Sandra Bullock in 'Bird Box' Image Credit: Netflix

There was a foreboding sense of dread surrounding Netflix’s release of survival horror ‘Bird Box’, and not just because of the terrifying premise.

The film, led by Sandra Bullock, was seen as one of the platform’s splashier original offerings of 2018 with a juicy set-up, an in-demand director and a high-profile pre-Christmas release. But a last-minute marketing campaign planted seeds of doubt with a trailer that left many calling it an ill-timed, sense-swapped copy of ‘A Quiet Place’, released to both critical and commercial success earlier in the year.

While the John Krasinski/Emily Blunt thriller focused on monsters who used sound to hunt their victims, in ‘Bird Box’, a demonic force targets sight and for those unlucky enough to catch a glimpse, their greatest fears become realised. Netflix remained confident, despite bad buzz, and nabbed a slot at the AFI film festival alongside awards-friendly titles such as ‘Roma’ and ‘Green Book’. They also targeted voters with a sneak peak Directors Guild of America screening in New York. Both promising signs of a prestige project.

Then critics caught a glimpse and, well, fear was far from realised.

“A wannabe shocker... shortchanged in terms of suspense, scares and thrills,” said the Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy. “These characters feel so crammed together and underwritten that they add up to almost nothing,” wrote the Guardian’s Amy Nicholson. “A toy-chest apocalypse in which the rules of the game are, to all appearances, never understood,” complained the New Yorker’s Richard Brody.

The reviews weren’t quite as toxic as those that met Netflix’s last big Christmas bet, the Will Smith-starring fantasy ‘Bright’, but they immediately put a stop to any awards chatter and pegged ‘Bird Box’ as yet another misjudged original gamble. In a way, it seemed like the natural conclusion to a year that saw them spew out ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’, ‘Mute’, ‘Extinction’ and ‘TAU’, all malformed attempts to prove they can take on the multiplex with genre film-making.

Unlike those films, however, Netflix granted ‘Bird Box’ a campaign that rivalled the scale of its cinema-dwelling counterparts. Cities were strewn with billboards and digital ads, Bullock and director Susanne Bier (hot off award-winning miniseries ‘The Night Manager’) made their way around the interview circuit and the film was even given a one-week exclusive engagement on the big screen.

While it has become notoriously hard to judge the success of a Netflix drop, given how the platform refuses to release viewership figures, it was clear that within days, ‘Bird Box’ was an unqualified phenomenon. Not only did it start trending on Twitter but it soon became an unlikely meme-magnet .

The reaction was so ebullient that it led Netflix to temporarily remove a different blindfold by tweet-bragging that over 45 million accounts had watched Bird Box in its first seven days, the biggest first week for one of their original films to date. While the release of an actual number (45,037,125, to be exact) might be somewhat groundbreaking given their reluctance to do so in the past, it follows on from a number of equally confident, if intentionally vaguer, statements about other 2018 releases.

In October’s third-quarter earnings report, Netflix beamed over the results of their Summer of Love — a group of in-house romantic comedies that left most critics cold yet left subscribers fully engaged with over 80 million watching at least one of them and ‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ singled out as a particular hit. In December, Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos claimed that their festive adventure ‘The Christmas Chronicles’ had the “most impact” of any of star Kurt Russell’s films to date with 20 million watching in the first week.

The ‘Bird Box’ brag has left some industry figures unsure over the number’s veracity. Firstly, it’s not a figure that’s been independently assessed unlike say, Nielsen ratings or official box office results. Secondly, while Netflix has stated that a user watching at least 70 per cent of a film counts as a view, it is unclear how many of the 45 million streams were complete.

“I’m a huge fan and proponent of Netflix, but to believe that nearly one-third of all of their subscribers not only watched 70 per cent of the movie but did so in the first week of it being on the site is all but unfathomable,” an anonymous producer told Business Insider over the weekend. “I want to believe it but just can’t. It’s not a watch for the faint of heart, after all.”

But regardless of the potentially troublesome nature of this number, the film’s immediacy of impact is undeniable. In less than a month, ‘Bird Box’ has already become part of the public lexicon in a way that would have been infinitely harder to achieve with a cinema-only release, provoking more chatter than last month’s big screen hits combined. The film’s viewership is so large that Kim Kardashian’s tweet asking if anyone had yet seen it, just 10 days after release, was the subject of widespread ridicule. Fans have even turned the house featured in the film into a tourist attraction, showing up in droves to take blindfolded selfies.

Reactions reached a new fever pitch with the ‘Bird Box challenge’, which has seen fans blindfolding themselves before taking on various tasks from petting dogs to playing basketball to, most worryingly, driving. It all led to the official Netflix account tweeting: “Can’t believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE.”

“It’s going to take a very careful consideration about how it translates,” director Bier said to the Hollywood Reporter of the film’s wildfire reaction. “Classical measurement has either been box office or awards. This defies all of it. But creating a phenomenon is bound to translate into something.”

So what is it about ‘Bird Box’ that’s led to such unprecedented success?

Based on a novel by Josh Malerman, the rights to ‘Bird Box’ were originally purchased by Universal in 2013 before it was even published. ‘Mama’ director Andy Muschietti, who would go on to direct ‘It’, was attached and ‘Arrival’s’ Eric Heisserer was onboard to adapt. But the project fell apart and the script was then included in 2014’s Black List, an annual roundup of the best unproduced screenplays knocking around Hollywood. Fast forward to 2017 and after one of the project’s original producers joins Netflix, the film was suddenly brought to life.

It was reportedly made for less than $20 million (Dh73.4 million), a far more modest investment than some of the platform’s more high-profile titles (Bright cost $90 million while ‘Outlaw King’ was made for a reported $120 million), and given the consistency of the horror genre at the box office, the film would have undoubtedly made a tidy profit on the big screen. But as one analyst pointed out on Twitter, if those 45 million subscribers all bought a ticket to see it in the first week, it would have made roughly $411 million in seven days, over $20 million more than what ‘The Force Awakens’ achieved in the same period.

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Don’t miss it

‘Bird Box’ is now streaming on Netflix.