Did Netflix’s Glass Onion Make a Box Office Blunder?

By Jessica Lerner 

There’s been plenty of buzz around Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery as the film started its one-week theatrical run.

When Rian Johnson’s Knives Out sequel closes its limited release this week, it’s projected to reach $15 million in the United States and Canada, according to numerous news sources. The sequel made $13.3 million over five days.

The movie ran on roughly 700 screens, earning around $19,000 per screen, the best average for any film over Thanksgiving weekend, per The Hollywood Reporter.


With these figures, Glass Onion – had Netflix released box office data – would have come in third on the domestic charts, behind Black Panther: Wakanda Forever ($65 million from 4,258 theaters over five days) and Walt Disney Co.’s Strange World ($18.5 million from 4,174 theaters over five days). And there were six times as many cinemas showing such movies, according to THR.

All of this news is encouraging, but did Netflix make a box office blunder with Glass Onion by only releasing the film in hundreds of theaters for a limited theatrical run?

Did Netflix leave money on the table?

After Glass Onion’s strong showing, the conventional course of action for a large studio would be to expand its theatrical run and go wider. But the streamer has held steadfast, and the sequel’s theatrical run will end Tuesday as scheduled.

The first Knives Out, which was released by Lionsgate, became a sleeper hit in 2019 after earning $41.4 million from 3,461 locations throughout the five-day Thanksgiving holiday. The movie made a total of $164.5 million domestically and around $313 million internationally, per THR.

Box office experts estimate that Johnson’s film could have made $40-50 million over Thanksgiving if Netflix had given it a more conventional theatrical release, the news outlet reports.

Strengthening this argument is the fact that Glass Onion was a bright spot for exhibitors over the weekend, often good for ticket sales, among several high-profile flops from big studios, including Strange World.

Where do the theaters stand on this?

Privately, theater owners reportedly wished Glass Onion had a longer theatrical release. This would have allowed the film, which Variety writers Rebecca Rubin and Brent Lang described as “the rare crowdpleaser that doesn’t require superheroes or explosive stunts to appeal to audiences young and old,” to make a “killing” if it was more locations and a longer theatrical run.

This is important to note because the theatrical run was the first time Netflix partnered with three major U.S. theater chains: AMC Theatres, Regal Cinemas and Cinemark. In the past, the theater chains have resisted working with Netflix because the streamer likes to release its movies around the same time they hit theaters.

Moreover, had Netflix had a wider release, more exhibitors could have been able to “share in the riches of Glass Onion,” per Deadline.

Netflix’s stance

So why did Netflix grant the film only a one-week theatrical run?

As Netflix co-CEO and chief content officer Ted Sarandos explained during the company’s most recent prerecorded earnings call, “We’re in the business of entertaining our members with Netflix movies on Netflix. So, that’s where we focus all of our energy and most of our spends.”

He called this small-scale release for one week akin to other Netflix films being shown at festivals.

“Our films are always heavily featured in film festivals around the world because they are in demand, made by the greatest filmmakers on the planet. For all those folks who can’t get to a city where a festival is, this one-week release on 600 screens is a way of creating access to the film and building buzz, the same thing we’re doing in those festivals,” he said.

Given the extremely short theatrical run, he said most people will still see Glass Onion on the streamer.

“There’s all kinds of debates all the time back and forth, but there is no question internally that we make our movies for our members,” he said.

Peeling back the onion layers

Netflix’s decision is, on paper, understandable.

The streamer suffered a rocky start to the year, as price hikes in January in the U.S. and Canada also resulted in increased churn. This move, along with growing competition from rival streamers and other factors, led Netflix to bleed subscribers, losing a total of 1.17 million subscribers in the first two quarters.

The company did rebound in the third quarter to add 2.4 million subscribers, and the launch of its ad-supported tier has things looking up. But by having a film such as Glass Onion go quickly to the streamer, it could also bring new members with it. And that’s what Netflix desperately wants over box office gold.

“After a challenging first half, we believe we’re on a path to reaccelerate growth,” the company said in a letter to shareholders, pointing to the strength of its content in the third quarter as a growth driver.