‘Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery’ and the Case of the Baffling Theatrical Strategy

Rian Johnson's sequel will get a 600-theater one-week sneak preview... followed by nothing for a month, then streaming. How does this work?
GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY, (aka KNIVES OUT 2), from left: Edward Norton, Madelyn Cline, Kathryn Hahn, Dave Bautista, Leslie Odom Jr., Jessica Henwick, Kate Hudson, Janelle Monae, Daniel Craig, 2022.  ph: John Wilson /© Netflix /Courtesy Everett Collection
"Glass Onion"
©Netflix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Rian Johnson’s “Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festivals to great reviews, whetting the appetite of exhibitors who hoped/prayed that Netflix might provide the very expensive sequel a significant theatrical life. Maybe two weeks? Three? A full month or more, in a real wide release? On October 6, Johnson announced on Twitter… that “Glass Onion” would open November 23 for a one-week “sneak preview event” on about 600 domestic screens. Womp womp.

Tickets are now on sale for that one-week debut, which (at this writing) will be followed by a month of no public availability before the film starts its streaming life December 30. As release strategies go, this one is specific and nuanced; it’s also very odd. Film festivals often premiere titles months before release, but to start a nationwide theatrical play and then nothing for a month? That’s unprecedented.

Might that dead zone provide an opportunity for Netflix to tweak its plan and extend the release? Distribution and exhibition sources confirm that the one-week dates are firm. Given the dire straits of early December, theaters might be happy to expand — but of course, Netflix retains the option to stream earlier.

A sneak preview is new for Netflix, which previously utilized exclusive limited theatrical runs of a week or more before streaming begins. However, this sneak isn’t like other sneaks. Traditionally, a sneak preview is a day or two before theatrical release; the Netflix plan looks like a vigorous warmup followed by a nap.  However, it could increase demand and word of mouth, essential for comedies.

Early results are promising. Based on spot checks, as many as 250 tickets have been sold at the AMC Burbank 16, with over 100 tickets sold at locations in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

These numbers aren’t on the scale of “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” (Disney), which opens November 10 (tickets went on sale Monday and already some screens are sold out), but significant presales are rare for movies that aren’t based around superheroes or FX franchises. When top-grossing theaters in major cities see advance sales and sold-out initial shows, it suggests the rest of the country will have also a number of early sales — especially when a film is marketed as a limited run.

"Black Panther: Wakanda Forever"
“Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”screenshot/Marvel

“Glass Onion” targets an older audience and November 23 is the day before Thanksgiving, when many people are otherwise engaged. The calendar might provide a clue as to strategy. Sneaks include the prime Wednesday-Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend; streaming starts over New Year’s weekend, when many people are available for home viewing.

Beyond marketing for Netflix, theatrical play satisfies filmmaker preferences. Despite any complaints that Netflix misses an opportunity with its “Glass Onion” strategy, normal theatrical play makes a weak case. Netflix financed the movie because they want to acquire or retain streaming subscribers. The company shows no interest in expanding its business model to accommodate a full-throttle theatrical release.

Industry observers are perplexed. Let’s presume this strategy succeeds in creating strong word of mouth; can that interest sustain for a month? Another wrinkle: “Glass Onion” is a whodunnit. Johnson pleaded Toronto audiences not to reveal plot details, but that’s much less likely in the face of a global theatrical release. For Netflix, it seems no theatrical strategy is ideal — and why would it be? It’s a streamer, after all.

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