Netflix finished 2018 with two moves the film industry has never seen before

In October of 2017, in the Quick Theories titled Interactive Films You (The Viewer) Control are in Production, I called out Netflix for relying too heavily on letting data-driven decisions guide their cinematic creativity. I followed this accusation up with a suggestion:

[Give viewers] the ability to switch between characters mid-scene. Imagine watching The Godfather, and switching between different perspectives. When Don Corleone is cooped up in the hospital bed, we could switch to the perspective of the Barzini family, plotting their scheme to kill Sonny.

With this type of cinema, nobody would experience the same episode of, let’s say, Game of Thrones. Each person would have a different exposure to the story depending on how they navigated the different perspectives.

Quick Theories

At the end of December 2018, Netflix released Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, an interactive film where viewers make choices for the main character at critical points, leading them down a path of the viewer’s choosing. Altogether, there are twelve different endings the viewer can end on – some vaguer than others.

This form of interactive film has been a big hit thus far. They tried this once before, but with not nearly the fanfare they’ve gathered from this one. People are saying that the experience is a tad frustrating at times, but an interesting innovation nonetheless. An unexpected side-effect is that over two weeks later, the press is still reporting on different hidden storylines that people are uncovering. That type of longevity doesn’t normally happen for any other type of film.

And this isn’t even the biggest thing that Netflix did to end 2018.

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The Viral Movie

With their latest flagship movie, Bird Box, Netflix has shown a completely new way for cinematic promotion and release. As M.G. Siegler best phrased it, “The Truly Viral Movie Is Here.”

A week before Bird Box was released, nobody had a clue that the movie was coming out. Generally, this is an awful sign for a movie and producers would be jumping ship quick. In Netflix’s case, it wasn’t a worry at all. The movie was released, Netflix laid out their promotion plan, and then the numbers spoke for themselves.

With 137.1 million Netflix subscribers (as of Q3 2018), nearly one in three subscribers watched Bird Box in the first seven days it was released. Now that’s incredible. How’d they do it?

First of all, they did it without spending virtually any traditional marketing dollars. This goes against everything that a studio would normally do when they invest a boatload of money on a star like Sandra Bullock to star in their movie. Normally, they want to get their money’s worth, so the studio sends them on a month’s long press run to gain hype.

Instead, their marketing was: make sure everyone who has an account knows this movie is out and do everything in your power to get them to watch it. This included autoplaying the trailer as soon as users opened the app. This included sending a push notification to people’s devices, letting them know it was out. Netflix used their scale to their advantage.

Netflix likely figured out two things from that experiment. First, you don’t even need to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote this type of movie. In fact, a simple in-app promotion likely reaches as many people as a Super Bowl ad — and it undoubtedly leads to much higher conversion! Second, for the virality to truly work, the movie has to be at least halfway decent. Cloverfield Paradox was not. Bird Box is.

M.G. Siegler, Medium

This type of movie release is particularly exciting at a very basic “animal” level. There’s no waiting until “Summer 2019”, forgetting all about it, and then losing the enthusiasm to go watch it in an overpriced theatre. It’s just released. And this is exactly what our culture desires today.

Word-of-mouth played a huge role in snowballing this movie. But, this is beyond word-of-mouth. This is Netflix using the power they have so deservedly harnessed.

Amazon Studios attempted to do the same thing about eight months ago with their film Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot – a biopic featuring an absolute all-star cast. But, they failed because their user base doesn’t at all compare to Netflix’s.

Moving forward, though, this proves Netflix’s understanding and mastery of the film industry is beyond any other competitor (I’d say Marvel is the closest behind Netflix, but that’s a story for another time). There isn’t any other film studio that can send 45 million people to watch a two-hour film, in one week, with no marketing done in advance.