Anghus Houvouras on Netflix and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery…
The entertainment industry is smack dab in the middle of a massive paradigm shift. Over the last few years, we’ve witnessed changes in how people consume their entertainment. From the diminishing returns of physical media as a revenue stream for studios to a global pandemic that accelerated viewing trends and habits making the theatrical experience a challenge for anything other than big-budget blockbusters and horror films.
Streaming services have played a huge part in this changing landscape with goliaths like Netflix making deals with filmmakers for exclusive content to give their platform the edge. One of the biggest Netflix made was penning a deal with filmmaker Rian Johnson for two sequels to his hit Knives Out. An overall deal worth $400 million.
The first film from that agreement, Glass Onion, premiered theatrically for a week in late November of 2022 and on Netflix on December 23rd. The film has been universally well-received by audiences and critics yielding a 93% critic score and a 93% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a crowd-pleaser that delivered an experience that everyone should still be talking about. And yet, two weeks after its release, the movie already feels like a distant memory. In comparison, Johnson’s original murder mystery was talked about for months after release. A word of mouth hit that had strong legs during its theatrical run.
As studios struggle to understand this rapidly changing landscape, one clear trend has emerged:
Not releasing a film theatrically severely impacts the ability of the movie to hold the attention of a fickle public. A theatrical release provides the most widespread opportunity for people to see a movie. Without that option, there are significantly fewer people aware of the movie’s existence. Nobody’s talking about Glass Onion because, outside the people who caught it during the film’s one-week theatrical run, the only audience with access to the film are Netflix subscribers (or pirates, but I don’t want to uncork that bottle right now).
A movie only available on a single streaming service will struggle to seize control of the pop culture zeitgeist for a significant period of time. This is a problem Netflix has been dealing with for years with their ‘binge release’ model of releasing shows and limited series. Sarandos and company still haven’t learned the value of having your big-budget crowd-pleasers available for everyone. Their commitment to the platform is limiting their ability to create water cooler conversations and word of mouth to generate buzz.
Netflix, once viewed as a disruptor and an innovator has become incredibly narrow-minded in how they handle these massive properties that have cost them billions. Glass Onion could have easily brought in hundreds of millions of dollars in a wide theatrical release potentially making back its production budget as well as generating tons of interest for the movie when it started streaming.
I’m not proposing that Netflix needs to do this with all their original movies, but something like Glass Onion is a missed opportunity; a chance to test the waters and find a new way to balance the potential for theatrical releases for their most expensive, high profile productions as a vehicle to gain interest in the platform and help mitigate costs.
Oddly enough, the deal for Knives Out sequels feels a lot like what happened with Joe Rogan and his podcast The Joe Rogan Experience. Before his Spotify deal, Joe Rogan was being discussed at great length on almost every social media platform and news agency. After signing a $100 million deal with Spotify, those discussions slowly tapered off and nowadays the controversial host is hardly discussed. And let’s be clear; with the number of options and competitors out there right now, having a lasting cultural impact provides real dividends. There is significantly more value for Netflix if people were still discussing Glass Onion. Something that is much more likely to happen if the movie was available theatrically.
The cost of platform exclusivity is relevance. Eliminating a wide theatrical release and limiting your creative endeavor to a single platform may provide creative control & a financial windfall, but it means the movie will struggle to achieve widespread cultural impact. Not releasing Glass Onion in theaters with a wide release was a real mistake. Sarandos’ inability to pivot in a meaningful way for Rian Johnson’s second Benoit Blanc film has impacted its legacy and the legacy of the series.
Exclusivity deals that don’t allow for theatrical releases or physical media releases are perilous for creators like Rian Johnson and will have ramifications for how their works are remembered. Even now, Johnson is struggling with whether or not there will be a Blu-ray release for the film as his fans are hopeful for bells and whistles like a commentary track.
If Netflix isn’t going to pivot on theatrical and physical releases even for movies that would benefit the film, platform and filmmakers, creators and fans are going to continue to suffer. And ultimately, dissatisfaction from talent and audiences rarely leads anywhere that will make investors happy. A muddy mess that the execs over at Warner Bros. Discovery is currently wading through.
The mystery of what killed Glass Onion is an easy one to solve. The film deserved a wide theatrical release. Instead, it’s a very good movie forever relegated to content status and having its relevancy murdered by an antiquated studio obsessively committed to the streaming-only standard for their product. It wasn’t pre-meditated nor intentional, but the product of obstinance. Not a murder as much as movie manslaughter.
If Netflix wants to continue to court top-tier talents, they might need to explore new ways to better market and release their tentpole titles. One that doesn’t leave money on the table and impact a film’s potential for relevance and influence.