your meal blindfolded, but they’ve also decorated the place to resemble sets from Bird Box. Diners must remain silent as well as sightless in a dining room made to look like it’s outside in a forest (this seems to be unnecessary if the patrons can’t see the decor anyway), while the sounds of birds and rushing water can be heard around them. “Customers who complete the blindfolded meal will be permitted to visit the birdhouse, a safe, well-lit area where they may remove their blindfolds without fearing the monsters,” reads the Milleridge Inn’s PR release.

The themed gimmick, which doesn’t seem to be endorsed by Netflix, might be fun — although the concept of blindfolded dining isn’t exactly a new experience (nor is it that relevant to the movie). But the Milleridge Inn does seem to be overdoing it. Apparently, the soundtrack will be playing on speakers and the movie itself will be streaming on the restaurant’s televisions. The establishment addresses the Bird Box Challenge and the cautionary tweet issued by the distributor by claiming the event is a safe way for Bird Box “fanatics” to take part. The release states, “Officials have issued warnings about the safety hazards of participating in the challenge, The Milleridge Inn is offering an alternative for people wanting to participate in the challenge.”

How far will the success of Bird Box go and how long will the trend of the challenge continue? Will we see makers of driverless cars promote themselves as the best automobiles for a Bird Box scenario, specifically referencing the movie’s supermarket run sequence? Are pet stores going to offer sales on birds with the claim that they’ll help save you during a certain sort of alien invasion? And are there really “fanatics” who love this movie so much? Will there be an increase in babies born named “Boy” and “Girl” as a result of its popularity?

Netflix is surely enjoying even the bad buzz surrounding the movie and the meme (and maybe has originated or helped push the viral stuff themselves), and now their own challenge is whether they’re able to keep the ball rolling here with a cycle of positive attention, backlash, positive attention, backlash (and so on) through to its next pop culture phenomenon. Can they do so without there being any sort of PR nightmare (surprisingly, no serious harm has come to any participants)? We shall, uh, see.

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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.