Netflix Takes Bold Bet on Theatrical With ‘Knives Out’ Sequel — But Don’t Expect ‘Glass Onion’ Box Office Numbers

Daniel Craig in "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery"

It should come as little surprise that Netflix doesn’t plan to report box office grosses for “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery,” which opens in theaters later this month. Since the streamer never discloses financials, there’s not much of a case to crack when it comes to that particular puzzle.

But given the lack of transparency around ticket sales, will anyone aside from Benoit Blanc be able to peel back the layers on the success or failure of director Rian Johnson’s anticipated whodunit? Without box office figures or tangible streaming metrics, there won’t be a clear way to determine whether Netflix made a good deal when it spent more than $450 million for the rights to two sequels to “Knives Out.”

“It’s a very big investment,” says Stephen Galloway, the dean of the Chapman University film school. But Netflix hasn’t wavered on its streaming-first mission. “Whatever it makes — or doesn’t — at the box office will hardly affect their bottom line,” he adds.

Yet there’s a reason that “Glass Onion” has been granted the streamer’s most significant big-screen commitment to date. The movie — which brings back Daniel Craig’s quirky sleuth and adds a motley crew of stars, like Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn and Kate Hudson, to the fun — is today’s rare crowd-pleaser that doesn’t require superheroes or explosive stunts to appeal to audiences young and old. The sequel to 2019’s theatrical hit “Knives Out” will be released in around 600 North American theaters for one week beginning on Nov. 23 before landing on the streaming service on Dec. 23.

Though it’s far from Netflix’s longest theatrical window, the release plan is symbolic because it’s the first time a Netflix movie will play in the country’s three biggest chains — AMC Theaters, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark. The third-largest circuit, Cinemark, has offered at least 10 Netflix films in recent months, but AMC and Regal previously refused because the streamer would not agree to the standard theatrical window.

In another first, “Glass Onion” won’t be available on Netflix until a month after its one-week sneak preview. Most of Netflix’s theatrical releases, which usually function to qualify for awards rather than to generate headlines lauding ticket sales, drop on the streamer in the days after debuting in cinemas. That has meant subscribers don’t have to wait long to just watch the film on Netflix. Should “Glass Onion” manage to stay in the cultural conversation in the period between theaters and streaming, industry experts believe it’ll be a pretty good indication of its big-screen resonance. For traditional theatrical releases, that’s usually determined by the drop in ticket sales between a movie’s first and second weekend of release.

Box office grosses matter significantly less to Netflix than they do to traditional studios, who rely on ticket sales to justify mega budgets and boost buzz for tentpoles. Netflix, on the other hand, shells out hundreds of millions on films to service its subscribers, who pay a monthly fee for access to new movies. These days, though, there’s a growing sense internally that wider theatrical could be valuable for Netflix, which lost subscribers in the first half of 2022 — for the first time in more than a decade. The company’s numbers bounced back in the third quarter, but Netflix is looking for additional revenue streams with a newfound focus on profitability. Moreover, Netflix’s film chief Scott Stuber says he believes cinemas can help propel movies into the zeitgeist, which is something the streamer has struggled to achieve in the past. Sure, “The Old Guard” and “Extraction” may have been watched by tens of millions of subscribers, but does anyone remember what those movies were about?

“It’s an experiment where there’s low risk for them,” says producer Peter Newman, head of New York University’s MBA/MFA dual degree program. “If it is a crowd pleaser, there could be some good word-of-mouth.” 

For theater owners, even the abridged period of theatrical exclusivity is considered a win. With traditional studios putting out fewer movies each year, those who own and operate multiplexes are desperate for new releases, as well as different creative outlets, to attract audiences around the holidays. And theater chains were especially eager to compromise on “Glass Onion” since it’s the sequel to a movie that’s already worked in theaters. They also believe Netflix has taken steps to properly market the movie with a push to get people to go to their local cinema. The first film, which Lionsgate released in theaters in 2019, made a killing with $165 million in North America and $311 million worldwide.

“It’s one of those four quadrant pictures,” says Galloway of the sequel’s commercial aspirations. “It could cross in all directions, and that’s rare.”

It also helps that “Glass Onion” has already generated glowing chatter and positive reviews since it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival. It’s an early indication that Johnson has delivered another triumph for originality at the movies. Variety’s chief film critic Owen Gleiberman praised the follow-up as “a bigger, showier, even more elaborately multi-faceted shell-game mystery” than the original. “Glass Onion” has a 91% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is eons better than other Netflix originals like “Red Notice” (36%), “Extraction” with Chris Hemsworth (67%) and Will Smith’s “Bright” (26%).

Of course, theater chains will have access to grosses but it’s unlikely they’ll report numbers either. In the case of Cinemark, the only major chain to have previously offered a Netflix film, the company issued a press release last year to tout “Red Notice,” an action comedy starring Gal Gadot, Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds, as “officially the best-performing Netflix film shown in its theatres.” (Whatever that means…)

Even if Netflix and exhibitors put out vague statements to declare the rousing success of “Glass Onion,” Newman says he doesn’t believe it will change the way the streamer puts out new movies. The pedigree that comes with “Glass Onion,” the follow-up to the Oscar-nominated “Knives Out” and the closest the company has to reliable IP, means it may be the exception to Netflix’s broader theatrical plans.

“It’s an experiment,” says Newman. “It doesn’t seem to be a master shift in what the company is doing.”