Studio movie premieres at home deemed a success, but... how do we know?
There's no such thing as an online box office for new releases - and it probably should be
The global home entertainment market is going through a transition that will bring about more changes in five years than what we witnessed during the last fifteen years combined. That much is clear. What is not so clear is whether the new state of that market will be assessed in the same way, whether it actually should or whether different metrics are needed, better suited to the online future entertainment services are moving towards. Whatever the case, today's streaming giants do not seem eager to help with that.
Take the box office, for instance. It's been the definitive metric of a movie's success in theaters, tracking tickets sold across the world for more than three decades now. Regardless of what additional revenue a movie would bring a studio after its theatrical release, the interest consumers expressed in watching it during that time has been an important way of assessing its success or failure (irrespective of its quality). One would have thought that in the new entertainment reality, where many blockbuster films premiere through subscription services, an online box office of sorts would be a useful equivalent and that movie studios would be interested in being a part of such a process.
That's clearly not the case, though, with Netflix, Disney, Warner or any other of the companies offering subscription services right now. In fact, quite the opposite is true: none of those choose to disclose numbers regarding e.g. unique viewers or unique times of playback of any one movie that premiered through their platforms. Disney didn't when it released Hamilton or Mulan in 2020, didn't when it released Raya and the Last Dragon this past weekend, Warner didn't when they released Wonder Woman 1984 in December, Netflix didn't when they released Roma or The Irish or Extraction or The Old Guard... the list is long.
The fact of the matter is this: it's way more difficult to assess the number of people who watched a movie online than in theatres. For traditional box office movies, it's always been "one ticket, one person": the assumption that for x tickets the same number of people watched that film. The home viewing situation is different. There might be anywhere between one to four or five or seven people sitting in front of a TV watching a Disney movie and Disney would still have to count that as one viewing, for instance. Two people sharing a laptop or large tablet screen, same thing. It is, in other words, complicated.
But the reluctance these companies show in publicizing hard numbers about any home film premiere goes deeper than that. Since there's no independent source of verifying figures - that data is stored on the companies' servers - it's all about controlling the narrative of a movie's relative success or failure. Unique viewings of a movie per service account, for instance, would not be so hard to report (even if they were not 100% accurate). Instead, we get statements like "a record-breaking debut for a non-fiction film" or "our most-watched thriller ever on its opening weekend". The absence of confirmable data even allows for convenient manipulation: the way Netflix, for instance, is tallying viewings of a film - one only has to watch 2 minutes (!) of it in order to be counted as viewed - is by now infamous.
What we end up with, then, is a paradox: studios themselves have more data than ever on any movie they release through their respective streaming platforms, but they do not disclose any of that data to the public or - even worse - they cherrypick the stats and numbers they publish in order to frame those however they see fit. This is not the kind of transparency the media and consumers need in order to inform and stay informed respectively. Press releases of the "most-watched film in its genre in February" type are pointless or even misleading since there's no way to put them into any specific context.
There is no legal way to make these companies disclose numbers, of course, since usage data they own is rightfully publicized at their discretion. So participation in an "online box office" is pretty much up to them. But it's up to the media and the public to take any of their statements seriously or not, too, when these companies try to create buzz around their content with no data backing their claims. It's a two-way street, that. No?