Here’s a question: was Wonder Woman 1984 a hit movie? How did it compare to the first Wonder Woman? Or how about Soul, or Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom? Were they hits? How can we tell? In ordinary times we wouldn’t have to ask; we would have box-office figures to go by. Now, the pandemic has hobbled cinema-going, and for most of us the only way to access new movies is via streaming services, which tend to guard their numbers as if they’re nuclear launch codes. WW84, for example, got a limited cinema release but was mainly consumed in the US via HBO Max. How did it do there? All Warners said was that it had “broken records and exceeded our expectations”. If Hollywood is a place where “nobody knows anything”, streaming is a place where we know even less.
So as Netflix unveils its formidable slate of star-studded new movies for 2021, it is hard to know how excited to get. This time next year, it will be just as hard to know how excited we were. In late 2019, Netflix changed the metric by which it gauges its “most-watched original films”. Previously, viewers had to have watched at least 70% of a film for it to count. Now it’s just two minutes. By that measure, its top films of 2020 were Extraction, Spenser Confidential and 6 Underground: all macho, mid-ranking action movies that generated very little wider buzz, and you suspect would have barely dented the box office had they been released in cinemas.
There are other ways to judge whether movies are popular. We have professional critics, of course, who are never, ever wrong. Which is why they can pan movies such as Venom or Transformers and audiences flock to them regardless. Same goes for awards panels (*cough* Green Book). Even review aggregators such as Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic are now open to question, and possibly manipulation. Right after it opened, WW84 had a Rotten Tomatoes score of 90%. A few weeks later, after more reviews had been taken into account, it dipped below the site’s “fresh” threshold of 60%. What happened there?
We still have our excellent individual tastes to go by, and streamers are very good at catering to those (rather than giving out data about their movies, they collect data on us). But one of the great things about box-office figures is that they offer nowhere to hide. There is no disputing a franchise-spawning smash such as The Matrix or Avatar, or disguising a bomb such as Cats. We celebrate those successes and revel in those failures together. It’s Darwinian but democratic. It binds us as a society. With streaming, we might get exactly the same good and bad movies, but served as more of an algorithmically curated mulch of “meh”, which nobody consumes in the same way. That doesn’t bode well for the future of movies as popular culture.