The streaming giant has unveiled the most watched shows and films of the past year, suggesting what its future might look like

One of the many disruptive qualities of so-called industry disruptor Netflix has been a lack of transparency over viewing figures. Unlike their competitors (the main networks and cable channels), they have never been held to the same standard, never judged by ratings, choosing to keep themselves separate, much to the rest of the industrys frustration. But over time, a shift has taken place.

Slowly but surely, the streaming goliath has started to share viewing data, usually as a brag and only when it shows them in a positive light, but with each shred of information we have started to see the bigger picture. Just last week, we were handed their most revealing dump to date, the 10 most popular original films and shows over the last 12 months, complete with figures for each. While were still starved of the bottom end of the list, and disappointingly yet tellingly, any box office data for their theatrical releases, we can start to see what is and isnt working for the platform.

1 The movie star endures

Ben Affleck in Triple Frontier. Photograph: Melinda Sue Gordon/Netflix

If one were to examine the top 10 theatrically released films over the last year, the upper end, if not the entire list, would be dominated by franchises, sequels and ones that dont necessarily rely on the names involved. But on Netflix, an underdeveloped alternative to the multiplex, the biggest films more closely resemble the box office hits of the late 80s and early 90s when star appeal was prioritised over spectacle, a period that saw Rain Man, Fatal Attraction, Ghost and Three Men and a Baby win big.

The top three most-watched Netflix originals of the last 12 months are Bird Box (80 million viewers), Murder Mystery (73 million) and Triple Frontier (52 million), all broad, crowd-pleasing films sold almost exclusively on stars Sandra Bullock, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler and Ben Affleck, all of whom are actors who broke out in the 90s boasting fanbases that have mostly stayed loyal ever since. The mixture of recognisable casts, substantial budgets and experienced directors meant that they all looked like actual theatrical releases, too, making their drops feel like mini-events to viewers who might not have been anticipating their release.

Inevitably, and ironically, the films that seemed to stand against the ongoing production line of predictable sequels being churned out by the wider industry are all now being envisioned as franchise-starters by those behind them. Murder Mystery 2 has been given the official green light, a follow-up to the Bird Box novel was announced earlier this year, leading many to speculate about an adaptation, while Triple Frontier director JC Chandor has expressed muted interest in a quadruple. Next year also sees sequels to the previous years hits The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys Ive Loved Before.

2 Sometimes they (dont) come back

The cast of The Umbrella Academy. Photograph: Christos Kalohoridis/Courtesy of Netflix

By far, the platforms biggest TV drop of the year is Stranger Things 3 (64 million viewers), an inevitable result given the frenzy surrounding the series since it began in 2016, but while its easy to equate its success to that of a big-screen sequel, especially given both its genre and how its been marketed, whats most interesting is that its one of only two shows on the list that isnt a first season. Theres no sign of Netflix staples like Orange is the New Black, Glow, Bojack Horseman, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, House of Cards, Black Mirror, The Crown, 13 Reasons Why and Mindhunter, and instead viewers have flocked to new shows like The Umbrella Academy (45 million viewers), You (40 million) and Sex Education (32 million), all also notably aimed at a younger audience.

Its a sign that either original shows tend to lose viewers with each season or that Netflix has been algorithmically tweaking its output to fall more closely in line with its most impassioned younger viewers. With all new shows on the list coming back for a second season, it will be interesting to see what next years results highlight.

3 A tough watch is an easy binge

Niecy Nash and Jharrel Jerome in When They See Us. Photograph: Atsushi Nishijima/Netflix

Importantly, the lists provided dont include content acquired by Netflix from elsewhere which would inevitably mean that much-loved sitcoms like Friends and The Office would make an appearance. The success of both (Netflix extended the Friends deal for one final year for $100m before it was snapped up by HBO Max starting 2020) led many to believe that the practice of bingeing was mostly employed by those seeking lighter, snappier fare. But the appearance of two tough, issues-led dramas on Netflixs TV list suggest that this might not always be the case.

In a short amount of time, Unbelievable (32 million viewers) and When They See Us (25 million) have shown theres a big audience for fact-based shows dealing with difficult, timely topics. Unbelievable, a combination of a dogged crime procedural and a docudrama, focused on rape and how it can be mishandled by authorities while When They See Us, Ava DuVernays Emmy-winning Central Park Five miniseries, dealt with race and how it too often leads to false imprisonment, and both were eagerly consumed by viewers and critics. Expect a major awards push for both in time for the Golden Globes as well as further green lights for equally tough-minded dramas.

4 Dead genres come back to life

Ali Wong in Always Be My Maybe. Photograph: Ed Araquel/Netflix

Genres that have long been cast aside by Hollywood have been carefully and cleverly resuscitated by Netflix for a while now with notable successes, such as 2018s Summer of Love which saw a string of smash-hit romcoms, including Set It Up, To All the Boys Ive Loved Before and The Kissing Booth (all of which Netflix has been happy to brag about). In comparison, before Crazy Rich Asians last year, the industry hadnt seen a $100m romcom hit since 2011s Just Go With It.

The latest top 10 is filled with similar examples with teen movie/romcom crossovers The Perfect Date (48 million viewers) and Tall Girl (41 million), psycho-thriller Secret Obsession (40 million), romcom Always Be My Maybe (32 million) and chick flick Otherhood (29 million) all scoring well. Apart from Otherhood, the films mentioned arent really star-led but their appeal is more about a tried-and-tested-and-forgotten-about formula being brought back to life. The success of cheerfully trashy thriller Secret Obsession, from longtime Hallmark and Lifetime channel director Peter Sullivan, is perhaps the most concerning given its rote plot and flat TV movie direction. Its a cheap quickie that would usually be chucked on to cable but its large viewership on Netflix will lead to more of the same, a grubby inevitability and looking ahead at their schedule, there are similarly low-rent options in the coming months.

5 Big directors dont lead to big audiences

Yalitza Aparicio and Marco Graf in Roma. Photograph: Carlos Somonte/PR

The list of most-watched films, from Bird Box down to Fyre (20 million viewers) sees a gap of 60 million viewers, meaning that while some films hit big, theres a great many that lag far, far behind. This doesnt make them flops per se but it does mean that genuine phenomena are hard to find. The list also shows that while Netflix has put a great deal of funding into both their awards push and their splashy partnerships with respected auteurs, audiences are less invested in the outcome than they are.

The most conspicuous absence is Alfonso Cuarns Roma, the platforms most critically acclaimed and awarded film to date. Netflix might have been proud to flaunt its reviews, nominations and eventual wins but they have yet to release any solid data about either its streaming viewership or its limited run at the box office. Theres also no love for the Coen brothers and their anthology western The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Dan Gilroys Sundance-premiering art world horror Velvet Buzzsaw, the long-awaited Orson Welles drama The Other Side of the Wind, Paul Greengrasss grim docudrama 22 July or Steven Soderberghs High Flying Bird. Of course, these films would have been unlikely to make the top 10 most-watched films at the cinema, too, but the film list offers a picture of a far less demanding viewer than the TV list and shows a great discrepancy in the films that Netflix chooses to promote over what viewers choose to watch.

Given the uptick in major directors who have been lured to the platform, this might not be the case in the next 12 months. Martin Scorseses extravagant crime saga The Irishman will surely be a rare critical and commercial crossover title for them, although its mammoth 210-minute runtime might prove a problem (Netflix counts more than 70% of a movie or episode as a watch). But for those who cant make it through, theres a film with Kristin Davis and Rob Lowe falling in love at Christmas while caring for elephants in Zambia. So, as appears to be the Netflix mantra, there really is something for everyone.



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