Peekaboo: The Startling Viral Success of Netflix’s ‘Bird Box’

The holidays are a hectic time for most people.  The cliché of running around and stressing about gifts might be a little bit of an exaggeration, but the spirit of such a cliché rings true.  Among the chaos of the season of giving, people like to sit back and enjoy some sort of entertainment.  Now, loyal reader, we are going to continue to state the obvious by revealing that this, along with the proximity to virtually all of the cinematic award shows, is the reason that so many high profile movies are released around this time.  This year, Mary Poppins Returns, Aquaman, Bumblebee, Vice, and a few others came out to varying degrees of financial and critical success.

However, there is one film that has reportedly blown away expectations of all of these films.  It is one that is sweeping the internet off of its feet with blindfolded challenges and memes of polarizing quality.  This film is, of course, Netflix’s original film Bird Box. Directed by Susanne Bier, this supernatural thriller was reportedly streamed by 45 million subscribers during its opening week.  You might have also heard or read the backlash to these numbers. The fact that over 45 million subscribers even turned on the same film makes this an intriguing situation.  Another reason that this film is a surprise is the “Bird Box challenge,” the viral stunt that has been the focus of many think pieces and reactions by participants and bystanders alike.  While it resembles the Tide POD challenge more than Ice Bucket challenge, this is a true high water mark for film popularity.  The memes that accompany it are nothing new, just look at the reaction the internet has had to Avengers: Infinity War, A Star is Born, and Call Me by Your Name. But why Bird Box? Why not any of the other popular movies of this year?

 

There are a couple ways we could take this piece now.  Start a review of the flick, or continue to think about why Bird Box became such a viral sensation.  Reviewing sounds fun, that is what all two of the writers of this site up to this point have done.  It is an average movie.  Critics seem to be split according to the major aggregators, while audiences seem to be mixed to positive in their assessment.[i] Overall, the trend seems to be solid.  The film has flaws, but an attractive concept and likable characters (for the most part) allow the film to have the desired effect.  To continue on to review would be a waste of time, the number one reason being that millions of people have already seen the film and read other reviews.  The angle that is the most stimulating to spend significant time on is how this film became an overnight viral and cultural sensation.  The answer is as simple as this one word, accessibility.

 

Accessibility is often a reference to whether or not a film is “high concept.” (High concept is a film buzzword that people use to decipher whether or not the film will have a more mainstream audience or a smaller audience. A great example of a high concept filmmaker is Christopher Nolan.  A great example of a “low concept” film is Transformers.)  While the base idea of the film, a supernatural force kills you by forcing you to commit suicide if you look at it, is a decent start, Bird Box never reaches the heights of its potential.  Rather than diving into some of the darker areas that this material could, director Susanne Bair and the rest of the creative team chose to tell a version of this story that is much more ideologically accessible for a mainstream audience. This definition of accessibility is essential to the practically instant viral popularity of Bird Box.  Viral culture is based on a lot of individuals being able to comprehend what and why something is funny or worth talking about. The viral movie cycle most often starts and ends with a film’s memeability. Think back to last April after Avengers: Infinity War was seen by a ton of people. (Spoiler alert) Almost instantly, fans and memeidians (meme+comedian hybrword (hybrid+word)) started to send memes like these out into the vast reaches of the interweb:

dont feel good 1

Okay not so funny right, well one must allow for a meme to evolve:

scoob

spongebob

titanicboramereshrek

irwin

Each of these (including the less than tasteful Steve Irwin meme) show what can happen when an appetizing visual meets up with mainstream attention.  Bird Box has become a meme because of this equation:

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So, what is the difference between the Bird Box memes and the Avengers memes? Relatability.  Most people have been in situations that they wish they did not have to see something.  (For myself, it is mall kiosk salespeople) How many people have had legitimate experiences with the mass scale disintegration?  Most likely nobody.

 

This might seem like a crazy amount of analysis for something that, in the grand scheme of things, is only going to be remembered as a small blip on the pop culture radar in a couple months.  But the accessibility does not stop with plot accessibility, the cast plays a role in this as well.  Number one, Sandra Bullock is a movie star.  According to Boxoffice Mojo.com, Bullock’s films average a gross box office return of over 72 million dollars, in the same zone as George ClooneyMatt Damon, Jack Black, Cate Blanchett, Jamie Foxx, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Melissa McCarthy, and Julia Roberts.  Bullock is an individual that people will go out of their way to see.

