Why Netflix’s ‘Bird Box’ Release Strategy Was Kind of Brilliant

     January 4, 2019

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“Have you watched Bird Box yet?” was a common refrain this holiday season. Not Bumblebee. Not even really Mary Poppins Returns. It was Bird Box that seemed to permeate social media during the holiday frame, when plenty of folks are home with their families and looking for some kind of entertainment. Indeed, Netflix says over 45 million accounts watched Bird Box in the first week of release, making it the best first seven days ever for a Netflix original film. Now, since Netflix doesn’t release its data, there’s no way to confirm that this is indeed true, although they did offer a few more specifics, explaining that a view count for an original movie is only tallied once the user has watched at least 70% of the film. And a quick glance at social media confirmed that a not insubstantial number of people were certainly watching the thing.

But Bird Box also kind of came out of nowhere. It was released on December 21st with somewhat muted fanfare, as Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-hopeful Roma was the Netflix original film that seemed to dominate most of the conversation in early December. But almost immediately once Bird Box was released, the internet was flooded with Bird Box memes (many created by Netflix itself), and if we’re to take Netflix at its word, the film was watched by a lot of people. It was a hit! If not exactly an accidental one.

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Image via Netflix

The third week of December is always a prime moviegoing time. Kids get out of school for winter break, people go home to spend time with family from Christmas to New Year’s, and with a lot of free time on peoples’ hands, they go to the movies. This is why, save for Solo (which, it should be noted, underwhelmed at the box office) Star Wars has set up shop in December. The Force Awakens scored the biggest opening weekend of all time on December 18th, then continued making insane amounts of money in the following weeks—i.e. Christmas and New Year’s. The Last Jedi even rose at the box office during its third weekend of release, the December 22-25th frame. Films like Avatar, The Lord of the Rings, Jumanji, and even The Greatest Showman all found smashing success by hitting theaters in that mid-December frame. And Bird Box marked Netflix’s first major entry into this specific Hollywood arena.

In many ways, 2018 was the year Netflix got serious about its original films. Previous features like Beasts of No Nation and Mudbound performed solidly, but during that time most folks still viewed Netflix as a place to watch TV shows. In 2018, however, we saw Netflix release buzzworthy hits like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Set It Up, “prestige” films from noted auteurs like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and the aforementioned Roma, and now Bird Box, Netflix’s bona fide holiday hit.

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Image via Netflix

The streaming service looked at the holiday corridor, noticed the absence of Star Wars, and decided to plop down its twisty thriller starring Oscar-winner Sandra Bullock. The genius of the decision is that Bird Box, in that release window, is largely critic proof. Reviews have been somewhat mixed (it’s at 47% with Top Critics on Rotten Tomatoes), but when you’re home with your family for the holidays, looking for something to watch together, a Quiet Place-like thriller starring Sandra Bullock is an easy “yes,” regardless of what the critics are saying and especially when your Twitter timeline has been flooded with Bird Box memes (many of which, again, were created by Netflix itself). What’s the worst that could happen? After all, it’s not like you’re spending money on individual tickets.

And while it’s true that Netflix released another movie start-driven original film in the same pre-Christmas corridor in 2017 with Bright, a fantasy buddy cop thriller starring Will Smith opposite Joel Edgerton as an orc is not nearly as accessible as Bird Box. Indeed, you can pitch the premise of Bird Box to your family in a single sentence. Bright, well, not so much. So while David Ayer’s film was apparently popular enough for Netflix to greenlight a sequel, it wasn’t exactly the meme-generator that Bird Box became.

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Image via Netflix

While one could maybe argue Netflix “manufactured” buzz for Bird Box with meme-overload, they simply lit the spark that then spread organically. In 2018, with a film that’s not in wide theatrical release, social media buzz is Netflix’s version of Aquaman TV spots playing on every commercial break. The visibility of said memes make some folks feel like they’re missing out on something, and if they already have a Netflix subscription, why not just watch Bird Box? Again, especially with no Star Wars at the theater.

Indeed, Mary Poppins Returns and Bumblebee certainly didn’t bomb, but they aren’t the mega-sized hits the studios were likely hoping to find over the holiday break. Aquaman was this season’s only true breakout hit (though Spider-Verse shows signs of strong word-of-mouth), so if folks chose the DC film as their theatrical outing, they may have felt inclined to stay home, save their money, and fire up Netflix in the days that followed. And with the streaming service releasing a brand new original film just before Christmas, one with an intriguing premise, a mystery box, and a movie star in the lead role, there’s automatically something new to watch.

We already know full-well that Netflix uses its algorithm to guide decisions, so it stands to reason the release date for Bird Box was no accident. Moreover, now that the film is—according to Netflix—a huge hit, we can probably expect another new Netflix movie just in time for the holidays next year, even with Star Wars: Episode IX hitting theaters. Indeed, if 2018 was the year Netflix got serious about original films, 2019 is shaping up to be even bigger as new titles from filmmakers like Michael Bay, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Soderbergh are on tap for release. We don’t yet know what the next Bird Box will be, but you can bet this was no fluke. If the streaming service has its way, “Watch the new Netflix movie” will become your latest holiday tradition.

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