Could ‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ Be Netflix’s First Theatrical Hit?

We got word via writer/director Rian Johnson this morning that his sequel to Knives Out will be titled Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. To be fair, even while the title of the first Benoit Blanc mystery was titled after a 2001 Radio Head song and Glass Onion references a Beatles tune, you don’t pay $450 million for two sequels to the $300 million-grossing Knives Out and let Johnson and Ram Bergman not use that brand name in the titles. Nonetheless, the next chapter, starring Daniel Craig solving a murder mystery featuring Edward Norton, Janelle Monáe, Kathryn Hahn, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Madelyn Cline, Kate Hudson and Dave Bautista, will debut on Netflix sometime “this holiday season,” we don’t know if that refers to Thanksgiving or (more likely) Christmas and to what extent the film will play theatrically. Could Glass Onion be Netflix’s first theatrical hit?

As for the overall Netflix stock perils, that is partially about the streamer being severely overvalued and constantly being told that even their sh**t smells like strawberries by a Wall Street and media which saw the entertainment studio as a newfangled tech company and saw direct-to-consumer streaming as a viable “all eggs in one basket” solution to all entertainment woes. However, I can take issue with the panicky choices made in reaction, including laying off a slew of “not a white guy” writers, allegedly clamping down on niche projects and big-budget prestige/vanity projects and essentially steamrolling the animation divisions. In this case, I’d argue that “the coverup is worse than the crime,” as Netflix still has 220 million subscribers who will hit “play” on the kind of star-driven originals or new-to-you adaptations (Extraction, Bird Box, The Royal Treatment, etc.) that have struggled theatrically over the last decade.

There is a grim irony in Netflix looking at conventional theatrical windows (say, 30-45 days before a streaming debut) to boost revenue and elevate their Q rating. To be fair, I wrote in May of 2020 that the Cinemark release of Zack Snyder’s (pretty damn good for a Netflix biggie) Army of the Dead may have been the first shot at using high-profile (if low-grossing) theatrical releases to raise the profile of specific Netflix originals and essentially use theatres to separate the wheat from the chaff. And we’ve seen some of Netflix’s bigger originals (not counting the awards season stuff) like Red Notice and Hustle getting a week of low-profile theatrical availability in Cinemark and other smaller/indie chains. However, if Netflix wants to stake a claim as a theatrical player, there are few better candidates than Rian Johnson’s Glass Onion.

After all, the only reason Netflix shelled out half-a-billion dollars for the next two pictures is that Knives Out earned rave reviews and grossed $163 million domestic (the biggest ever for a live-action Thanksgiving release) and $311 million worldwide on a $40 million budget. I wasn’t thrilled when Netflix snatched up the rights to the sequels. This should have been a new original franchise for Lionsgate (alongside the likes of Expendables, Now You See Me and John Wick). It was another case of Netflix standing on the shoulders of theatrical success (usually in terms of theatrical movie stars headlining streaming flicks) and snatching away an all-too-rare original theatrical franchise as just another notch in their belt. If there’s any Netflix original that might earn halfway decent box office, it’s a direct sequel, with director and star returning, to a recent theatrical smash. Why not give it a theatrical run?

Well, the risk is that nobody shows up for the film in theaters and that A) the film is tagged as a failure before it debuts on streaming and B) it highlights the deficiencies in Netflix’s marketing efforts even compared to a smaller studio like Lionsgate. However, the reward is raw theatrical revenue, and the possibility of more Netflix biggies playing even in AMC and Regal chains as Hollywood remains gun-shy (and hampered by Covid-caused post-production delays) about regular non-tentpole releases. Heck, Open Road was initially created specifically to supply theaters with programmers in between blockbuster seasons. Netflix could, ironically, do just that with less explicit risk. And if Glass Onion is a hit, well, that would allow Netflix to test the notion, which already applies to the likes of Peacock and Paramount+, that a theatrical success increases a film’s cachet as a streaming title.

Glass Onion may just get a standard week-long theatrical engagement at Cinemark and elsewhere before it arrives on Netflix and shatters viewership records. And that would be fine, I guess, for a streaming giant that doesn’t really “need” to branch into theatrical. Still, Knives Out was the last original, star-driven, high-concept, well-reviewed, adult-skewing blockbuster before Covid threatened to make such things extinct. I’m not happy that Johnson went with Netflix, even if I’ll admit I would have taken the money too. It would be weirdly appropriate if the last pre-Covid hope for blockbuster theatrical programmers would then become the first hope for likewise in a Covid-era marketplace with Netflix of all companies leading the charge. Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery will arrive on Netflix and/or theaters in November of December. In a way, this makes no sense, but it does nonetheless compel me.

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