What made Bird Box so popular?

Photo by Saeed Adyani/Netflix

If you were on social media in the past two weeks, there’s a good chance you saw a post about Bird Box, the Netflix original movie that’s become the company’s most successful release to date.

The thriller tells the story of a post-apocalyptic world in which a mysterious presence, once seen, drives most of society to commit suicide. So, the lead character, Malorie (played by Sandra Bullock), blindfolds herself and her two children, and leads them on a perilous journey in search of safety.

Bird Box has been nearly uniformly panned by critics, including those at Variety, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone. And yet, it had notched more views (45 million) in the first week after its release than any other Netflix original movie.

How did a critical bust become such a streaming success? Yakov Bart, an associate professor of marketing at Northeastern, said the answer is that the movie was incredibly meme-able.  

“This movie was rife with moments that were easy to make into memes,” Bart said. Memes are pieces of information that are widely shared, often on social media.

Still frames from the movie with humorous captions, separated from the context of a subpar film, circulated widely and quickly on Twitter and Instagram, likely prompting people to watch the movie just to see what all the fuss was about, Bart said.

“People ended up watching the movie not because they were interested in it, but because they wanted to be part of the conversation,” he said. (At least one News@Northeastern writer can attest that his theory is true.)

The other key ingredient to Bird Box’s viral success, Bart said, is the release date. It came out on Dec. 21, just before many people kicked off their winter holidays. Bird Box didn’t have to be especially good cinema to inspire the hype online; it just had to be available at a time when people were looking for something to watch, and easily distributed in 140 characters.

“People had time and were interested in sharing something with friends,” he said. “And they were able to do so without spoiling the experience for other people.”

But even for those who missed the hype and watched it without any expectations, Bird Box represents a new kind of filmmaking.

Tim Ouillette, who teaches film students at Northeastern, was one such viewer.

“I thought it was fantastic,” he said. “Every scene ended with a new question for the audience. I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.”

Bird Box and its booking of big-name celebrities like Bullock, isn’t a bellwether of what’s to come in film, it’s a product of what’s already happening, Ouillette said.  

“Writers, cinematographers, everyone is gravitating toward Netflix,” he said. “This idea that Netflix is just an indie company is no longer true.”

And, given the movie’s success, “I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Bird Box 2, or a Bird Box franchise coming out of this,” he said.