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The Bird Box Effect

A record-breaking 45 million Netflix accounts streamed Bird Box during its first week — over a third of Netflix’s 118 million subscribers -- making it the company’s most successful original feature to date.

The apocalyptic thriller tells the story of Earth overrun by a presence, which upon being seen, drives people to suicide. Within a day of its arrival, the majority of Earth’s population is decimated. The story focuses on Malorie (Sandra Bullock) and her blindfolded journey with her two children to reach a safe haven.

Perhaps a mystery more intriguing than the unseeable creatures, is how a movie largely panned by critics, attracted such large flocks of people. A non-comprehensive list of speculations as to what constituted the film’s success follows. First is its savvy release date: December 21st. The weather forces people to stay indoors, the holidays mean extended periods of free time, and since it’s the end of the year, people want to decompress -- prime time for binging Netflix. Second, its renowned cast includes Oscar-winning actress Sandra Bullock, Trevante Rhodes, Sarah Paulson and Tom Hollander. With its strong female lead, the film scored highly amongst women in test screenings. Due to its underlying themes of parenting and bonding, Bird Box made for a surprisingly wholesome addition to the holidays, a time when people are already focused on togetherness. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, was the role of memes and the movie’s prominence across social media.

Open Twitter, Instagram or Snapchat during peak Bird Box frenzy, and you were sure to be greeted by a barrage of memes and videos of people completing the #BirdBoxChallenge. The hashtag began in early December after Netflix presented a group of popular Twitch gamers with the “challenge” of playing their favorite video games blindfolded in order to drum up excitement for the upcoming release. What ensued was a surge of similar videos of people performing everyday tasks blindfolded. Not to mention that watching characters navigating clumsily around in blindfolds proved to be a gold mine for the creation of memes. In the blink of an eye, Bird Box became a viral sensation.

Since social media has become a form of entertainment in its own right, the hubbub and dialogue it generates through memes and crazes is sufficient to drive traffic to the original, often less entertaining content, in order to grasp the context.

The success of such a mediocre movie as Bird Box proves that when done right, memes can be just as, if not more effective than traditional marketing. Keeping this in mind, conspiracy theories have been hatched that Netflix has been carefully orchestrating the phenomenon through the use of bots. However, a company representative spoke on the matter unofficially, stating: “the meme content happened on its own and spread organically.” Overall, the forced meme conspiracy theories have largely been debunked, with most of the claims being based on one tweet:

Even though Bird Box is hardly a paragon of good cinema, for Netflix, more important than stellar reviews, was the social media frenzy that did the marketing for them. As Melanie McFarland from Salon put it: “Is it good? Not really, but it doesn't need to be.”


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