One of the key points made in this recent editorial I wrote about the Disney-Fox merger was there’s a race happening to see if Netflix can become Disney before Disney can become Netflix. David Ayer’s Bright is a key milestone in this race. Netflix has had success with producing and funding TV shows, in producing and funding Oscar-nominated documentaries, and in licensing and funding indie films, but Bright is their first attempt at replicating tentpole production. They want a pipeline of high budget, high concept content with internationally known actors at the lead so they can keep the subscribers they have and continue to add new ones. Netflix can’t license content as high demand as Star Wars or Marvel so they want to create their own properties, Bright being first.
Netflix is understandably protective of sharing how many people watch their content. Knowledge is power in Hollywood and having control over all the knowledge means you have complete power over it. They can control the PR over whether their content is successful or not, and they can use this information to their advantage as a selling point when trying to acquire more content.
That doesn’t mean people haven’t tried to find out and the latest attempts are using automatic content recognition to listen to what folks are watching and determining what unique piece of content this is. If you’ve ever Shazamed a song, you’ve used this technology. It can match a unique audio “fingerprint” in content and match it to a vast library to determine what a viewer (who opts in to be part of the study) is watching and then, just like using traditional TV ratings methodology, they can extrapolate how many people are watching a given show.
It’s essential that we spend some time talking about the flaws in this process. First and foremost, Netflix strongly denies that the numbers published using this technology by Nielsen on Stranger Things Season 2 are accurate and said that Nielsen’s math may be “upside down”. Second, they can only measure the people watching at home, not mobile on their phone or tablet or laptop and that could be 67% of an audience, per Netflix. Third, we have to trust that Nielsen has some demographic information about the Netflix customer so they can accurately extrapolate what the true population is. Given that Netflix is also secretive about that information, we don’t know how accurate their thinking is and could be subject to the same self-selection bias that skewed user ratings on The Last Jedi. Fourth, we don’t know how Nielsen is filtering out the unique “fingerprint” in the movie compared the one in the trailer, but we must assume they are. We just don’t know how yet unless the trailer does in fact have its own unique “fingerprint”. Fifth, we have no way of knowing how long the viewer watched the content so there could be many viewers who gave it a go and gave up before they watched a significant part of the film. Sixth, the respondents are given access to content for free, so their viewing habits are probably different than viewers who pay for the service. Finally, Nielsen is only measuring viewers in the United States, so given that more than half of all Netflix subscribers are international and that Netflix is a worldwide distributor who is buying and creating content for an international audience, this is at best, only part of the whole viewing population.
So, what’s the point in even having this conversation, given all the flaws? Well, going back to what I mentioned earlier, Netflix uses the number of viewers of their content as a selling point when trying to acquire more content. They compare their initial viewership to how many people watch a movie on opening weekend as a way of demonstrating more people will watch content on Netflix than not. What they don’t look at, because they don’t have access to these numbers, is how many people watched that content on iTunes, or Amazon, or DVD, or HBO, or Hulu or any of the multiple other viewing streams. Since Netflix rarely exploits their content outside their service, and that the heaviest exploitation is always on broadcast, since it’s the cheapest way to consume this content, Netflix is comparing two different ways of watching (theatrical vs broadcast). It’s an apples to oranges comparison, so one could argue we’re playing in a ballpark Netflix themselves created. We’ve observed and discussed the flaws so we’re all aware that this is a conversation for conversation's sake only and not an analysis using accepted scientific data.
Variety, in partnership with Nielsen, is saying that Bright garnered 11 million viewers over its first three days (essentially its “opening weekend”). They also estimate 7 million of those viewers were in the all-important 18-49 age group. Also important, the film played like a traditional studio tentpole in that it skewed slightly (56%) male. If we take the 11 million number, and apply the average 2017 ticket price, we get to an opening weekend box office (again, for conversation purposes only) of around $98 million.
$98 million is a huge number, and if you reconsider all the above-mentioned flaws, it's likely an understatement given it's US only and limited to views at home and not mobile. Comparing to other Will Smith movies (not adjusting for inflation), this would be the largest release of his where he was first billed in the credits and second only to 2016’s Suicide Squad (where he was the biggest name in an ensemble cast).
Given the long term objectives Netflix has, and the fact they’ve already greenlit a sequel, it’s impossible for the purposes of this conversation to see Bright as anything other than a huge success and a giant, positive step forward for Netflix and their aspirations. Despite the bad critic reviews, Netflix has demonstrated they can create the high concept, high demand film content they need for future growth and stability.