Netflix didn’t have plans to release numbers for The Irishman when asked by The Verge earlier this week, but ratings firm Nielsen beat the streamer to the punch.
Nielsen reports that “an average minute audience of nearly 13.2 million viewers with a reach of over 17.1 million unique U.S. viewers” watched The Irishman within the first five days of its release. That’s better than El Camino, the Breaking Bad movie that debuted to 11 million views, but didn’t do as well as the meme-fueled Bird Box, which saw 26 million views within the same time frame. Nielsen isn’t a complete measure of viewing data as it doesn’t take into account global views (where the majority of Netflix’s subscriber base is), nor are these official Netflix numbers. Since Netflix doesn’t release statistics, however, Nielsen is the closest and most accurate summation.
Of those 13 million accounts, 18 percent watched the entire movie — a whopping 3.5-hour watch time — in one sitting. That’s about the same as Bird Box. Even fewer made it through El Camino. Netflix has started collecting internal data on these types of viewers. There are “starters,” “watchers,” and “completers.” Starters only watch the first two minutes of a movie or TV show. Watchers get through about 70 percent, and completers finish it. Netflix hasn’t disclosed if that’s in one sitting or over multiple sittings.
The beauty of Netflix is that people can watch The Irishman however they want. I watched it over the course of a day and a half. People are watching it on the subway on iPads or iPhones. There are some slightly facetious suggestions recommending how to break the 210-minute epic into a three- or four-part series. All of these sentences are the equivalent to nails on a chalkboard to director Martin Scorsese, who pleaded in a recent interview for people not to watch it on their phones. Sorry, Marty.
The truth is a movie that runs 210 minutes might put people off. Anecdotally, I went home to visit family over the holiday weekend, and trying to convince my parents to either head to a theater a considerable distance from their house actually playing The Irishman or sit down and watch it didn’t go over well. No one wanted to go to a theater to pay for something that’s on Netflix. Everyone in my family wanted to watch it — but it’s easy to get distracted and do something else at home.
Numbers are a box office game. A big opening weekend is still important for a streaming service like Netflix, but it’s not as crucial as it is for studios releasing a movie into theaters. Here’s the counterpoint: if those 17.1 million accounts that watched The Irishman within the first five days paid to watch it in theaters, that would work out to an incredibly successful opening week.
Even if it didn’t find the same record-breaking success as Bird Box (which was shorter, and framed by an absurdly strong social campaign), The Irishman’s early numbers suggest it’s a success in the United States. This is a good moment for Netflix! So why isn’t Netflix announcing its own numbers? There’s a chance that Ted Sarandos, the company’s head of content, will disclose official numbers at an upcoming investors conference, but Netflix is tight-lipped.
There are still plenty of variables that aren’t available. How well did the movie perform overseas in international markets? How many of those who started the movie stopped and never went back? If the answers are negative, releasing that information could lead to more doubts and hesitance about Netflix’s strategy.
Numbers are a tricky game. The Irishman did well, but maybe not quite well enough to justify its $160 million price tag. Competitors like Disney are trying to avoid this situation by not announcing numbers for Disney+ originals at all. Disney executives feel like if they do, that’s the only thing people will talk about. Netflix doesn’t have that luxury. The company tweets out major accomplishments, and executives agreed to start being more transparent. Now not saying anything is worse than sending the tweet.
The Irishman is the perfect film to examine whether numbers should be released. Nielsen is reporting that less than 20 percent of people watched the entire movie in one sitting. If Netflix is trying to sway directors like Martin Scorsese to their platform, completion rates might be a deterrence. Netflix can boast a big audience, and can take on projects that other studios don’t want to take on, but releasing public numbers increases scrutiny and can blow up in the company’s face.
Netflix is in a precarious position. The company is committed to being more transparent and releasing more numbers. Scott Stuber, head of original films at Netflix, said at a recent conference that transparency “is important to everything.” That’s the opposite tactic of Disney and Amazon Studios, which, under Jennifer Salke’s leadership, will release less information about how original films perform.
“You’ll see more numbers from us, more transparency, more articulation of what’s working and not,” Stuber said, as reported by Variety.
What companies like Netflix and Amazon will actually do is be more strategic with the numbers they release. A record-breaking movie like Bird Box might get the big tweet announcement treatment, but The Irishman doesn’t. As critic and journalist Josh Spiegel said, “I really wish it was as simple as, ‘We are never going to release the numbers on our streaming titles,’ or ‘We’re releasing the numbers right now, and here they are.’”
All or nothing doesn’t exist in the streaming world, though.