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The World’s a Little Blurry is the latest documentary to hit screens from Apple, following the rise of Billie Eilish with lo-fi camera footage showing a candid vulnerability we can all relate to. It recently debuted on Apple TV Plus, and according to Deadline has quickly become the “biggest hit title for young adult audiences that Apple has had so far across its slate of films and TV series,”. The documentary has already engaged a “record-breaking 33 percent new viewers to the service.”

Which as Julia Alexander says in her article for theverge sounds impressive but doesn’t give us much context.

Without knowing exactly how many existing subscribers there were for Apple TV Plus or how many of the new sign-ups were just trialing we can’t make any sort of informed judgment. Apple can throw around phrases like “biggest hit” and “record-breaking” until the cows come home, but what is the reality? How many people actually watched Billie Eilish: The World’s a Little Blurry and how do the numbers compare to other releases?

The World’s a Little Blurry
The World’s a Little Blurry. Image credit: newsweek.com

The problem is without the details it could be as many as 10 million people or a rather more conservative 10,000 people and we are just left to guess. Julia herself was one of them but as she says the disparity between the figures is pretty important. 

Once upon a time with a traditional theatre release or network debut, we had tangible data to review. Our pre-streaming days came with weekly box office statistics and we had resources such as the Nielsen breakdowns to give us some real insight into how a show or movie was performing. Streaming is convenient and something that most of us love to indulge in but it has left us with very little public insight to go on.

And in an increasingly isolated world at the hands of the recent pandemic, streaming services are becoming more viable than ever so Apple is not the only one who no longer has to divulge all the details. More premieres are moving to streaming-platforms and away from the theaters. This makes it increasingly difficult to determine an official box-office hit. For an idea of what we are left to judge with here are some hand-picked examples in the past few months;

  • Upon its debuting weekend, the “most-watched film across all acquired and Hulu Original films” was Hulu’s Happiest Season. But, what does that mean without context?
  • The above statement came just after Hulu’s Run was dubbed the “most-watched film ever on Hulu during its opening weekend.”
  • WarnerMedia executive Andy Forssell says The Little Things “quickly shot up to number one” amid its opening weekend on HBO Max.

So you can see the companies are opting to do away with the numbers altogether. It is a clever strategy in terms of marketing, but how can we tell if they are pushing a flop or not? If they are simply picking them at will we are left somewhat in the dark. 

If a release does astoundingly well during its opening weekend there is plenty of reason to shout about it and it is likely to boost numbers further. Disney and Netflix regularly let us know as do many video game publishers employ a similar numbers-boasting method. But, Netflix is a little more black and white. For example, they stated that 99 million households watched at least two minutes of Extraction. The data was collected during the first four weeks of its release. However, how many watched more than five, or the whole thing in its entirety? With streaming services, it all boils down to viewership. But you can see it is easy to cherry-pick the numbers to your advantage and present an entirely different perspective on what is truly going on. Some of those viewers may have wound up disinterested after 10 minutes of Extraction and watched The Witcher for the umpteenth time instead. So whether it is carefully considered number crunching or casual catch-all statements streaming hits is a tricky business to clear up.

The streaming companies are not phased with 203 million subscribers growing daily Netflix is unlikely to change its strategies or become more transparent. Disney Plus, Hulu, HBO Max, and Peacock also all have exponential growth if their quarterly earnings are anything to go on. Apple is a little more guarded with their subscriber figures for Apple TV Plus. Some third-party analyst firms insist they are mostly free trial customers but again the boasting probably won’t stop.

Granted, your typical box office report doesn’t give any indication of quality. Instead, it tracks and even starts trends and is more akin to a global cultural event really. Todd Boyd disclosed to NPR, “they’re like some huge event that for many people is an option for them to say that ‘I participated in something that a lot of other people also participated in,’. As a professor of popular culture at the University of Southern California he is convinced it is more about being able to say you are part of a group. He may be right, when Avengers: Endgame debuted people rallied to boost the daily box office numbers. So in a culturally, socially biased world, even the box-office can’t be trusted.

Ted Sarandos, the CEO of Netflix, told analysts last year that the company is producing billion-dollar movie equivalents. Films such as Star Wars and the Fast and Furious, along with other Marvel and DC titles the company has managed to procure are feature-length big-budget films equating to traditional billion-dollar blockbusters. They are the same cultural experience, with millions of worldwide viewers who likely watched the entire thing and no different to a traditional theatre release experience. Just experienced from the comfort of your own home. As Bilge Ebiri wrote at Vulture, having public data about people who watched an entire movie on Netflix or Hulu or HBO Max “tells us not just whether a movie or show made it to the right people, but also whether those people stuck with it or not — maybe even, gasp, enjoyed it.”

The reality of future theatre releases is currently hanging in the balance with streaming far more likely to prevail. This means the problems are likely to continue and that the data will become even less apparent. viewing experiences will ultimately become less of a shared experience. As many of us enjoy the social element, following trends and being able to discuss what we and everyone else is watching, being able to determine what is worth a watch is important to us. For now, we are navigating in the dark and it doesn’t look like it will change anytime soon.

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