Have you seen Bird Box, the psychological horror film on Netflix? Netflix says there's a pretty good chance that you have.

In the first seven days alone since the film was released, Netflix says that more than 45 million accounts have watched it. 

That's a truly amazing number: actually, 45,037,125 as of December 28, according to a Netflix tweet: the "best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film!"

Personally I'm not one of those people--or perhaps I should say, "accounts." I haven't seen the Sandra Bullock-led movie. But now some people are questioning whether that number could possibly be true.

Let's just say they're having a hard time "suspending their disbelief," as they say in film and literature classes.

Sandra Gonzalez of CNN wrote:

"It's an impressive figure, certainly, but one that also requires a "Star Wars" scroll-worth of disclaimers, qualifiers and questions -- several of them immediately posed by journalists and TV industry rivals, who have been frustrated by the streaming giant's unwillingness to divulge such information."

For one thing, the number isn't verified by any other source. It's not as if Nielsen, or--I don't know--the accounting firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers triple-checked the numbers, like in the Oscars. 

As Kelly Kahl, president of CBS Entertainment apparently put it: "independently verified by ... uh, Netflix."

I'd hope we can assume there's a good faith basis for saying 45 million, but there aren't any more details offered. We don't know if an "account" is defined as having watched Bird Box if, for example, somebody autoplays it by accident and stops after five seconds. 

(Update: Netflix apparently told The Verge that they only counted an account as viewing Bird Box "once a view surpasses 70 percent of the total running time (including credits)." So that's a bit more specific and impressive.)

Also, Netflix pointed out that the number of people watching could be significantly higher, as many people watch shows together. 

Netflix has about 137 million subscribers worldwide (as of October), about 57 percent of them in the United States. So, the 45 million number seems plausible anyway, especially if Netflix has been pushing it hard to viewers around the world.

For people like you and me, maybe it's not that big a deal whether Netflix (and its streaming competitors) report numbers like this under the rosiest possible scenarios. 

It's really just marketing -- perhaps impacting our split-second decision to give the movie a try, or even to subscribe to Netflix in the first place.

For the entertainment industry however, it's a bigger issue. Just how do you translate what 45 million Netflix viewers means, compared to the number of people who might go see a movie in a theater, for example?

And if you're Sandra Bullock or Bird Box director Susanne Bier, how do you use that number the next time you're negotiating a deal with Netflix or any other producer?

Adding to the confusion is that it's really rare for Netflix to release data like this to begin with, although they're doing it more often lately -- for example volunteering that 20 million subscribers watched the Kurt Russell Netflix film, The Christmas Chronicles, in its first week.

So: 45 million. 20 million. What does it all mean? That's the mystery some people would really like to figure out.

Published on: Dec 31, 2018
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.