How many people watched Borat Subsequent Moviefilm last weekend? The answer — or rather, non-answer — to that question might be one of the most pivotal of the year for a pandemic-rattled Hollywood.
When a film is released theatrically, everything from its box office sales to the number of screens it appeared on is public information, which allows industry insiders and moviegoers to easily distinguish a bomb from a blockbuster. But that’s not the case when movies are released straight to streamers, as almost every movie has been since the start of the pandemic. Netflix, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video, by contrast, are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to sharing honest information about viewership on their platforms, an opacity that was obnoxious before but could be seriously detrimental to the industry now.
On Tuesday, Amazon announced that the Borat sequel drew “tens of millions” of viewers its opening weekend, a range that suggests everything from “pretty good” to “one of the best openings of all time.” While Variety reported that TV analytics provider Samba TV estimated the film was watched by a more modest 1.6 million households, an Amazon spokeswoman further muddied the waters by saying that “the figure is incorrect” — while still declining to provide their own numbers.
The film industry has taken a big (and in some areas, potentially fatal) blow from the pandemic. But Amazon’s decision to dance around the exact figures for Borat 2 only adds to the damage, because, as industry veteran Matthew Belloni pointed out on Twitter, those numbers might have helped “convince Hollywood it can successfully ‘open’ a big, broad movie.”
Though digital box office revenue has trended down since the start of the pandemic, part of that is because of the quality of movies that have been sent straight to streamers, Bloomberg‘s Lucas Shaw has argued. Most studios are still clinging to their No Time to Dies, waiting for a time when they can make money again with a traditional theatrical release. Amazon’s Borat 2 likely would have been a box office hit in Normal Times, too (the 2006 original broke box office records), and could have served as a bellwether for other studios about the state of the industry and willingness of audiences to pay for those “big, broad” movies.
There are understandable incentives for the big streamers to keep their performance numbers close to the chest. But these are exceptional times, and companies ought to face pressure to “agree on what metrics would be used” to report viewership, and “provide the information publicly,” as CNBC has argued. Transparency has never been more important — or more vital to the survival of the industry. Jeva Lange