Brow Beat

Bird Box Is a Triumph of Netflix’s Data-Driven Content Machine

A woman carries a small girl through the forest as a young boy walks alongside them. They are all blindfolded.
Sandra Bullock in Bird Box.
Netflix

Bird Box is not a particularly good movie. But with a major star, a holiday release, and an apocalyptic plot that could be described as a poor man’s A Quiet Place, it doesn’t need to be. Based on Josh Malerman’s novel of the same name, Netflix’s new (apparent) hit horror movie shows the advantages of its data-driven programming, and the formula that led to its success can tell us something about the information that drives the streaming service’s creative decisions.

Netflix has said that Bird Box had the most successful first week of any of its films.

Set in an apocalyptic world in which people become instantly suicidal if they catch a glimpse of a mysterious, never-seen presence, the film follows Malorie (Sandra Bullock), a cold and somewhat detached woman who knows how to handle a gun. In recent years, actresses have questioned the idea of the “strong female character,” instead advocating for layered roles where strength does not come at the cost of vulnerability. Netflix’s solution is to make Malorie, who was described in the book as young, both a kick-ass heroine and a 50-something, reluctantly pregnant woman whose main emotional arc is learning how to be maternal as she becomes the mother of two children, one of whom is quasi-adopted.

Malorie finds refuge in a large craftsman house with a group of survivors composed of every type of person Hollywood would have you believe there isn’t an audience for: a Latinx female police officer (Rosa Salazar), a plus-size woman (Danielle Macdonald), another woman over 50 (an underused Jacki Weaver), a gay Asian man (BD Wong), two black men (Trevante Rhodes and Lil Rel), and two white men for good measure (John Malkovich and Machine Gun Kelly). This is an expansion of the group of escapees in the book, and due to the group’s diversity, characters of color or women are often the ones acting heroically, giving the minorities groups represented a consistent opportunity to be a vital part of the narrative.

At 28, Rhodes is almost half Bullock’s age, a reversal of the usual age difference between big-screen love interests. But this gap between the characters is barely addressed, and the pairing feels natural. As the film jumps ahead in time, Tom is shown to be the more loving parent out of the two, showing the type of gentle and engaged man—and black man in particular—rarely shown on-screen. The film also has two love scenes, both of which are between interracial couples, yet these differences are never addressed in the narrative. When Malorie and her children finally arrive at the sanctuary, they discover it is a school for the blind, and many of its inhabitants are blind, making them immune to the detrimental effects of monster that has wiped out the society around them.

Netflix is a company driven by data, even though for the most part it keeps that data shrouded in secrecy. But looking at some of the streaming service’s most-touted titles—which should logically also be its most popular—suggests that a diverse cast yields a diverse audience. Though Netflix does not release its numbers, the success of Orange Is The New Black, Black Mirror, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and now Bird Box contradicts Hollywood’s history of insisting that there is not an audience for these stories. Bird Box may not be a perfect film, but it works because Netflix is delivering to an audience that their data, in defiance of conventional wisdom, has told them exists. They are delivering to an audience who wants to see themselves surviving the apocalypse, that wants to see relationships they recognize, and that wants to see heroes who look like them. Bird Box may not deliver much else, but it certainly delivers that.