It’s the holidays, which means it’s another season in which Netflix won’t say how much money their movies make. “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story,” like “Roma” last year, are playing major theaters in some cities. Amazon followed suit and slated “The Report” for a brief, non-reported theatrical run before making the film available for streaming November 29.
Both companies refuse to report their grosses to either internal industry compilers (including Comscore, which is built into ticket sites for the vast majority of North American theaters) or to the press. Why?
Short answer: Because they can. Box office provides studios bragging rights, or egg on their faces, depending; the lives of studio leaders would be easier without it. “I can’t stand it,” Sony’s Tom Rothman told the Hollywood Reporter at a recent roundtable interview. Others quickly chimed in: “I don’t love it either,” said Universal’s Donna Langley, while Paramount’s Jim Gianopulos bluntly replied, “By the way, it’s not our choice.”
But they’re stuck with box office reporting. The press covers it, the public follows it, and it’s key to making decisions on how to produce and release future titles. Their discomfort is understandable. Books, music, sports events, and similar account for individual unit sales, while movie performance is reported in dollars. Following the money makes for sexy statistics, and ego-stroking (see: unadjusted record breaking for “Joker” and “Avengers: Endgame”), but it also means box office is vulnerable to misuse and misunderstanding, and can lack nuance or accuracy.
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But there’s more to Netflix’s passion for box-office secrecy.
Not reporting gross is consistent with streaming
While broadcast TV shows’ ratings guide advertisers in the value of buying airtime, there’s no law that requires gross reporting. In fact, streaming services have every reason to resist it: Why provide competitive data? It’s not in their culture to report, and they want to keep it that way. All it could do is create pressure to release streaming results.
There’s precedent in one-week qualifying runs
Before streaming, the only time a film would fail to report is during one-week awards-qualifying runs that might not reflect actual interest, or be in secondary theaters with reduced seats and incomplete schedules. Those opportunistic screenings don’t necessarily gauge appeal.
While Netflix and Amazon runs are longer than a week, the strategy serves the same purpose: Qualifying and visibility. Grosses do reinforce a film’s market presence, but the “The Irishman” and “The Report” still have large newspaper ads (rare these days), TV ads, and prominent billboards — all designed to remind voters that they’re contenders. Still, not reporting does reinforce they aren’t entirely part of the film ecosystem.
Fear of competitive analysis
Every Sunday, box-office reporters like myself analyze studio grosses and assess winners and losers. Specialized, limited releases are a very busy niche during Oscar season; their gross reporting is particularly sensitive to helping or hurting a contender’s chances. For streamers, that arena looks like the Thunderdome: Going in, their film are already handicapped by the millions of their own subscribers who soon can see them at home, and by the theaters unwilling to play those titles. And their business model contains no incentive to maximize grosses via multiple screens, maximum screen size, and top-grossing theaters.
Meanwhile, the nature of the box-office beast is if film A grosses $X, and film B grosses $X+$Y, B is bigger than A. Popularity is one factor of many that pushes awards. If “The Irishman” grosses under $10 million (which is likely; we estimate around $3 million as of now), less nuanced analysis might attach “only” as an adjective, reinforcing the sense of being less-than.
For statistic-hungry box-office addicts like myself, the streamers’ refusal to report box office is supremely annoying. For studio chiefs, the black box surrounding their numbers is enviable. And finally, it’s sensible — but that won’t stop us from doing our best to estimate what they’re trying to hide.