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Why Red Notice was able to beat Bird Box as Netflix’s biggest movie debut ever

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Streaming data doesn’t tell the whole story

Image: Frank Masi/Netflix

Netflix’s heist drama Red Notice has officially overthrown Bird Box as the streaming service’s biggest movie debut to date, with over 328 million total hours viewed as of today. That beats out Bird Box’s prior record — 282 million hours in its first 28 days — by a good margin, and Red Notice still has ample time to expand its debut-month record.

That might seem like great news for Netflix: a movie it wanted to be a huge hit was in fact a huge hit. It commanded views up against an eight-hour Beatles documentary as well as big theatrical releases like a Ghostbusters spinoff and multiple titles from Disney. But the film’s success isn’t quite as remarkable as the numbers make it appear. Sure, the hours viewed figure indicates that subscribers are actually watching Red Notice. But it’s also the kind of numbers Netflix should be netting right now and should probably be seeing more of.

As far as celebrity appeal goes, Red Notice checks a lot of boxes — it stars Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds), and The Rock (Dwayne Johnson), all of whom more or less play themselves — and had a huge $200 million budget to back it all up. But the film hasn’t achieved anywhere near the cultural cachet of Bird Box or Netflix’s more recent success Squid Game, which remains its most popular TV series debut to date. To say that Red Notice lacked the substance of either of the aforementioned titles would frankly be generous. Red Notice has some big-boom action fun, but that’s about as far as it gets.

So how on earth did a movie that by many accounts is just, well, fine eclipse Bird Box for Netflix’s most-viewed film to date? One answer might be subscribers.

The problem with comparing two films that debuted on Netflix roughly three years apart — aside from their markedly different tones and inverse genres — is that Netflix has grown substantially in that time. When Netflix shared its fourth-quarter earnings in January 2019, a month after Bird Box’s premiere, the company reported having around 139 million subscriptions. As of its most recently reported subscription figures, it now has around 214 million active accounts — and that’s after the service twice raised its prices and axed its free trial.

Netflix is now reaching more people globally than at any other time in its history, and it custom-tailors its product to its various markets across the world. (As of this week’s data, Red Notice remained in the top 10 films in 94 countries.) That means that any film that the streamer puts on its service now is better positioned to do well over titles that premiered when it had some 75 million fewer active accounts, fewer features, and the world wasn’t living through an ongoing global health crisis that sees many of us turning to streaming services to keep us preoccupied.

It’s likely that Red Notice will continue to topple records during its first 28 days on the service, the window for which Netflix reports the total viewing hours of its most popular titles. It’s almost assured, in fact.

But streaming data doesn’t and arguably can’t give a full picture of success because of how rapidly the space is evolving, for several reasons. Netflix is among the most transparent streaming services, offering a publicly accessible and frequently updated dedicated hub for tracking its hits, but even that can be tricky when its past successes are measured against newer ones as the service continues to grow. (Its newer public-facing metric, hours viewed, is to Netflix’s credit far easier to interpret than its former maligned two-minute viewing metric.)

But even more to that point, without data shared by other services, we’re still left in the dark about how Netflix’s successes compare to those of, for example, HBO Max or Prime Video. In an ideal scenario, all of these services would adopt greater transparency and convene around one single way of gauging success. Those numbers should then account for the debut of the title against the growth of the service over time. (This week, for example, the Halle Berry-starring drama Bruised — which also premiered this month — came in second for English-language films with 47.7 million hours viewed to Red Notice’s 50.6 million during the same weeklong period. That context is helpful for understanding Red Notice’s success.)

Immediately, those asks seem like a tall order from companies that have been intentionally obtuse about accurately representing their data in the past. We’re getting this data from Netflix and in a way that most people can reasonably understand — and that’s great. But because of the rapidly evolving nature of the streaming wars, these numbers are harder to interpret than, say, box office sales. And without everyone playing by the same rules, the data is pretty meaningless for giving us any comparative understanding of how Netflix stacks up against the competition — and what truly makes a hit.