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Netflix versus Crazy Rich Asians: What Else Does Netflix “80 Million Customer Accounts” Tell Us?

(For Part I of this series on Netflix versus Crazy Rich Asians, click here.)

If you can’t tell by my article last week, I had a lot of fun with my comparison between Netflix romantic comedies and Crazy Rich Asians. Unfortunately, I had a lot of ideas for that article that hit the cutting room floor. 

Some because they were too speculative, some to save room, and some to make a tighter narrative. (I had tried a long shot publication at a bigger outlet.) And some because I couldn’t prove them. So for a respected publication, it didn’t make sense.

But this is my website. I’m free to make all the speculation and ask all the tough questions I want to here. Since Netflix only provided me one number—80 million customer accounts watched an original romantic comedy the last summer—well, I want to ask that number a lot of questions. I want to interrogate that number to within an inch of its life. So that’s what I’m doing today. Asking—and answering—all the other questions inspired by this comparison.

What other “circumstantial” evidence did you leave out?

A few pieces, but one major one. Essentially, the major studios stopped making romantic comedies for two reasons. First, they don’t have a high enough “ceiling” in that they don’t ever tend to have billion dollar movies. Second, and crucial for our math, is that they also don’t tend to perform well overseas. This applies generally to all comedies. Comedy is a local phenomena so it’s rare for comedy films to do well overseas unless they are very, very broad. (Some of the broad sitcoms like The Big Bang Theory or Simpsons do travel. Others, I’ve heard, don’t.)

We’re seeing this right now. Aquaman is the number one movie in the world…and it didn’t open in America. Crazy Rich Asians, meanwhile, flopped in China. To show this effect, here’s some data. For my series on Disney’s Lucasfilm acquisition, I made a data set of 50 “franchise” movies. These provide a good set of comps for comic book movies and their ilk. As you can see, franchises now see 63% of the total box office come from overseas (and even this still includes a lot of old Star Wars and Indiana Jones data.)

Blockbuster TableNow compare that to romantic comedies. I don’t have as large a list, so I pulled some sample romantic comedies. The trend is clear…

RomCom US Inter Splits

Four recent romantic comedies that did “well”, had over 70% of their box office come from the US market. Crazy Rich Asians, notably, only had 22% of its total box office come from overseas. Compare that to massive blockbusters like Avengers or Pacific Rim, where over 66% or 75% of their box office came from overseas.

This has implications for Netflix. Mainly, three facts collide that can’t all be true simultaneously: 

– Netflix had 80 million customer accounts watch an original romantic comedy last summer.

There are 60 million US customer accounts. (Rounded up slightly.)

– US romantic comedies tend to have 60-40 splits in US to international viewing, sometimes as high as 70-30.

This puts us in an awkward place when it comes to the Netflix number. Based off Crazy Rich Asians and other romantic comedies, I could easily assume 60% of the viewership was US based. That leads to some really tricky “consultant math”. Go with me on these assumptions:

– Assume 60% to 40% domestic to foreign split on Netflix romantic comedies

– Assume 1.4 “viewers” for every Netflix customer account.

Black Panther sold 76 million tickets in the United States.

– Assume 15% rewatch rate for Black Panther. 

Here’s those assumptions, now it table form:

Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 3.41.39 PM

Now, even worse than Netflix claiming it beat Crazy Rich Asians, if we take some conservative assumptions, more people watched a Netflix romantic comedy than the biggest movie in the US last year (Black Panther). Do you honestly believe that?

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Did More People Watch Crazy Rich Asians or a Netflix Rom-Com Last Summer?

The romantic comedy is dead. The highest grossing romantic comedy this year is Crazy Rich Asians, which at $174 million in domestic box office pales in comparison to behemoths like Black Panther ($700 million domestic box office), Avengers: Infinity Wars ($678 million), Incredibles 2 ($608 million) and Jurassica World: Fallen Kingdom ($416 million). Who shall return the romantic comedy to glory?

Netflix. Because of course Netflix.

This summer, Netflix released a series of romantic comedies it dubbed, “the summer of love”. In a letter to shareholders, Netflix celebrated their success. Here’s Vox writing about a particular fact Netflix provided:

This summer, Netflix invested in resurrecting the mid-budget romantic comedy, acquiring movies like Set It Up and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before for what the streaming service branded as its “Summer of Love.” And now, it’s looking like the gamble paid off: Variety reports that more than 80 million subscribers watched one of the 11 rom-coms on the Summer of Love slate, according to Netflix’s quarterly earnings report.

Vox wasn’t alone in singing Netflix’s praises. They were joined by Variety, Screen Rant, The Ringer and others to write an article on Netflix’ new found success in romantic comedy. All using one “datecdote”, a term I coined yesterday.

In our hurry to constantly keep up with the news, we let little tidbits like Netflix’s above fact wash over us and move on to the next story. So let’s pause and reflect on the fact Netflix revealed. Does this fact seem true? Since Netflix didn’t provide a comparison, I will:

Did more people around the globe watch Crazy Rich Asians or a Netflix Romantic Comedy last summer?

It’s a tough question, isn’t it? If you answer that more people saw a Netflix romantic comedy, then why did the media spend so much time on the phenomena of Crazy Rich Asians? But if you think more people saw Crazy Rich Asians, then how can Netflix numbers possibly be true?

Streaming video companies, like Netflix, have a lot of data, a lot of ways they can manipulate that data, and, most crucially, a lot of data they just don’t give the press. But we can learn a lot about how movies are distributed and judged in today’s media landscape by trying to answer that tough question with the data and facts we do have.

So let’s do our best to get some answers.

How Many People Watched a Netflix Romantic Comedy?

