Sometimes it can be feast or famine when covering the cinema industry. Last week there seemed to be little news to include in the Marquee. This week so much is going on we couldn’t possibly include it all in one newsletter.
Box office during China’s National Day week, historically a heavy moviegoing holiday, fell nearly 70% with one film accounting for 60% of the take, underscoring how the country’s zero-COVID policy has decimated the cinema industry. The schedule for the upcoming ShowEast was published. The META Film Fest announced the lineup for its inaugural event taking place at the end of October. “Top Gun: Maverick” dominated the 22nd Annual Golden Trailer Awards. And the leading South Korean movie theatre chain, CGV, made plans to launch a combined cinema and streaming subscription service.
The week’s hectic cinema news cycle was capped off when, on Thursday, Netflix announced that it would distribute “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” in movie theatres from 23-29 November. In what the streaming giant has dubbed a “one week theatrical sneak preview event” the sequel to the hit 2019 film “Knives Out” will play in 600 theatres throughout the United States, as well as additional theatres internationally, a month before it’s available on Netflix. What’s more, for the first time ever, the three largest theatre chains in the US – AMC, Regal and Cinemark – have struck a deal with Netflix to show the movie.
Historically Netflix has distributed movies in theatres for awards consideration or to appease A-list filmmakers like Martin Scorsese who wished to see their films get a theatrical release. The films would play in arthouses or independent cinemas since major chains wouldn’t play a Netflix title without an exclusive window. More often than not Netflix would four-wall these theatres and never report box office publicly.
This has been the company’s theatrical distribution strategy since at least 2018 when Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” played in cinemas all over the world. However, beyond indulging talent, Netflix’s theatrical releases have always been viewed more as an awards season marketing strategy than an attempt to seriously earn box office.
These motives apply to “Glass Onion” as well, for anyone in Los Angeles attending an industry event over the past month has overheard or been sucked into a conversation about whether Rian Johnson, the writer and director of the “Knvies Out” films, has been able to convince Netflix to release the movie in cinemas. Ever since “Glass Onion” premiered to glowing reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival I’ve heard the sentence, “Rian is really pushing Netflix hard to release the film in theatres” so often I’m convinced everyone in LA other than me is on a first name basis with Johnson.
The detente between Netflix and movie theatres comes at an opportune time for both cinema operators and, as some industry watchers have argued, Netflix. Theatre owners have not been shy about the lack of titles available to book on the third quarter release schedule. Netflix meanwhile has lost at least 1.2 million subscribers this year and, in an attempt to offset the revenue loss, the company that once boasted about not having commercials is set to launch an ad-supported subscription tier later this year.
Of course, Netflix is notorious for its streaming-first approach to original movies and programming. Or at least it’s Co-CEO and Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos is. In 2021 when talking about releasing Netflix films in theatres before they appear on the streaming service Sarandos told Kim Masters of the Hollywood Reporter and KCRW, “Our core is that we make movies for our members… I don’t think that consumers who are looking for a great film to watch are thinking about where it was first. They’re just looking at: Is this a film I care about?”
Yet Netflix spent a reported USD $450 million to acquire the rights for two “Knives Out” sequels away from Lionsgate, which released the original film. Why not recoup some of that investment with the kind of limited theatrical release strategy once employed by the likes of Miramax while striking up a commercial relationship with major cinema chains? The first “Knives Out” opened over the same Thanksgiving weekend in 2019 to over USD $41 million at 3,391 locations. That’s going to be a tough number to beat at only 600 locations (not screens), but Netflix isn’t releasing grosses for the film so we’ll never know.
And though it’s easy to understand why Netflix aimed for the Thanksgiving weekend, “Glass Onion” will now be facing tough competition from Disney’s animated “Strange World,” Sony’s “Devotion,” Steven Spielberg’s latest “The Fabelmans” and Luca Guadagnino’s festival hit “Bones and All.” Had some of those titles known the “Knives Out” sequel was sitting on that date, they might have gotten out of the way earlier. The one-week limited engagement may prove beneficial however, working to drive some urgency among moviegoers to see “Glass Onion” while they have a chance. Plus, there’s no law against extending the run in certain locations.
It should be noted that Netflix doesn’t exactly have the theatrical distribution infrastructure of a traditional studio. They don’t have an in-theatre marketing team to my knowledge and their trailers are mostly aimed at YouTube viewers rather than cinemas. And while Netflix says they will be mounting a theatrical marketing campaign, it will help for exhibitors to lean-in on spreading the word about “Glass Onion.”
Finally, for those that might want to call out Sarandos or Netflix Co-CEO Reed Hastings for reversing their public stance about not needing a theatrical release for their films, that’s really the wrong way to look at this latest development. Instead, what you’re seeing is some very smart industry executives raising the profile of a highly anticipated title (and their own streaming service) by working with new partners who have a proven track record. Ultimately, both Netflix and exhibitors can benefit which is what really matters.
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Celluloid Junkie is the leading online resource dedicated to the global film and cinema business. The Marquee is our newsletter focused on motion picture exhibition; keeping industry professionals informed of important news, the latest trends and insightful analysis