Netflix Blew a $100 Million-Plus Box Office Windfall From ‘Glass Onion’

With the Thanksgiving box office performing even worse than last year’s post-shutdown rebuilding period, the question lingers over how much cash-strapped movie theaters would have been made from Netflix’s “Glass Onion” had it received a full, wide theatrical release instead of the one-week limited engagement that began Nov. 23 and wraps up Nov. 30 before the Rian Johnson mystery begins streaming on Dec. 23.

While Netflix continues to keep official box office numbers under wraps, distribution insiders have told TheWrap estimated that the “Knives Out” sequel” earned around $13 million over the five-day Thanksgiving weekend, just shy of beating the terrible $18.6 million five-day opening of Disney’s animated bomb “Strange World.” (The film also dwarfed the $3.1 million earned by Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” from 638 theaters.)

In all, insiders believe that the final theatrical total for this one-week engagement in just under 700 theaters in the U.S. and Canada will be around $15-17 million; but had the film received a full wide release with a screen count between 3,500-4,000 theaters, they believe “Glass Onion” would have been able to beat the $41.4 million extended opening of “Knives Out” when it was released by Lionsgate in Thanksgiving 2019, possibly even reaching $50 million over five days.

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“‘Glass Onion’ wouldn’t have made up for what ‘Strange World’ lost, but at least we would have seen a new film make what a Thanksgiving release is supposed to make,” one rival studio exec told TheWrap. “There’s so much money being left on the table, but this is what Netflix wants.”

While Netflix film chief Scott Stuber last month touted the “Glass Onion” limited release as a test for possible future theatrical efforts, co-CEO Ted Sarandos quickly shot down the idea of any shift in strategy. “There is no question internally that we make our movies for our members, and we really want them to see them on Netflix,” Sarandos said on the Oct. 18 earnings call. “Most people watch movies at home.” (A rep for Netflix did not respond to requests for comment.)

Let’s envision an alternate timeline in which the rights to the “Knives Out” sequels — Netflix paid an eye-popping $469 million for two films in the series — either stayed with Lionsgate or moved to another legacy studio that would have opened them in theaters. Here, the $165.3 million domestic and $312.9 million worldwide totals of “Knives Out” would be the measuring stick of success for “Glass Onion.”

Given a variety of hurdles, including a lack of release in China and Russia, the FIFA World Cup playing and rising inflation hampering entertainment spending, “Glass Onion” probably would have made less in overseas markets, dropping at least $35 million below the $147.5 million international haul of “Knives Out.”

But a stronger domestic total for “Glass Onion” would not be out of the question. While “Knives Out” had to compete against the Disney juggernaut that was “Frozen II,” the failure of “Strange World” would have left “Glass Onion” as the Thanksgiving release with the strongest word-of-mouth — including strong reviews (93% fresh and 6/10) and strong buzz (a 92% verified audience score) on Rotten Tomatoes. And instead of leaving theaters after seven days, it would have had three weeks of runway between Thanksgiving and the release of Disney’s “Avatar: The Way of Water” on Dec. 16 to build audience turnout.

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It’s possible — though we don’t know for sure yet — that “Avatar 2” could be so popular that it stifles interest in other films among general audiences. But if its strong audience buzz saw it through, “Glass Onion” could have lingered on the charts and pushed past the domestic total of “Knives Out,” possibly getting close to $200 million. (Netflix would have pocketed about half of that in a traditional wide-release split with theaters.)

Even in the worst-case scenario where its holdover totals fall off against “Avatar 2,” a domestic cume of at least $130 million was possible. Only 17 films this year have eclipsed the $100 million domestic mark, down from 29 in 2019, so movie theaters are in desperate need of films that can bring that level of ticket sales — and concession sales.

“Glass Onion” would have been one of those films, but instead, only about 700 theaters were able to take advantage of its buzz for a very short period of time.

Regardless, another rival studio executive argued, “unless Netflix overhauls their entire strategy, then these theatrical releases will be primarily about building awareness and interest for the Netflix drop. While [Netflix’s head of original films] Scott Stuber might use a circumstantial theatrical release to entice filmmakers and assure them that a given film is not just a straight-to-streaming feature, Ted Sarandos clearly doesn’t care.”

Meanwhile, streaming rival Amazon Prime recently signaled plans to ramp up its theatrical release slate to as many a dozen per year since completing its $8.4 billion purchase of legacy James Bond studio MGM.

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If Netflix made theatrical revenue a priority, along with using theatrical to turn a film into a pop culture event (something that arguably did not happen even with massive streaming viewership for Netflix’s Dwayne Johnson/Ryan Reynolds caper “Red Notice” or the Ryan Gosling/Chris Evans thriller “The Gray Man,”) it’s hard to argue against keeping the film in theaters at least until “Avatar: The Way of Water” opened. The industry has seen time (“The Batman” on HBO Max) and time (“Sing 2” on Netflix) and time again (“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” on Disney+) that a strong box office result (and sometimes even a poor one like “Lightyear” or “Encanto”) does not harm eventual streaming viewership or churn rates.

That’s doubly true for “Glass Onion,” a twisty puzzle box of a movie that almost certainly justifies and rewards repeat viewings to see the hidden clues and gags that writer-director Rian Johnson sprinkled throughout. It’s not hard to imagine that audiences who showed up in theaters wouldn’t choose to watch the movie again, either for their own pleasure or to share it with non-theatergoing friends, when it hits streaming on Dec. 23.

“More lessons will come when ‘Glass Onion’ makes its debut on the streaming platform, where the film will certainly be a major draw,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian said. “The movie-theater-first release (will likely prove) to have been a benefit and not a detriment to the film’s success on the small screen.”

Netflix is slowly learning the value of the theatrical release as a cultural and promotional tool, now it’s just a question of whether the streamer sees a financial angle as well. For now, the company’s rivals don’t think “Glass Onion” will change Sarandos’ mind, even for the third Benoit Blanc mystery that Johnson is contracted to produce for the streamer (he’s already working on the story).

“These ‘Glass Onion’ numbers aren’t going to move Ted one inch. He’s made clear his stance on this release strategy and he is sticking to it,” one exec said. “The only thing that I could see moving him is if Wall Street were to explicitly push for giving these movies a full theatrical window.”