On the surface, this is fairly straight forward. Netflix in their letter to shareholders—a document submitted to the SEC, so a legally-binding, carefully vetted document—used this phrase:

More than 80 million accounts have watched one or more of the Summer of Love films globally.

Netflix chose two words very carefully in the above sentence. First is “accounts”. Not “profiles” or “viewers” but accounts, since this is the only unit of measurement Netflix knows for sure. They know that because they have one account per credit card. I’ve seen this called “users” or “customers” at other companies. 

By definition, this is the floor for the actual number of people who watched a romantic comedy on Netflix. If two people watched a film together, well they still only count as one “account”. If two different profiles under the same account watched, they would still probably count as one. (It’s unclear.) If someone shares their password with someone else, but they use the same profile, that still counts as one view.

If account is a precise definition, “watched” is a term so loose that it could mean anything. For instance, Netflix could count as “watched”, a person who only watches ten minutes of a film and turns it off. They could only count as “watched” people who watch greater than 80% of a film, either by run time or who watched past the 80% point in the film. We just don’t know.

What we don’t know dwarfs what we little we do know. We don’t know how many total hours of romantic comedies were viewed. (Netflix, interestingly, loves to cite this number to describe how popular their platform is, but choose not to provide that fact here. For example, they released earlier this year that they had 350 million hours viewed in one day in January.) We don’t know where people watched—this is a “global” number—or even when. While presumably over the summer, it likely wasn’t a hard three month window.

How Many People Watched Crazy Rich Asians?

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Most Important Story of the Week and Other Good Reads – 27 July 2018

So this post was supposed to go up last Friday, like usual. Then all that stuff happened. All of it with Les Moonves. So I took the weekend to think about it, waited to read some takes, and then decided how I felt about it.

It isn’t the most important story of the week…though it could be. So enjoy the “Most Important Story” of last week, two days into this week, with some other good reads.

Most Important Story of the Week: MAUs, user growth and metrics impact Social Media

I write a lot of “zero drafts” of post ideas, many of which don’t come together into a coherent whole. The ones that do become drafts, and then I try to get them scheduled on the calendar. The problem is that bigger articles like my series on Lucasfilm and M&A in media and entertainment can suck up a ton of time and posting space. So I don’t finish those other articles.

All of which is to say I have a few great ideas on metrics and how we measure the consumers of digital video on the internet. Posts that have been written and rewritten, but not published yet on this site. So I feel like I’ve told you, the reader, those ideas, but I haven’t.

I have a lot of ideas on metrics, especially those ideas on video and social media viewing, but I haven’t told you them yet. And this little post isn’t enough to do that.

So the news before Les Moonves was dominated by the Facebook stock dive, and some people saw the Twitter stock decline too. I’d also pair them with the ongoing user growth struggles of SnapChat. To put those two stories in context, I should really post my larger thoughts on metrics and how unreliable they are.

The media may finally be tamping the breaks on the metrics reported by large social media companies. This is a great thing. As long as we don’t have consistent ways to measure user behavior (do we care about members? Active users? Subscribers?), then a lot of Wall Street, Silicon Valley and Hollywood will be seduced by misleading press releases and public comments into thinking social media is doing better than it really is. This can really easily lead to bad decision-making.

Do I think big social media companies are disappearing? Heavens no. But this may be the beginning of the hype getting closer to the reality.

Other Contenders for Most Important Story: The Three Firings Related to “Me Too” and Behavior

If I had to put the three firings in order, I would do it like this: Les Moonves, Amy Powell and then James Gunn, with about ten five slots between the second and third entry. The only reason any creator ever gets a high ranking is when they are in charge of a billion dollar movie franchise, which Gunn is. If the cast decides not to do Guardians 3 without Gunn (a maybe), then that’s important.

But Powell and Moonves are obviously bigger stories. The only reason they aren’t more important than the stories above is that they are unsettled. Moonves has an investigation to go and Powell is suing Paramount. I want to see how those play out before I make the call on most important event.

Good Read – App Game Giants Crushing Independent Games

This Engadget article by Jessica Condit is just fabulous journalism. A great personal story about how a clever and fun looking game hasn’t even launched but has already been ripped off. Reading to the end I think capture the challenge of this from a regulatory perspective: there aren’t good solutions to this injustice (besides buying the games of indie developers and not paying for ripoffs). If you allow game designers to own in-game elements, arguably first person shooters and platformers would be owned by Nintendo or EA. That would make a less rich gaming landscape.

Any business or strategy implications? Maybe for Apple and Google and other app websites. The key should be customer experience and my gut is that as large as some of the casual gaming companies, they don’t generate as much value as you would hope.

Good Read – On the battle between Iger and Roberts (with Murdoch as the prize)

Yes, the titanic battle between entertainment and distribution giants will probably end sometime this year, but it will be fun to watch it play out. This Variety article has the best description of the players involved. In all, I found Roberts came across the least flattering. The descriptions of him focusing on making the deal but avoiding the details just seemed…odd. That said, it’s hard to argue against his deal-making except for the huge debt load his firm would own if it wins the 21st Century Fox deal. Also, the idea that Disney could walk away if necessary is instructive.

(Though I will mention, this really extended description of the battle between the two waited until the very end to describe the supposed enmity between Iger and Roberts.)

Update to an Old Idea

A few updates back, I called out the “six month summary” of the 2018 theatrical box office as the most important story of the week. That analysis came from Variety, but The Hollywood Reporter has followed up with their own survey with a few unique insights. The headline is that the non-Disney/Universal studios are avoiding releasing in the summer months because of the Disney behemoth. As a result, studios try to launch summer blockbusters year round, even as that strategy gets increasingly crowded. They also have a nice chart on the “seven major studios”, which shows the incredible concentration if Disney or Comcast successfully acquires 21st Century Fox. (But the chart numbers are for summer.)