Fading ‘Gray Man’ Viewership Points to Netflix’s Uphill Movie Battle

Fading ‘Gray Man’ Viewership Points Netflix’s
Illustration: VIP+: "Gray Man" Courtesy of Netflix

Is “The Gray Man” a success? The answer is a bit of a gray area.

The Netflix original film, starring Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans and helmed by “Avengers: Endgame” directors Anthony and Joe Russo, spent a grand total of eight days atop the streamer’s weekly Top 10, with viewership dropping by about 60 percent in its second full week of streaming. The movie that dethroned it? “Purple Hearts,” a modestly scaled romantic drama featuring former Disney Channel star Sofia Carson.

“The Gray Man” dropped another 46 percent in its third week, sinking to no. 4 in the global top 10 films and likely sinking its chances of landing in Netflix’s top three most watched movies (by hours viewed in their first 28 days).

Of course, “The Gray Man” was far from dead on arrival. So far, it has racked up more than 245 million hours of viewing time, making it the no. 4 most watched film in Netflix history. Plans for a franchise based on the film are moving full st(r)eam ahead; Netflix greenlit a sequel and spinoff film days after “The Gray Man” debuted on the service.

But this can’t be the result the streamer’s leadership wanted for “The Gray Man,” which was arguably the most important original film Netflix has ever released.

At $200 million, the spy thriller boasted one of Netflix’s biggest film budgets, as well as an unusually high marketing spend for the streamer, which rarely advertises individual titles aggressively. The marketing push was likely due to the franchise ambitions behind the film, which is intended to correct one of Netflix’s few competitive disadvantages to media giants like Disney and Paramount: the absence of homegrown franchises.

But greenlighting two more “Gray Man” entries less than a week after the film’s debut seems unwisely aggressive, especially considering the viewership dropoff in the weeks that followed. Netflix, of course, shares only the tiniest amount of the data it has access to, so it’s possible its executives know something we don’t.

On the other hand, the data Netflix does share indicates “The Gray Man” never reached the viewership highs of “Red Notice” and “Don’t Look Up,” Netflix’s two top-performing films. The streamer clearly wanted “The Gray Man” to overperform, and instead it finds itself facing another success that wasn’t successful enough. Echoes of “Stranger Things” Season 4, which, for all the hype that surrounded it, couldn’t stanch the flow of bleeding subscribers or elevate viewership to “Squid Game” levels.

In short, “The Gray Man” played like most Netflix movies: big viewership numbers up front followed by a swift dropoff and mostly gone from the public consciousness within a couple of weeks. (Data from Diesel Labs shows social media engagement with “The Gray Man” fell off steeply and swiftly following its release, dropping from about 83,000 engagements to less than 5,000 over one day.)

As Netflix film chief Scott Stuber works to reshape the streamer’s movie strategy, steering it toward “fewer and better” titles, he’ll need to institute a major creative overhaul if he wants Netflix films — particularly those costing $200 million or more — to make more than a momentary impression.