Netflix Takes a Hit, but Theaters Might Want to Go Easy on the Cheers

The Netflix shortfall is good news for theaters, but the streaming dynamic it created is here to stay.
The Netflix building in Hollywood, Calif.
The Netflix building in Hollywood
Michael Buckner for Variety

The timing could not be more exquisite. Just as exhibitors and studios prepare to gather for their first full-throated, in-person CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas that begins April 25, bête noire Netflix revealed the streaming service lost 200,000 customers in Q1 2022 and will lose another 2 million in Q2.

For the National Association of Theater Owners, this is a long, dark drink of schadenfreude with a caffeine boost. Netflix, to a near-absurd degree, symbolized a nuclear threat to box office. However, this proves that while Netflix is a disruptor, it operates under the same laws of gravity that govern every other business.

However, to put this in perspective: It’s a dire prospect, losing more than 2 million users in six months — but that would represent one percent of the Netflix user base. For theaters, domestic gross for first quarter 2022 was $1.33 billion; the same period in 2019 grossed $2.44 billion. That’s a 45 percent drop and it doesn’t take inflation into account.

Netflix stock hit its all-time high last November at $700.99; today it closed at 218.22, down 69 percent. For #1 exhibitor AMC, that freefall might look familiar: after hitting a historical high of $72.62 last June, it’s now $16.85 — a 77 percent drop. The difference, of course, is Netflix measures its loss in the billions.

Netflix’s depression will be the wind at theaters’ backs. Early May sees the release of Marvel’s “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” and the hoped-for launch of a robust summer that’s critical to the future of theatrical exhibition.  However, no one should believe a 1 percent reduction in Netflix subscriptions means the beginning of the end. The smoking guns belong to the growing throng of Netflix competitors like Hulu, Disney+, Apple, Amazon, and HBO Max.

On Thursday — the same day that CNN+ threw in the towel after three weeks — HBO Max announced that it gained three million subscribers in Q1, before “The Batman” and after Warner Bros. no longer offered its movies day and date. However, HBO Max and other studio-associated streamers have something Netflix does not: access to a full slate of first-run theatrical releases.

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness
“Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness”Walt Disney Pictures/screenshot

For all its investment in movies, Netflix is largely defined by series and episodic programming. Among its movies viewed, long-forgotten studio titles dominate. At this writing, its U.S. top 10 includes “The Call,” “Cleaner,” and “Without a Paddle.” There are two Netflix Originals: at #10 is the big-budget “The Adam Project” starring Ryan Reynolds; #3 is the modestly budgeted horror movie “Choose or Die.” As fewer studios make Netflix deals in favor of their own streamers, that’s likely to leave a mark.

Streaming isn’t going anywhere, but the strategy shifts have begun. Netflix may be less inclined to offer blank checks to key creatives like Leonardo DiCaprio, Dwayne Johnson, Sandra Bullock, Adam Sandler, and Kevin Hart. Ditto directors like Martin Scorsese, Judd Apatow, Adam McKay, Spike Lee, and Jane Campion.

For theaters, the optimistic short-term projection is they can reach 75 percent of the old normal. It’s critical to show they can do more with a wider range of films that click. April saw two positive examples with “The Lost City” (Paramount) heading toward $100 million domestic gross while “Everything Everywhere All at Once” (A24) becomes a sleeper indie success.

This weekend sees three non-franchise openers: “The Northman” (Focus), “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (Lionsgate), and “The Bad Guys” (Lionsgate). None will make or break the future, but decent showings could provide further incentive for the public to give their streamers a pass for the night.

Theaters still have plenty of problems. But news that Netflix is no longer an unassailable giant makes their future a little brighter.

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