Director Susanne Bier reflects on the record-setting success of her femme-centric Netflix film ‘Bird Box’

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“Bird Box” director Susanne Bier.

The post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama “Bird Box” has set a record in its debut, and with the Netflix original film boasting both a woman director and a female lead, it’s more evidence that the streaming service is destined and determined to shake up the film industry.

As I reported on my BAM’s Blog, the streaming service recently announced on Twitter that more than 45 million Netflix accounts watched the original horror movie in the first week after its December debut, giving “Bird Box” the best first seven-day total for a Netflix film.

Netflix famously declines to reveal its viewership numbers, so the announcement alone is significant, even if it doesn’t exactly reveal how many people actually watched the movie.

However, The Verge confirmed with a Netflix spokesperson that the company only counts an account as having watched “Bird Box” “once a view surpasses 70 percent of the total running time (including credits).” Also, “each ‘account’ may include multiple views and viewers but is only counted once.”

In keeping with Netflix’s recent approach for its original films, “Bird Box” boasts top-shelf star power and pedigree: It stars Oscar winner Sandra Bullock, with two-time Academy Award nominees John Malkovich and Jacki Weaver as well as Golden Globe winner Sarah Paulson in supporting roles.

And it’s directed by Danish helmer Susanne Bier, a Primetime Emmy winner for the miniseries “The Night Manager” whose credits also include the best foreign language film Oscar winner “In a Better World” (2010) and the Oscar-nominated “After the Wedding” (2006).

Whether people watched “Bird Box” alone or as part of a watch party, having at least 45 million people view a film in the course of a week is still impressive. Plus, still images and clips from the film have become ubiquitous on social media, another indication of the movie’s reach – in fact, Bier told The Hollywood Reporter’s Rebecca Keegan that was the one that tipped her off that “Bird Box” had become a pop-culture phenomenon.

“After it opened, when Twitter starting chiming in I went, ‘Oh. Yeah. This is gonna be interesting,’” Bier told The Hollywood Reporter, 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.”

Despite her critical acclaim, Bier has never directed a mainstream hit, and her only U.S. studio movie, Dreamworks/Paramount’s “Things We Lost in the Fire” (2007), faltered at the box office.

“Everything which is not conventional, it’s going to take a very careful consideration about how it translates,” Bier said. “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” boasts the largest budget of Bier’s career “by far,” she told Keegan, although both she and Netflix declined to disclose the price tag.

As a previously reported, in a year where women made up only 8 percent of the directors of the top 250 films at the box office, according to 21st annual The Celluloid Ceiling study, “Bird Box” is a rare specimen: a female-helmed mainstream movie – and Bier said she thinks that 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,” Bier told The Hollywood Reporter. “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.”

“Bird Box” is centered on Bullock’s Malorie, who must try to guide her two children literally blindfolded through a post-apocalyptic world haunted by brutal, invisible creatures, and as such adopts a harsh parenting style Bier said she believes women can relate to, even if it doesn’t align with the softer mothering style often put forth by male moviemakers.

“She’s rough and hard,” Bier said. “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.”

Academy Award-nominated “Arrival “screenwriter Eric Heisserer adapted “Bird Box” from a 2014 novel by Josh Malerman. As he told me in a 2017 interview for that Amy Adams-led, Oscar-winning sci-fi smash, Heisserer could have seen “Arrival,” which he adapted from Ted Chiang’s award-winning 1998 sci-fi novella “Story of Your Life,” made much sooner if he would have changed the lead from a woman to a man.

“Oh, that was right away,” Heisserer told me in 2017. “Let me tell you, Brandy, I tried to pitch this first before I went off to write it on spec, and we went out to all the major buyers in town. And one of them said that exact line. One of them said, ‘We’ll definitely consider making this if you change the lead to a man.’ And I said to myself, ‘I’m not coming back here anymore’ – and I haven’t.”

As it turns out, the female protagonist also delayed “Bird Box.” According to The Hollywood Reporter, Universal first optioned “Bird Box” in 2013, before the book was published. At one point “It” director Andy Muschietti was attached to the project. When executive Scott Stuber moved from Universal to Netflix, though, he ferried “Bird Box” with him, already packaged with Bullock and Bier.

“‘Bird Box’ had been around for a while within the industry without it being done,” Bier said. “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.”

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.

-BAM

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