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Don’t look now but Netflix won 2018’s holiday week–and showed how it could win the streaming wars

Bird Box, Bandersnatch, and how Netflix won the end of 2018 and spelled trouble for the rest of Hollywood in the year ahead.

Don’t look now but Netflix won 2018’s holiday week–and showed how it could win the streaming wars
[Photo: courtesy of Netflix]

If you’re one of those people who believe that Netflix will swallow all of entertainment and traditional Hollywood is incapable of stopping it, the streaming giant gave you one helluva end-of-year present to show how you how right you are.

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The last week of the year is traditionally among the sleepiest on television. There are no new shows, as the TV industry cedes space for moviegoing and sports programming. Perhaps that made sense for 70 years but no more.

Netflix has tried to alleviate the holiday doldrums for several years now, releasing new series and movies in late December. But never before with quite this much brio or apparent success.

Let’s start with The Christmas Chronicles, starring Kurt Russell as Santa, which came out all the way back on Thanksgiving Day. Christmas movies have become televised wallpaper, airing nonstop on places like the Hallmark Channel and generally adhering so closely to one of three holiday plots that they’re virtually indistinguishable.

Within that context, it’s impressive then that Christmas Chronicles has appeared to break through, whether through its stunt casting of Russell, who’s been on our screens for an astonishing 55 years, or in its slight subversion of Christmas tropes by casting them within a car-theft caper. (Some have speculated that the movie has succeeded because it also operates as MAGA Santa: Russell needs his magical red hat to create Christmas cheer and deliver all the presents.)

Netflix chief creative officer Ted Sarandos told investors that the movie garnered 20 million streams in its first week, making it the equivalent of a $200 million theatrical opening. More on this in a moment, but this is almost certainly a pile of horse apples. Or a case of comparing horse apples to holiday oranges. By contrast, The Grinch, the most successful holiday-themed movie since its live-action forerunner, 2000’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, made $88 million in its first week in theaters.

Regardless, Christmas Chronicles continued to generate conversation into the holiday week (the only real nebulous anecdotal metric one can use to discern whether a Netflix show has made a dent) and for that it deserves kudos.

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But that was merely an appetizer for the movie–and head-scratching stat–that should have shook Hollywood to its core and led them to hustle back from Aspen and St. Barts and get to work. We’re talking about Bird Box.

At first blush, this statistic was confusing (and curiously timed given that it came at the end of a week of internet conversation about how many internet metrics are fake). Things have been so poisoned that we no longer can assume the meaning of the word “watch,” given that it’s been defined down to include one-second views.

Miraculously, Netflix responded to an inquiry about the speculation:

Let’s leave aside for a moment that caveat that the 70% completion standard applies only to Bird Box, a thinking-face emoji if ever there was one. (So how long did those 20 million people stick with The Christmas Chronicles? We’ll likely never know!) Let’s also ignore some of the more ham-fisted attempts to compare Bird Box to movies in theaters. What matters is that no one in TV is sniffing anything remotely like 45 million viewers in 7 days for a single movie. Especially in the depths of December.

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But there’s more! Netflix dropped Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on December 28, an interactive movie for adults that lets viewers choose their own adventure through the latest in the dystopian tech universe created by Charlie Brooker. According to Variety, the film, which has five possible endings but reputedly one trillion potential permutations, can be viewed in as little as 40 minutes but the average viewing time has been 90 minutes.

For kids and their parents, the New Year’s Eve Countdown Collection consists of 14 ways to ring in the new year with the help of Boss Baby or Fuller House or other Netflix kids shows. Families don’t have to wait until midnight to have a celebration or feel left out of Ryan Seacrest, Steve Harvey, or Anderson Cooper ushering in 2019.

I haven’t even mentioned the Taylor Swift concert film, which debuted on Netflix on New Year’s Eve, or any of the other Netflix shows, specials, and movies that have dropped recently and generated a fair amount of buzz, from Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway show to holiday versions of Nailed It and Great British Baking Show.

What’s remarkable is that this is the sixth year (!) Netflix has offered these on-demand New Year’s countdowns, and the company claims that its countdowns average 5 million views annually. It’s released event programming for holiday consumption for at least the last few years. By holiday 2018, this isn’t a stealth move, and this was the year that the rest of Hollywood and even its digital counterparts acknowledged Netflix as its rival to be vanquished.

Yet where are they?

Have the traditional networks done anything in the last week that counts as an event? How about the premium cable folks like HBO? Disney is worried about Mary Poppins Returns in theaters and WarnerMedia has Aquaman. WarnerMedia’s HBO is promoting True Detective season three, which comes out on January 13, and Game of Thrones, which returns in April! Amazon is pushing season two of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which came out almost four weeks ago, and Hulu is leading with the ability to watch live TV to see college football bowl games. This is the old playbook.

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This is not a good sign for the folks who have designs on thwarting Netflix in the years ahead. Because here’s the thing: The consensus seems to be that Bird Box is a not very good movie. Bandersnatch is more interesting as a gaming-style experiment than it is compelling entertainment. Imagine if this stuff was actually good! What kind of numbers would they draw then? How strong would the engagement be?

BTIG analyst Rich Greenfield pointed out that Netflix has topped the Apple App Store download lists this holiday season, a spot usually reserved for Instagram or Facebook.

I would not be surprised to see Netflix beat subscriber growth estimates when it releases earnings on January 17 and for it to cite some or all of its holiday onslaught as a central element in its successful fourth quarter.

What if Netflix could keep up this brilliant counterprogramming and inventive experimentation not only for the holiday season but for every season? They could have a truly insurmountable lead before any of its would-be killers even launch.

Because if you’re playing on an empty field–as Netflix seems to be–it’s rather easy to score.

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