Streaming giant Netflix (NASDAQ:NFLX) scored a much-needed win last week with the release of its third-quarter earnings report. The company produced strong subscriber gains of 6.77 million, helping allay fears that customers were abandoning the tech giant. Slower growth in Q2 had many investors concerned that the company's multi-year growth sprint was coming to an end. 

Another important, but less-reported, victory was the success of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, a sequel to the hit television show. Ratings service and data analytics company Nielsen Holdings (NYSE:NLSN) said the show had a strong premiere and could end up being a big hit for Netflix.

A dirty, unshaven man standing in the desert.

Aaron Paul as Jessie Pinkman in a scene from Netflix's El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Image source: Netflix.

Solid first weekend

Nielsen said that more than 6.5 million viewers watched El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie in its first three days of release after debuting on Oct. 11. About 40% of those -- 2.65 million people -- watched the film on its first day. 

The movie was filmed in secret over a period of 50 days and picks up where the original series ended six years ago. Breaking Bad struggled with ratings during its fourth season and was in danger of being canceled when it first appeared on Netflix. By introducing the show to a new legion of fans, the viewer count for the fifth season more than doubled. Series creator Vince Gilligan credits Netflix for the show's rebound and subsequent popularity. 

The release of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie also seems to have sparked renewed interest in the original series, which ended its five-year run in 2013. Nielsen said that in the week before the movie's premiere, 153,000 people watched Breaking Bad -- that's up from 62,000, on average, in each of the previous three weeks.  

Lowball numbers

Netflix has previously disputed the accuracy of Nielsen's ratings data, arguing that the data only measures audiences that view on television, not mobile devices. Additionally, it only captures U.S. viewers, which account for just 38% of Netflix's global customer base of more than 158 million subscribers. 

The discrepancy between the two is clearly demonstrated by the viewing data on Netflix's hit movie Bird Box. When the post-apocalyptic thriller debuted in Dec. 2018, Nielsen reported that it reached an audience of nearly 26 million viewers in the first seven days after its launch. The streaming service countered with a well-publicized tweet: "Took off my blindfold this morning to discover that 45,037,125 Netflix accounts have already watched Bird Box -- best first 7 days ever for a Netflix film!" 

A woman wearing a blindfold rowing a boat with two children in the fog.

Sandra Bullock in a scene from the Netflix original movie Bird Box. Image source: Netflix.

Differences in the numbers aside, the Nielsen metrics are directionally accurate and they show that El Camino found its audience. The more complete viewership numbers -- when Netflix eventually releases them -- will likely be much higher.

Success at the movies?

Netflix has been working to find the same success with its feature films that it has seen with its television shows, many of which have been big winners at the Emmys. Several recent victories suggest the strategy may be working. In addition to the stellar viewership achieved by Bird Box, Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, a semi-autobiographical look at the director's childhood, took home three Oscars last year.

The company has several Academy Award contenders waiting in the wings. The Irishman, a big-budget gangster movie, marks the return of legendary director Martin Scorsese. The Noah-Baumbach-helmed Marriage Story follows the story of a couple in the midst of a heartbreaking divorce, and Steven Soderbergh's The Laundromat is based on the investigation into the Panama Papers scandal. Each of these films, as well as several others, have been cited as potential Oscar contenders. 

If the success of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie and the upcoming slate of movies is any indicator, Netflix could have several more blockbusters on its hands.

This article represents the opinion of the writer, who may disagree with the “official” recommendation position of a Motley Fool premium advisory service. We’re motley! Questioning an investing thesis -- even one of our own -- helps us all think critically about investing and make decisions that help us become smarter, happier, and richer.