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The Bird Box Effect: How Memes Drive Users to Netflix

Before the Sandra Bullock movie was a “hit,” it was a joke (or a bot-related conspiracy theory) on your Twitter feed. Here’s how ‘Bird Box’ became so popular—and why it might be the future of movie marketing.

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Reviews for Bird Box have not been kind. The postapocalyptic thriller starring Sandra Bullock was panned by critics and currently sits at 66 percent among audience members on Rotten Tomatoes. Chief among the film’s problems is its lack of originality (and more than passing resemblance to another 2018 movie, A Quiet Place). The sensory-deprivation horror flick is “filmed with illustrative approximations, in generic gestures and fragments,” according to The New Yorker’s Richard Brody. Amy Nicholson, writing for The Guardian, called it “forcibly screwed together, a movie marionetted by strings of data code.” I personally have seen more creative claustrophobic disaster scenarios played out by Sims characters.

“Is it good?” asked Salon’s Melanie McFarland. “Not really, but it doesn’t need to be.” In the context of a movie review, this is an unexpected statement, but also spot-on: The circumstances under which Bird Box wormed its way into our zeitgeist explain why, in the age of direct-to-consumer streaming, quality may be more irrelevant than ever. Bird Box is a “Netflix original” adapted from Josh Malerman’s 2014 sci-fi novel of the same name and one of the many high-budget films that the company has funded in an expensive mission to prove that it can upend the traditional production cycle of a Hollywood studio. But even if the Bay Area–based corporation has overseen an impressive lineup of genuinely delightful projects—from rom-com revivers To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and Set It Up to a legitimate Oscar contender like RomaBird Box’s results are quite different. Its SEO-friendly name, overcrowded cast, gimmicky imagery, and savvy release schedule all add up to pure meme bait. And meme the world has. The formulaic nature that hurt Bird Box’s critical reception is, as they say in Silicon Valley, a feature, not a bug.

First, I should offer you a quick play-by-play of why we are currently discussing an otherwise unremarkable movie. Bird Box premiered at the top of Netflix’s homepage December 21, around the time that people were settling into their couch grooves for a sedentary holiday vacation. Even if the company’s 58.46 million U.S. subscribers were confused by Bird Box’s title, its recognizable star, autoplay previews, and prime above-the-fold real estate were enough to catch people’s attention. Aaron M. White recalled seeing its trailer advertised during Thanksgiving break, around the time the movie premiered at the American Film Institute Festival. “Eventually I learned enough about the movie through pop culture osmosis to have the idea that it involved Sandra Bullock, that it was like A Quiet Place but with blindfolds,” White, a 28-year-old civil litigation attorney in Chicago, told me via email. “I had this vague idea that it was a good enough movie to be on Netflix but not good enough for anyone to get excited about.”

It wasn’t until White noticed images from the film inundating his feeds on Twitter and Instagram that he seriously considered watching it. In the Bird Box universe, looking at one of the world’s invisible monsters causes people to immediately die by suicide, a grim reality that requires Bullock’s character, Malorie, and her fellow survivors to spend most of the film blindfolded. For that reason, screen shots of the movie were almost immediately recognizable and—because humans look clumsy while navigating the world with their vision shielded—ripe for mimicry. Images of Bullock rowing a boat down a river while blindfolded became the first of many joke backdrops that eventually led to a full-blown raid of the film’s most intense moments to harvest fresh memes. People referred to tertiary Bird Box characters by their first names, the same way that Stranger Things fans toss around the name “Barb.” In an effort to promote the film earlier in December, Netflix presented a handful of well-known Twitch gamers with a Bird Box “challenge,” asking them to play their favorite game while blindfolded. (This is the type of sponsorship that is often offered to popular influencers on various social networks.) But as the search term “bird box” surged the week of Christmas, creators began integrating the concept into their videos unprompted. YouTubers applied the Bird Box challenge to their daily lives, pawing through Popeyes drive-throughs and stumbling on escalators in the name of clicky content. TikTok users fashioned their own signature, blindfolded dance. At least one Atlanta nightclub is hosting a Bird Box–themed party, complete with a “blindfolded shot for shot challenge.”

As White watched these memes multiply in his feed, he was hit with a familiar sensation: the fear of missing out.

“I figured that I just about got the gist of the joke, visual memes are largely self-explanatory,” he said. “But there was just so many of them, and they seemed so versatile, so I ultimately decided to watch the movie to make sure I wasn’t missing any nuance.”

A meme of ‘Simpsons’ characters in a bar all talking to each other about ‘Bird Box’ Memezar/Instagram

White’s journey to the play button is likely one of the reasons that, according to Netflix, more than 45 million accounts viewed Bird Box within the first week of its release, a statistic that it touted as its best-ever debut for an original film. (The company later qualified that those it counted as viewers had watched at least 70 percent of the movie’s total running time. Netflix declined to comment for this story.) Aside from disclosing the occasional disturbingly specific statistic, Netflix is notorious for withholding viewership data, and a January 8 Nielsen report found that the number of viewers who watched the whole movie was around 26 million. Based on the online buzz, it’s safe to say many of those millions of people were driven to watch Bird Box—a film that most people also agree is bad—just to better understand the collective conversation online. And in the case of Netflix subscriber Stafford Heppenstall, that didn’t mean completing it.

“I only watched Bird Box for the memes,” Heppenstall, a 31-year-old operations manager, told me via direct message. “After the scene with the guy forcing the old women’s eyes open, I stopped watching the movie. I got enough context to know what the memes were and after I read a spoiler on Twitter (while I was watching the movie) I really didn’t think I needed to watch more.”

