'Bird Box' Director on How Netflix Film "Defies" Conventional Metrics of Success

Courtesy of Netflix
Sandra Bullock, Susanne Bier on set of 'Bird Box'

Susanne Bier notes the moment the Sandra Bullock-starrer "started to take on its own life" and become a Netflix phenomenon.

For decades, directors have spent their opening weekends nervously fielding box office updates from studios. For Bird Box director Susanne Bier, the first indication her latest effort was becoming a cultural phenomenon arrived via Twitter.

A thriller starring Sandra Bullock as a woman guiding two children through a post-apocalyptic plague while blindfolded, Bird Box had a limited opening Dec. 14 as one of a handful of films Netflix released under a new theatrical strategy. The movie found a much larger audience a week later, when Netflix premiered Bird Box on its service and, according to the company, more than 45 million accounts streamed the movie in seven days, marking a record debut.

Although critics had given Bird Box mixed reviews, Bier says she was optimistic audiences would embrace it based on the positive results of test screenings Netflix held while she was editing, especially among female viewers. “After it opened, when Twitter started chiming in, I went, ‘Oh. Yeah. This is gonna be interesting,’” Bier says, speaking from her home in Denmark. “It was a lot of tweets, and they were emotional. It was wonderfully surprising and wild. The movie started to take on its own life.”

That life has included memes and a so-called Bird Box Challenge, in which people are donning blindfolds and attempting to navigate the world like Bullock’s character — a potentially dangerous prospect that Netflix warned its viewers against, tweeting, “Can’t believe I have to say this, but: PLEASE DO NOT HURT YOURSELVES WITH THIS BIRD BOX CHALLENGE." 

For Bier, 58, who is considered an arthouse director in the U.S., an audience of the size Netflix reports constitutes a major career moment. Her 2010 Danish film In a Better World won the foreign language Oscar, her 2006 movie After the Wedding was Oscar-nominated, and her direction of the British TV series The Night Manager earned an Emmy. But Bier has never directed a mainstream hit, and her lone American studio movie, Dreamworks/Paramount’s Things We Lost in the Fire, underwhelmed at the box office in 2007. In an industry where box office track record impacts future opportunities, how, then, should Hollywood interpret Bird Box’s apparent success? 

“Everything which is not conventional, it’s going to take a very careful consideration about how it translates,” Bier says. “Classical measurement has either been box office or awards. This defies all of it. But creating a phenomenon is bound to translate into something.”

Bird Box had the largest budget of Bier’s career “by far,” she says, a number she and Netflix decline to disclose. In a year where women made up only 8 percent of the directors of the top 250 films at the box office, according to the 21st annual The Celluloid Ceiling study, released this week, Bird Box constitutes a still rare female-directed mainstream movie, which Bier thinks has been a part of its success with female audiences. “Some of those movies with a female protagonist and a male director tend to become irrelevant for a lot of women,” she says. “It becomes the female hero that men dream of rather than the female hero that women identify with. It’s more about what women look like in a bikini than what they achieve. A lot of female stars are struggling with that.”

Based on a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman and adapted by Arrival screenwriter Eric Heisserer, Bird Box is centered on Bullock’s Malorie, whose harsh environment inspires a brusque parenting style, a no-nonsense tone that Bier believes may feel familiar even to women who aren’t tasked with protecting their children from a plague of invisible demon creatures. “She’s rough and hard,” Bier says. “A lot of women can recognize themselves in her, in her not being a male-defined mother figure. That was why Sandra Bullock got attracted to it, and that was why I got attracted to it.”

Universal first optioned Bird Box in 2013, before the book was published, and at one point It director Andy Muschietti was attached to the project. When executive Scott Stuber moved from Universal to Netflix, he brought Bird Box with him, and the packaging of Bullock and Bier. “Bird Box had been around for a while within the industry without it being done,” Bier says. “And the reason for it not being done was worry about a female protagonist. It’s depressing, but in hindsight, it’s probably for the better, because it took Netflix to trust me.” 

Though Netflix is notoriously secretive about its data, even with its creative collaborators, one piece of information Bier says she was eager to learn from the company was that the 45 million accounts that streamed her film had watched at least 70 percent of it. “What you don’t want, as a filmmaker, is anybody watching the first 10 minutes and then switching it off,” she says. 

Next month Bier will begin shooting a six-part series for HBO, The Undoing, starring Nicole Kidman and produced by David E. Kelley and Bruna Papandrea. In the wake of her Bird Box success, the director, who sits on the board of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has given some thought to a question the industry is puzzling over — what even constitutes a movie anymore? “In the industry, it's sort of being defined by who makes it or who receives it or how do we watch it,” Bier says. “At this point in time, I don’t think it’s right to do that. I think it’s about being one undividable entity. A movie has a very distinct dramatic structure. Today, even if you’re creating a movie expecting a big screen, any director will have to face the fact that a big part of the audience will watch it on a small screen."