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Without Box-Office Stats, How Will We Know If a Movie Is a Hit?

Earlier in 2020, Extraction became Netflix's most-watched original film. We know this because Netflix told us — a rare peek behind the curtain from the streaming giant, which is famously tight-lipped about internal metrics in a way that, say, Disney doesn’t have the luxury of being when it releases an Avengers movie in theaters. The reveal was part of a list of Netflix’s 10 most-viewed original films, few of which have the same name recognition as box-office juggernauts in the vein of Star Wars or Toy Story:

  1. Extraction: 99 million views
  2. Bird Box: 89 million views
  3. Spenser Confidential: 85 million views
  4. 6 Underground: 83 million views
  5. Murder Mystery: 83 million views
  6. The Irishman: 64 million views
  7. Triple Frontier: 63 million views
  8. The Wrong Missy: 59 million views
  9. The Platform: 56 million views
  10. The Perfect Date: 55 million views

Despite those impressive numbers, one could argue that only two of these movies have truly made their way into popular imagination: Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman, which received rave reviews on top of 10 Academy Award nominations, and the Sandra Bullock thriller Bird Box, which actually did become a cultural phenomenon (another way of saying meme fodder).

The rest are, for better or worse, what we think of when we think of Netflix Originals — the kind of movie you watch because it’s front and center when you open the app, features big movie stars, and is a simple choice when you can’t decide on anything else to watch. You might not seek out an action flick like 6 Underground, but you probably won’t turn it off if Netflix autoplays it, either. It’s the streaming equivalent of a movie you watch every time you come across it on cable (hello, Con Air). And because subscribers don’t pay for individual titles, there’s no way of telling how much a movie like Extraction might have made in theaters — it’s certainly possible it would have been a bonafide blockbuster, but Netflix’s entire business model makes such things unknowable.

Tigers and Devils and Cats, Oh My!

Credit: Netflix/ YouTube

One thing you’ll notice about the rare occasions when Netflix releases such numbers is that they only share the good news. The company will happily tweet about Tiger King breaking viewership records, but those following along at home have no way of knowing if a much-hyped original like The Devil All the Time ends up becoming the streaming equivalent of a box-office flop. This might not seem like it matters, but it does.

When a studio spends upwards of $100 million on a movie and launches an aggressive marketing campaign only for it to become a punchline (Cats, anyone?), it’s a way of keeping these corporate behemoths honest. Its viewers reject what’s being offered to them, which then becomes part of the movie’s legacy — and that of the studios who produced it. There’s no ill will in the situation since some films simply don’t connect with audiences for one reason or another, but it does prevent the likes of Paramount, Universal, and Warner Bros. from sweeping their failures under the rug. Netflix and other streaming services with original programming like Hulu and Amazon Prime don’t have that kind of transparency forced upon them because they don’t deal as directly with other arms of the film industry (namely theaters and other exhibitors). Netflix’s failures are private‚ buried beneath a hundred other films people would rather binge-watch.

To say that this situation is among the countless made worse by the ongoing pandemic would be an understatement. Theaters across the country shut down in March — some of them permanently. Would-be blockbusters like A Quiet Place Part II, Black Widow, and F9 have all had their releases delayed indefinitely. In a normal year, one imagines that a movie like Christopher Nolan’s Tenet or the latest James Bond flick No Time to Die might have been the highest-grossing release. (OK, that’s being optimistic — it would obviously be the latest Avengers movie or live-action Disney remake.) In 2020, it’s almost certainly going to be Bad Boys for Life. The third entry in the decades-spanning buddy-cop franchise starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence grossed $424 million worldwide, which would have been good enough for No. 20 last year. This year, nothing else comes close. Will next year be similar?

Hooked to the Silver Screen

Credit: Walt Disney Studios/ YouTube

The answer depends on more than just the pandemic. Disney decided to release Mulan exclusively on Disney+, charging an additional $29.99 on top of the monthly subscription fee. We don’t know how financially successful this was, because Disney hasn’t released that information, but industry analysis suggests the experiment didn’t pay off. Theatrically, the movie has grossed just under $70 million in other countries — far less than its $200 million price tag. Warner Bros.’ Tenet went the opposite route, forging ahead with a theatrical release, and has made $334 million worldwide. It’s nothing to sneeze at, but it is still a disappointing figure that all but guarantees it will lose money. The same can be said of Universal’s Trolls World Tour, which cost as much as $110 million to produce, is thought to have earned as much as $150 million from online rentals (nearly all from home-bound families), and still probably lost money when accounting for its marketing budget.

Which is to say, those who long for a return to the status quo may be in luck — though they’ll probably have to wait a while. If Mulan’s failure suggests that the big-screen experience remains a major selling point for audiences, and the disappointing box-office returns of Tenet indicate that we’re far from those same audiences feeling comfortable returning to theaters, there’s little reason to believe that all blockbusters will go directly to streaming platforms in the future. This is good news — not only for those who find refuge in movie theaters, but for those who check the box-office numbers every Sunday as well.

Featured image credit: 400tmax/ iStock