Movies

The New Knives Out Is a Big Hit. So Why Is Netflix Pulling It From Theaters?

Glass Onion spent Thanksgiving weekend selling out showtimes. Time to hide it away for a month!

All three actors sit on a beach patio in resort wear. Cline lounges in a bikini while Norton and Craig crouch over a miniature car filled with sports drinks.
Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, and Daniel Craig in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. John Wilson/Netflix

The past few years haven’t offered much in the way of good news for movie theaters, but Thanksgiving weekend offered at least a ray of hope: Glass Onion, the sequel to Rian Johnson’s murder mystery Knives Out, was a bona fide hit. My Twitter feed filled up with reports of capacity screenings across the country, including a theater in Berkeley that advised patrons the movie was “hella sold out … please don’t even ask.” The movie seemed well on its way to being a word-of-mouth hit every bit as big as the first, which grossed over $300 million worldwide on a $40 million budget.

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Now for the bad news: After this Tuesday, you won’t be able to see Glass Onion for almost a month.

As a twist on its usual strategy, Netflix, which will debut Glass Onion on its streaming service on Dec. 23, put the movie on nearly 700 screens worldwide, earning something on the order of $13 million. As with past theatrical releases, Netflix did not report box-office figures, but experts told the Hollywood Reporter the movie could easily have equaled the first movie’s $41 million opening weekend if it had opened on the same 3,000-plus screens.

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For a company that has seen precipitous drops in its stock price over the past year, the decision seems like a head-scratcher. Why kneecap a near-certain hit by underbooking it, and why pull a movie that’s selling out screenings from theaters and keep it on ice for three and a half weeks?

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The answer, of course, is that Netflix is in the business of adding subscribers and not selling tickets. After a decade of unchecked growth, a modest loss of subscribers has sent its stock price plummeting by more than 60 percent in 2022. On the one hand, the decline in the company’s fortunes has resulted in a wave of show cancellations, but it’s also increased the urgency of exploiting its most valuable properties, which includes the two Knives Out sequels it paid a reported $469 million for. And that means both keeping Johnson, who wants audiences to at least have the chance to see his movies in theaters, happy and making as much noise as possible prior to Glass Onion’s release.

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That’s why Glass Onion is doing the movie equivalent of what the music industry calls an “underplay.” In music, that means booking an act into smaller-than-usual venues—putting an artist that usually plays arenas into clubs, for example—to generate a sense of excitement and manufactured scarcity, usually as prelude to an album release or a larger tour. The people who get in feel like they scored, and the ones who get shut out are disappointed but vow not to miss out next time. It’s an easy way of building anticipation—and, perhaps as importantly for a company in a financial downturn that also happens to not be used to spending a ton on theatrical advertising, a cheap one.

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Anecdotally, the strategy seems to have worked. Audiences are flocking to the movie to the extent they’re able, and they’re learning what I did during its premiere to a packed house at the Toronto Film Festival in September: This is an extremely fun movie to see with a crowd. The trouble is that most moviegoers don’t know it’s a strategy. The posters for Glass Onion clearly state that the Nov. 23 opening was for a one-week “theatrical sneak preview,” but that text is significantly smaller than the line reading “On Netflix December 23.” A scientific survey of my Slate co-workers who don’t cover popular culture for a living found one who had bought tickets but had no idea the film’s release was so limited, and another who saw the burst of attention to the movie and assumed it was already available to stream. Unless Netflix extends the run, a significant number of people are going to be either confused or angry or both that a movie that was a sellout hit last weekend is nowhere to be found this week.

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Given that this was the worst Thanksgiving weekend box-office in nearly 30 years—and yes, that includes the two Thanksgivings at the height of the pandemic—one has to imagine that at least some of the multiplex chains that sold out screenings this week are asking Netflix for an extension. While exhibitors have been adamant about shortening the “window” between theatrical and streaming releases, the pandemic shaved the gap down to a standard 45 days, and in April the head of the National Association of Theater Owners said the trade group would consider a window as short as 17 days for smaller films. (He also singled out Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos for praise, saying he “knows movies and TV better than anyone in Hollywood.”) While there’s a kicking-and-screaming quality to their insistence on exclusivity, exhibitors may be coming to terms with the fact that the pandemic was a sea change rather than a blip, and while studios like Warner Bros. and Disney have abandoned their streaming-first strategies in favor of making money the old-fashioned way, a lot of movies are getting lost in the jumble. Part of the dismal Thanksgiving box-office was the dismal performance of Disney’s Strange World, a family animated film the studio practically buried alive with wan advance publicity, while keeping the surefire hit Disenchanted (a sequel to Enchanted, which grossed $340 million) on Disney+. How are you supposed to watch a movie when you don’t even know where to find it?

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There’s no doubt that Netflix is leaving money on the table by taking Glass Onion out of theaters, and by releasing it on so few screens in the first place. The question is whether the people who are dying to see it now will still feel as strongly in a few weeks, or if they’ll be too busy wrapping presents and trying to figure out what to wear for their annual visit to church—or even picking one of the dozen new movies that open around the same time. (Avatar 2, I see you.) No one knows better than Netflix how short modern audiences’ memory is. But with Glass Onion, Netflix is asking its subscribers to do something it’s spent years training them not to do: wait.

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