Number two, the rest of the cast is made up of veteran actors like; John Malkovich (Con Air, Rounders, Being John Malkovich), Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story, Oceans 8, The Post), Jackie Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook), Lil Rel Howery (Get Out, Uncle Drew), BD Wong (Jurassic Park, Law and Order), and relative newcomers like Trevante Rhodes (Moonlight, The Predator), Danielle Macdonald (Dumplin’), Rosa Salazar (the Maze Runner trilogy, American Horror Story, Insurgent), and rapper Machine Gun Kelly (Nerve, Viral).  Most of the main actors can bring some sort of audience to at least try and watch the film, which makes this film’s reach that much more extensive and widespread. There is at least an argument for why this movie was just the perfect gamble for a streaming service like Netflix.  Netflix brings innate accessibility that has been around since it started to become more focused on its streaming service in 2007.  With a reported 137 million subscribers and 300 million viewers worldwide, as of October 2018, the company obviously has been doing a great job with accessibility.

 

This is a really long-winded way of saying that Bird Box is a case of accessibility and timing synchronizing perfectly with one another.  There is no way to figure out if this film would have received the same response if it was released five or ten years ago.  Memes are one thing, and these viral forms of mass communication are a great sign for a film.  But viral challenge videos are a whole different level of popularity that can only happen because of, you guessed it, accessibility.

 

Lebron James is arguably the most popular athlete in the world right now. What he was able to do for the NBA and basketball, in general, cannot be overstated.  The only thing that he has not been able to share is his athleticism and basketball IQ.  That might sound weird, but he is a one-of-a-kind player that cannot be replicated.  No matter how hard you try, you simply cannot replicate much of what makes him so special.  Stephen Curry is probably the only other American athlete that can even make an argument that he is the most popular athlete in the world.  Curry’s popularity is similar but different to James’.  While Curry is a once-in-a-lifetime talent in certain areas of his game, he has nowhere near the same athleticism as James.  What Curry does bring though is accessibility.  If you were so inclined to play pick-up basketball, you are most likely going to find someone trying to imitate Steph Curry.  While no one outside the NBA can do exactly what Curry can do, anyone can try their best to dribble and shoot like he can.  These skills are basic skills that are simply more interactive than the ones that James brings to the table.  Bird Box brings similar interactivity to film that other, better films, simply can not.

 

Interactivity and accessibility are connected when it comes to viral challenges. In other words, the questions of “Can I do this?” and “Do I want to do this?” are going to dictate whether or not the challenge will go viral.  The Tide POD challenge and Ice Bucket challenge are two great examples.  Both challenges, despite some very important differences, became a success because of accessibility.  With the Tide POD challenge, the only obstacle standing in your way if your answer to both previous fundamental questions was yes, was whether or not you could get your hands on any Tide PODS.  With the Ice Bucket Challenge, the obstacle was much easier, not to mention much less insane.  Can you get a bucket with ice and water? (This is a rather obtuse oversimplification, but give it a chance!) The one thing that Bird Box has that other recent popular movies do not is an accessible visual element, the blindfold.  How many people do you know that have access to technology able to disintegrate and then reintegrate themselves? With this said, the Infinity War challenge probably does not have a great chance of gathering a following.

There are a number of other hypothetical examples that do not need to be brought up, but the point seems pretty satisfactory.  Anyone can get their hands on something that can be used as a blindfold.  Add the prolific use and ownership of smartphones and you have yourself a perfect recipe for a truly, madly, and deeply fascinating and curious pop culture and internet sensation.

 

There are a number of factors that have not been mentioned, but the real question in this post-Bird Box time is whether or not a film can ever obtain such popularity again? The answer is a bit anti-climactic, but it is probably yes.  It might take time, but studios are trying to find the next Bird Box as this is being written.  Is that a good thing?  You make the decision.  There are going to be a number of think pieces that come out in the coming weeks and months that probably try to figure this out, but it seems like a scenario that we will all have to be patient on.

 

Thanks for reading! Curtis.

 

 

[i] https://www.metacritic.com/movie/bird-box

 

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