If you felt a tremble in the earth yesterday, like the sound of a few thousand film lovers contemplating hara-kiri, there’s an easy explanation: The Verge ran an item in which Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos claimed The Ridiculous Six, the universally reviled Western parody that kicked off Adam Sandler’s series of Netflix original films, was already “the most-watched movie in the history of Netflix,” barely a month after its debut. This is the kind of news that makes those of us who care about movies, who consider them an art form worth celebrating and preserving, want to march directly into the sea. But wait. It’s not quite that simple.
First of all, within a couple of hours, Netflix had clarified the claim: Ridiculous Six is their most-watched movie for a 30-day period, not in terms of cumulative viewership. So it’s still a depressing boast, but nowhere near as depressing as it seemed; there are plenty of other movies that have seen more overall eyeballs, but this was the one that attracted the most in a single month.
And frankly, it should’ve – they’ve been promoting the shit out of it, playing its trailer every time you hit the front page, blasting their customers with emails, and suggesting it at the slightest search provocation. Don’t believe me?
(Just kidding, but not by much.)
And, as writer David Sims notes, viewers who hadn’t turned off the default “auto play” setting were treated to at least the first few seconds of The Ridiculous Six after they finished watching pretty much anything on the service during that initial heavy-promo period. And this provokes another, more pointed question, posed by BuzzFeed’s Adam B. Vary: what counts as a “watch”? Full play, to the end credits? Five minutes, before saying “fuck this” and going to bed? The Netflix logo of an auto-play or an accidental click?
After all, there’s not exactly a one-to-one correlation between watching a movie on Netflix and buying a ticket to see a movie at the theater, so “Ridiculous Six is Netflix’s #1 Movie” isn’t quite as despair-inducing as, say, “Just Go With It is America’s #1 Movie.” That, by the way, was the last live-action Adam Sandler movie to open in first place at the box office, all the way back in 2011, which serves to underscore exactly why Sandler was wise to make this move to Netflix. He can’t open a movie theatrically anymore (Pixels, Blended, Jack & Jill, and That’s My Boy were deemed disappointments), because more and more of the general movie-going population recognizes that he doesn’t even make movies; he makes lazy, corporate-subsidized vacations/welfare schemes for his buddies and SNL co-stars. So if his remaining fans can’t even be bothered to roll off the couch, wipe the crust out of their eyes, and plod down to the multiplex to see his latest half-assed “comedy,” then maybe he can just bring the movies to them. (Sarandos confirmed as much in a recent Variety interview: “Adam believes his audience is mostly at home and he’s probably right.”)
Now, exactly how many people actually, purposefully watched his poo-ridden, braindead, racist Western “parody” is an open question – particularly since Netflix (and, for that matter, Amazon Prime) doesn’t share its actual viewership numbers, on licensed or original content, and we thus have to take Sarandos’ word; there are no metrics for measurement and comparison here, either to the rest of their content or to the other movies that “opened” that weekend. (We reached out to Netflix for clarification, but have not heard back; we will update this article if we do.) But let’s assume they’re telling the truth, that many, many people watched most or all of The Ridiculous Six, on purpose, and arrive at this conclusion: that’s perfectly fine. Good, in fact.
Part of what rubbed so many people (including this one) the wrong way about Netflix’s four-picture Sandler deal was that it seemed to run counter to their own quality standards; from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt to Beasts of No Nation to Orange Is the New Black, the service seemed dedicated not just to creating original content, but to creating good original content. So why were they bankrolling the continuation of Sandler’s Farts For Hire business?
And this is where we have to remember that the entertainment business is just that: a business. It’s easy to forget, sitting as we are at the end of Good Movie Season, how much people love garbage; for God’s sake, not only are there four Transformers movies, but they’ve grossed more than $3.7 billion worldwide. And in a lot of ways, that’s terrible – terrible for movies, terrible for culture, terrible for humanity – but making and distributing money-making garbage is also how studios can write off the occasional great movie that (comparatively) nobody sees. So just as Sandler’s $126 million-grossing Mr. Deeds allowed Sony to lose a little money that year on Adaptation or Sunshine State or Sandler’s own Punch Drunk Love, this arrangement with Sandler allows Netflix to keep making things we actually like.