Netflix Should Have Given ‘Glass Onion’ a Longer Theatrical Run

Daniel Craig in "Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery"
Photo illustration: VIP+; Adobe Stock; Glass Onion; courtesy of Netflix

“Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” managed to slice a big chunk of the box-office pie in its limited release, before disappearing from screens ahead of its December streaming debut.

Netflix, as usual, did not report any official gross figures for the film. But box-office sleuths estimated that “Glass Onion” earned $12 million to $13 million from about 700 theaters over the long Thanksgiving weekend (Wednesday to Sunday), placing it at no. 3 domestically, behind “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” and Disney’s latest animated title, “Strange World.”

Obviously, that’s far below its predecessor, which racked up a five-day total of $41.4 million over the same Thanksgiving frame in 2019. But earning nearly a third of that total while playing in roughly a fifth of the locations (“Knives Out” opened in about 3,400 theaters, per Box Office Mojo) is an impressive feat and suggests “Glass Onion” could have matched or surpassed the first film’s opening-weekend gross if it had opened in wider release.

The murder mystery’s per-theater average over its first five days was around $19,000, the best of any film for the holiday weekend, and it is expected to wrap its one-week run with about $15 million total.

It all begs the question VIP+ posed in the lead-up to this “Glass Onion” debut: Why would Netflix undertake such a strange and almost self-sabotaging theatrical strategy?

There is a method to the apparent madness here. Theatrical runs are costly; they require hefty marketing investments, which Netflix has historically avoided for individual titles. Meanwhile, studios only receive half of a film’s box-office grosses, with the other half staying with the theaters, making the financial burden of a proper theatrical run even less enticing.

Co-CEO Ted Sarandos has also remained dismissive of big-screen releases, maintaining that Netflix is focused on its streaming subscribers above all else — a logical move, in theory, for a pure-play streaming company.

“There are all kinds of debates all the time, back and forth. But 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 streamer’s Q3 earnings call.

That said, if ever there were a moment for Netflix to mount a proper theatrical run, this was it. Having shelled out an astounding $450 million just for the rights to two “Knives Out” sequels, Netflix leadership clearly recognized the franchise potential in writer-director Rian Johnson’s whodunit. The strong box-office performance of “Glass Onion” bears this out, as audiences were clearly enticed by the prospect of another go-round in the “Knives Out” universe.

The question, then, is how much money Netflix left on the table by limiting “Glass Onion” to a single week in theaters. “Knives Out” performed strongly throughout the 2019 holiday season, with its weekly gross rising more than 20 percent in the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s.

With little strong competition until “Avatar: The Way of Water” finally arrives on Dec. 16, “Glass Onion” could have had a solid run if the streamer had let it (though it is worth wondering if its opening-weekend gross would have been weaker had audiences known they had a longer window in which to catch it).

Netflix leadership was likely concerned that an extended theatrical run would sap viewership from “Glass Onion” when it comes to streaming next month — or, worse, deter potential subscribers who would have signed up to watch the film. But as we all know, subscriber totals aren’t all that matter anymore. Netflix is actively trying to shift its narrative away from those numbers, stating in its Q3 shareholder letter that it will be “increasingly focused on revenue as our primary top line metric.”

With that in mind, Netflix almost certainly erred in cutting off the revenue stream “Glass Onion” offered, particularly with the company’s revenue growth slowing in recent quarters. In light of the challenging first half of 2022, the decimation of Netflix’s market cap and the economic headwinds ahead, any incremental revenue from the “Glass Onion” theatrical run should be welcome.

Unfortunately for the streamer, “Glass Onion” presented a unique opportunity in its IP tie-in with a previous theatrical release, something its future films lack (except, of course, the promised “Knives Out 3”). The box-office potential of future Netflix films will be far lower and likely would not justify the expense required for a wide theatrical release. If Netflix execs wanted to make a killing at the box office, this was their big opportunity — and they missed it.