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Netflix's 'Murder Mystery,' with Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, isn't good — but is it a hit?

If Netflix's numbers are accurate, viewing habits for the movie-watching public are dramatically changing.
Image: Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler star in Netflix's "Murder Mystery."
Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler have a murder mystery on their hands. Scott Yamano / Netflix

Most regular Netflix viewers are by now at least passingly acquainted with the streaming service’s latest feature film “Murder Mystery,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sandler. For those with the right algorithm, the film spent the last week at the top of the site. For others, it is being promoted in the new releases or the trending sections, its A-list headliners smiling out on a nondescript background.

Nondescript is also a good word to describe the film. It’s a vaguely nonthreatening hour and a half featuring the star of Netflix’s most-streamed TV series, “Friends,” paired up with the easygoing comedy stylings of the star best known for rom-coms with Drew Barrymore. However, according to the service, 30 million accounts viewed this film in a three-day span, a genuinely remarkable number that suggests viewing habits for the movie-watching public are indeed changing.

According to the service, 30 million accounts viewed this film in a three-day span, a genuinely remarkable number.

“Murder Mystery” has so far received mostly bad reviews since its Netflix premiere on June 14. And critics are right — the film isn’t great. Aniston and Sandler, as Nick and Audrey Spitz, are both charming, and they have just enough chemistry to keep the project from ever sinking completely. But there’s nothing particularly interesting or clever about the plot. Aggressively mediocre might be a more apt description.

The Spitzes are supposedly working-class people (he’s a cop, she’s a hairdresser) on their long-delayed honeymoon, yet both dress like a high-end Hollywood couple who regularly winter in Europe. The mystery feels like an Agatha Christie knock-off which was styled better on PBS with David Suchet. “Murder Mystery” is as much an excuse to hang out with Jennifer Aniston in Italy as it is a whodunit. That’s not to say Aniston isn’t fun to watch. But since no one’s trying very hard, it’s not like she has to work for our attention.

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We could talk more about the film, but honestly there’s just not much to say. It is B-level and unchallenging. Sandler built his entire career on such fare, starring in films like “Billy Madison,” “Happy Gilmore" and so on, movies that made somewhere in the $5 to 15 million range when they opened and topped out well below the $100 million mark. These are the sorts of films that rarely make it into theaters anymore, at least not from major production companies like Universal (who produced the first two Sandler movies listed above) or Disney (who produced the latter).

And yet, Netflix is out here claiming 30 million accounts viewed this film on opening weekend, 13 million of those in North America. Not 13 million viewers, mind you, but accounts, which could mean multiple viewers per account. Even if one assumes a 1:1 correlation, 13 million viewers at the box office, at $10 a ticket (the average ticket price in the U.S.), would mean an (approximately) $130 million opening weekend, making it the third largest domestic movie opening of 2019, just ahead of “Toy Story 4.” If one assumes two viewers per account, that’s $270 million, putting “Murder Mystery” just behind monster blockbuster hit “Avengers: Endgame” in all-time opening weekends.

This all feels rather strange, as “Murder Mystery” didn’t exactly have the kind of buzz one would associate with large releases. Entertainment sites weren’t covering it with the breathless excitement of “Game of Thrones” (a show that topped out at 19 million U.S. viewers, only 6 million viewers more than “Murder Mystery”) or even Netflix’s next big offering, “Stranger Things.” Is there, as Netflix seems to be claiming, an untapped market of millions looking for mediocre Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston fare?

What’s really telling is that Netflix is suddenly very interested in making sure these metrics are made available to the public.

But what’s really telling is that Netflix is suddenly very interested in making sure these metrics are made available to the public. It wasn’t that long ago that the only way to get any sort of handle on Netflix’s viewership was via an attempt by Nielsen to jerry-rig a partial measurement system. But since the beginning of 2019, Netflix has started releasing select numbers, using quarterly earnings reports to drop “highlights” without explaining what those numbers mean in comparison to either TV ratings or box office success.

According to The Wrap, inside sources claim that Netflix’s numbers aren’t bogus. This “30 million” viewer number doesn’t count every Tom, Dick and Harry who accidentally watched a minute or three of a film and then changes their mind and swaps to re-watching last season’s “Nailed It!” If these inside sources are to be believed, Netflix only counts a “view” if the account watches at least 70 percent of the film. For “Murder Mystery,” which runs a swift 97 minutes, that means viewers would have to watch over an hour of it, at least 68 minutes, to count. If you’ve committed 68 minutes to the film, most likely you’ll commit to the whole 97.

However, it’s one thing to watch a moderately dull film at home, phone in hand. It is quite another to go out to the theater, spend $20 before popcorn, snacks and transportation, for a film that’s likely to be forgotten before Monday. Back in the 1990s, the only way for these films to get made was to put them in the theaters. But times have changed. And watching “Murder Mystery” is easy, with many Netflix users getting served the movie on a silver streaming platter, right at the top of their feeds. One doesn’t have to scroll or think — just press play.

Netflix has another reason to make movies like this look successful, however. It wants movie stars to know this is a route that works, and one that may actually work better than going through the process of a full theatrical release. It’s not an accident Netflix released the numbers for “Murder Mystery,” and not, say, “Cinderella Pop,” which also arrived on June 14 and starred two people most people have never heard of. This is a way to entice stars to keep coming to them, instead of signing with upcoming competitors like Apple+ and Disney+. Aniston, for example, starred in Netflix’s “Dumplin” last year, but her next big project is over on Apple’s upcoming streaming service, starring alongside Reese Witherspoon on “The Morning Show.”

From here on out, we should expect more numbers from Netflix more regularly, especially when it's a project is headed up by big names. If the numbers for “Murder Mystery” tell us anything, it’s that the streaming wars have truly begun.