Hollywood has learned that, when executed correctly, memes can be a far more effective marketing tool than any online ad or freeway billboard. Usually, a positive symbiotic relationship between a meme and a movie (or TV show) relies on two factors: general access and a positive critical reception of the show or movie from which it samples. Scandal drew crowds to Twitter because people already enjoyed watching it (and were also able to easily on ABC). Arthur, The Simpsons, and SpongeBob SquarePants have been mined for online jokes for years because they feature familiar characters from long-running, beloved, and—most importantly—streamable shows. The same logic goes for reality-TV shows like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and Vanderpump Rules, which thrive on the online culture dedicated to tracking their main characters’ every online action. A Star Is Born demonstrated the power of preemptive memes on a movie’s reception—in part because it ultimately stood up to the hype.

Bird Box is the cynical inverse of your typical pop culture meme. Though it has all the necessary visual ingredients that help a movie spread online, viewers seem more attached to the memes it has generated than the movie itself. In other words, it’s like your average Drake single: best when picked over, remixed, and memed by more creative minds on the internet. Because social media has become a form of entertainment in and of itself, online chatter is enough to drive traffic to what is almost universally acknowledged as lesser content—just for the sake of context.

“[This is] definitely a new level of influence,” Jack Daley, a 32-year-old medical sales rep who watched the movie after seeing a meme that compared it to A Quiet Place, told me via direct message. “The power of memes is crazy. Who would have thought that memes would have got me to do something? We live in a weird time.”

A meme saying “can I copy your homework?” “yeah just change it up a bit so it doesn’t look obvious you copied.” “ok” with an image of ‘A Quiet Place’ next to one of ‘Bird Box’

Streaming services like Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix may have spent the last few years throwing money at projects designed to earn them respect in Hollywood. But ultimately Netflix will need to prove its staying power to investors via sheer strength of numbers. An Oscar might be a nice memento for CEO Reed Hastings’s corner office, but the company’s ability to turn a lacking film into a hit via strategic marketing is far more valuable. In addition to the unprecedented announcement of Bird Box’s first-week viewership, Netflix also recently bragged about its ability to turn young actors into Instagram influencers via its most recent earning’s call. It’s all part of the company’s efforts to position itself as a digital-first driver of culture rather than a decorated movie studio.

Even if Netflix’s numbers are impressive, flipping mediocre movies into digestible memes can have its setbacks. Amid the height of the Bird Box fervor, one suspicious Twitter user hatched a theory that the company was using bots to spread memes about the movie online, citing a large amount of engagement from recently started Twitter accounts that had very few followers and tweets. The claim went viral, spurring a handful of articles explaining why such a mediocre movie had become so popular. Netflix denied these claims in a direct message with The Daily Dot, but the lack of clarity has nevertheless sown confusion and, in some cases, even discouraged subscribers from watching the movie.

“I feel like I’m being conned into watching it by some unseen force that’s funneling Bird Box memes onto my timeline,” Nora Hastings (no relation), a 25-year-old graphic designer, told me via direct message. Despite feeling left out of the online conversation, she has yet to watch the movie. “I want to see Bird Box and understand the memes fully but I also really, really, really don’t want to give Netflix the satisfaction, despite the very obvious fact that they don’t know who I am or even care about what I watch.”

Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who recently published a study on the presence of fake Russian accounts during the 2016 presidential election, ran a quick survey of the Bird Box Twitter hashtag using proprietary university software and found no evidence of bot activity. (Though he did find some odd activity in which 9,000 separate accounts tweeted a Bird Box meme with same typo: “Dr.Lapham” with no space.) Beyond identifying automated activity on social media, however, he says it’s hard to parse whether a PR company is running an astroturfing campaign—a communication strategy in which a corporation hires people to pose as concerned citizens and push its preferred message—or people are simply stealing each other’s tweets.

“Bird Box is great for funny memes and that seems to have driven lots of attention starting when it first came out on the 21st,” Linvill told me via email. “To what degree this spike is organic and what degree it is created by a PR company would take a lot of effort to figure out.”

Along with a general suspicion that Netflix appears to have manipulated the public, the meme has now taken on a second life as a challenge on YouTube, Twitch, and TikTok. (In typical viral-grab fashion, Good Morning America news anchors recently offered their own interpretation of the trend.) On Wednesday, Netflix tweeted a warning to its followers to be careful: “PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE. We don’t know how this started, and we appreciate the love, but Boy and Girl have just one wish for 2019 and it is that you not end up in the hospital due to memes,” the company wrote.

“It’s almost like they made it even more viral,” said Nina Amjadi, a managing director at the digital marketing firm North Kingdom. “They didn’t say stop doing that, they didn’t even really really shut it down. It was more like a, ‘Hey, be careful, but continue doing that, because it’s marketing our movie really well.’”

Not all brands are comfortable having their movies and TV shows connected to an unwieldy news cycle; last year, for instance, Disney surreptitiously deleted a meme that joked that Pinocchio was dead inside. But even if it’s not clear whether Bird Box meme makers and challenge participants enjoyed its film, Netflix appears to be right at home in the world of memes and challenges. Amjadi says that kind of active participation is the new holy grail of digital meme marketing.

“The question is really: How do you rate the success of the film Bird Box?” she said. “Is it the amount of people who saw it, or is it the amount of people who discussed it? After the holidays, people come back to work on January 2. How many people were saying: ‘Oh, did you see Bird Box?’ Did they say: ‘Have you done the Bird Box challenge?’ In any case, it’s mentioning a movie that Netflix is behind, and Sandra Bullock is getting that exposure.” For Netflix, the creation of a massive online movement is worth far more than a few positive reviews.

This piece has been updated to reflect new Nielsen data.

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