At first glance, they have little to nothing in common: One is a horror movie starring Sandra Bullock as a mother fighting to save her children in a post-apocalyptic world where blindfolds and chirpy birds are the only things standing between them and death by suicide-inducing creatures; the other is Blake Lively and Anna Kendrick’s noir femme fatale thriller with a twist; the third is a World War II drama with a surprising love story between a biracial German girl and a young Nazi. But Bird Box, A Simple Favor, and Where Hands Touch all went viral in the same two-week span, giving us a glimpse at changing viewing habits, and the way a film’s streaming debut can either be a blessing or a curse.
Take Bird Box. The Netflix film directed by Susanne Bier went live on December 21, the Friday before Christmas, to near-instant viral success. Despite mixed to negative critical reviews, Twitter was flooded with memes inspired by the movie’s genius or silly premise (depending on how you look at it), which in turn caused more people to watch, if only to be in the know. In an unprecedented move, Netflix even released viewing statistics, claiming that more than 45 million accounts streamed Bird Box in its first week. Bird Box-inspired challenges — which require people to perform normal tasks blindfolded, like cutting an onion — got so bad that the streaming giant had to intervene, cautioning viewers not to harm themselves.
Still, though everyone from Chrissy Teigen to Kim Kardashian weighed in, such internet frenzy isn’t all that uncommon for a Netflix original. Movies like Set It Up, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, not to mention shows like Stranger Things, and 13 Reasons Why have all sparked similar phenomena.
As Alyssa Bereznak wrote over at The Ringer, “for Netflix, the creation of a massive online movement is worth far more than a few positive reviews.”
What’s interesting is that the viewing behavior popularized by Netflix — including the ability to pause, take screenshots, cut clips, and share in a communal viewing experience online — has filtered through to the way we experience theatrically released features once they too, become available to stream.
That much was obvious over New Year’s weekend, when Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor hit iTunes. Blake Lively and her fabulous suits were all over my timeline as both casual moviegoers and film critics who had missed the film during its September theatrical run discovered it together.
I watched A Simple Favor for the first time last night and now I'm about to put it on again right now. Because it's great. I'm mad I didn't get to it sooner. Shoutout to @paulfeig for consistently making some of my favorite things (and for riding for suits SO hard) pic.twitter.com/RZC7uHRvuM— alanna bennett (@AlannaBennett) December 28, 2018
A Simple Favor always had the potential to be big. Lively’s startling and unexpected performance made waves among critics who had discounted her for so long, and there was even some speculation that she might be nominated for an Oscar come January. But the film only grossed $53,548,586 domestically, less than half of the $169,106,725 that Bridesmaids, Feig’s runaway female-driven comedy success, brought in in 2011. Gone Girl, the film A Simple Favor so expertly pokes fun at, grossed $167,767,189 in 2014.
For A Simple Favor, streaming is a godsend. It’s the kind of film that will, in all likelihood, grow in popularity as more and more people tune in in the coming weeks, and might even go on to be considered a cult classic.
Not so for When Hands Touch, Amma Asante’s controversial World War II film starring Amandla Stenberg as Leyna, a biracial German teenager who falls in love with Lutz (George MacKay), the son of a Nazi official and member of the Hitler Youth. The film had a bout of notoriety back in September when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The response was swift and visceral: audiences and critics alike objected to what they perceived as the film’s problematic depiction of race, and its perceived redeeming narrative around Nazi Germany.
That is, until Wednesday, when Asante tweeted that the film was available to stream online. In a matter of hours, clips from the movie were being shared and mocked by Film and Stan Twitter — a select group of movie aficionados and critics who are the source of many viral film moments — after Haaniyah Angus' live-tweeting of the film went viral.
Things only escalated after people started noticing that Asante was reportedly blocking users who criticized the film on Twitter. If Asante was in fact being bullied, that is indefensible – but the way that the majority of viewers engaged with the film mirrored the Bird Box memes that many of them were sharing mere weeks before.
Columnist Clarkisha Kent summed up the phenomenon best with her tweet, which read: “If y’all think we’re doing too much with “Where Hands Touch”, can you even imagine what we WOULD have done if Twitter was around during the release of Neo Ned and Monster’s Ball asjfkkdSHDKK LOL” (Though Monster’s Ball was critically lauded at the time of its release in 2001 — Halle Berry took home the Oscar for Best Actress in a historic moment — it has since been slammed for its stereotypical depiction of Black women’s sexuality. 2005’s Neo Ned, on the other hand, stars Jeremy Renner as a racist mental patient who falls in love with a Black woman who believes she’s possessed by the spirit of Adolf Hitler, played by Gabrielle Union, which...should speak for itself.)
A film’s shelf life is no longer restricted to its theatrical run, awards season, or a brief window of press promotion. As The Ringer pointed out, the “Bird Box Effect,” is likely the future of film marketing. But if a film can enjoy a second wind by streaming to audiences at home, so too can the backlash against it. On the one hand, overall, it feels like a good thing. Memes have a democratizing effect on certain films that might otherwise feel inaccessible to most viewers, and give an entry point into the critical discussion to those who are too often excluded. On the other hand, the internet is fickle. What starts out as the best, funniest trend can just as easily morph into a multi-headed Hydra in an instant. The way we watch and discuss movies has been fundamentally altered — but whether it’s for better or for worse depends on which side of the blindfold you’re on.