With the announcement that Sandra Bullock's "Bird Box" scored 45 million viewers, it seems that Netflix has crowned itself king of the entertainment world in an age of intense ADD where people can stream whatever they want wherever they want at any time.
Indeed, Netflix announced last Friday that the latest original film "Bird Box" streamed on more than 45 million accounts, a record "best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film," according to a company tweet.
"Took off my blindfold this morning to discover that 45,037,125 Netflix accounts have already watched Bird Box — best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film!" the company gleefully said.
Except, not really.
According to CNN Business, the big Netflix boast should be taken with a huge grain of salt, requiring a whole list of disclaimers, qualifiers, and questions, many of which industry insiders and journalists have been pressing the streaming giant to answer over their lack of transparency.
"Central to all of it, too, is a greater conversation about transparency," says CNN. "Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and all the rest fighting for streaming domination share a dedication to operating as though they're immune to the numbers-driven nature of the content business."
The numbers that Netflix cites poses a ton of industry questions. For instance, could "Bird Box" director Susanne Bier use the 45 million views figure as a bargaining chip for future projects, as The Hollywood Reporter's Rebecca Keegan asked on Twitter? Could the 45 million figure be compared to television ratings or even box office receipts? CNN has more:
The watch-it-your-way flexibility of streaming presents challenges to anyone trying to draw a comparison to traditional film in regards to audience.
It would be difficult, for example, to say what the activity of 45 million accounts equates to in traditional box office terms. It's also unclear -- though presumable -- that the number reflects accounts that have accessed the film globally. (Netflix is currently available in more than 190 countries.)
Exactly how Netflix qualifies what counts as a viewing is another question. Does the figure account for those who accidentally play the film from an auto-play option? Does it log "viewers" who only watch a few seconds or the entire film?
Another factor that keeps the views on a Netflix original from being compared to the box office receipts of a major blockbuster is the fact that people do not have to make the same effort to see the Netflix film as those in the theater. Simply put: streaming a movie into the comforts of your living room is a heck of a lot easier than trekking to the local cineplex and slapping $10 on the counter. So the 45 million viewer figure for "Bird Box" over the Christmas holiday (assuming people watched the whole movie) is not exactly as major as "Aquaman" pulling in $900 million over the same holiday.
Also, Netflix has no independent verifier for checking the numbers, all of which are verified by none other than Netflix itself.
"Streaming services have gotten away with opting not to share the abundance of viewership information to which they have access, but as more traditional corners of the entertainment industry feel increasingly jealous of their 45 million-plus pairs of eyes, the blindfold may be coming off," concludes CNN.
Tensions between Hollywood (both TV and film) and Netflix have only increased since the streaming giant became a major player following the "House of Cards" release. Last year, the Cannes Film Festival banned Netflix original movies from competing for the top prize — Palme d'Or — at the annual movie event. At the same time, director Steven Spielberg, a voting member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, declared that Netflix films should be banned from receiving Oscar nominations.
"I don’t believe that films that are given token qualifications, in a couple of theaters for less than a week, should qualify for Academy Award nominations," Spielberg told ITV News. "Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. If it’s a good show, you deserve an Emmy. But not an Oscar."
One of the problems that Spielberg sees with streaming is that it has effectively forced studios into bankrolling strictly tent-pole features while eschewing mid-budget and lower-budget fare, which allow more room for creativity.
"Television is thriving with quality and heart," he said. "But it poses a clear and present danger to filmgoers. I’ll still make The Post and ask an audience to please go out to theaters and see The Post and not make it for Netflix."
Directors Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino have expressed similar opinions. The only mainstream director to fully embrace the streaming revolution is Steven Soderbergh, who began experimenting with distribution models when he released his indie movie "Bubble" simultaneously in theaters and on DVD back in 2005.