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Graham: 'Bird Box' and the definition of a hit

The Netflix sensation set a record for the streaming service, but how do we know how big it really is?

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

You've seen the memes. You've seen the numbers. You may have even seen the movie.

"Bird Box" is a hit.

Vivien Lyra Blair, left, Sandra Bullock and Julian Edwards star.

But how big is it? That depends on who you ask, and how you measure a hit. 

And "Bird Box" could change the way we measure hits going forward. 

Few saw "Bird Box" coming. You could say people had blindfolds over their eyes. But the Sandra Bullock title, which premiered on Netflix during the holiday season, arrived with little buzz (and tepid reviews) and went on to steal Christmas. 

Part of what has made the apocalyptic thriller a smash is the streaming service's unprecedented method of declaring it a smash.

Netflix has historically been cagey about their numbers, refusing to offer up viewership figures for its content. But in a tweet on Dec. 28, Netflix broke form and touted that 45,037,125 accounts had seen "Bird Box," the "best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film."

That figure and announcement spread across the internet quickly, largely due to its size and rarity; Netflix never gives out numbers, let alone ones this specific.  

About that figure: 45 million is absolutely huge. In terms of TV, that places it between the "Friends" finale (52.5 million viewers) and "The Cosby Show" send-off (44.4 million). If those 45 million accounts were movie ticket sales — and they're not, but go with me here — that would be a $412.5 million opening week, which would make it the biggest opening week ever, toppling "Star Wars: The Force Awakens' " $390 million opening week.

Of course "Bird Box" is not a movie in theaters and it's not television, so these comparisons are not applicable. Streaming services come with their own unique set of rules and parameters, as we're just beginning to figure out.  

But after the announcement, it seemed like "Bird Box" became even more of a sensation. The memes, which had blanketed the internet since the film's release — some speculate Netflix was behind the initial flood of blindfolded Bullock posts, which as a marketing move, was brilliant — seemed to increase. And people who hadn't previously watched the film flipped it on, because they wanted to be part of the conversation. 

That's how hits work. Success begets success. A movie such as "Black Panther" opens with an astonishing $202 million and that creates more excitement about the film, because people want to know what the fuss is about. ("Black Panther" went on to earn $700 million at the domestic box office, almost 3.5 times its opening weekend gross.)

Would "Black Panther" have been as big of a hit if it wasn't, well, such a hit? It's a confusing matrix. 

But hits are democratic, and there's transparency in the system. At the movies, box office figures are reported by tracking services and widely disseminated in the media. TV viewership figures are measured by Nielsen, an independent data analytics company. Music sales are measured by SoundScan, which is also run by Nielsen, and when introduced in 1991, it brought truth to an industry that was previously measured by record company hot air. 

As for Netflix — and streaming competitors like Amazon and Hulu — there's no third party measuring system, which means something's a hit if they say it's a hit, and that's all we have to go on. 

And even as our monoculture has been obliterated into 50 million tiny pieces, hits still matter. Hits drive the culture, they give us something to rally around, they help to bring us together and out of our individual boxes, birds or otherwise. 

Did 45 million accounts watch "Bird Box?" All we know is Netflix says they did. Surely they have no reason to lie, unless they want to create a sensation in-house and have the world scramble to cover it. (In case you haven't noticed, it's working.)  

There's no word on how many views Netflix's other major December titles have accrued; Bruce Springsteen's special, Alfonso Cuarón's "Roma," the interactive "Black Mirror" special "Bandersnatch" and the Taylor Swift concert film all arrived on their own waves of hype. 

Are they hits? We don't know, and we may never know. Netflix has us all walking around blindfolded.