Trying to estimate how much money Netflix’s movies would make if they got traditional releases is maybe the most fun fool’s errand in the wide, wide world of box office speculation. Because the company is famously cagey about disclosing its viewership statistics, there’s no real way to know exactly how many people sat and watched a Netflix movie from beginning to end. And the key differences between streaming a movie at home and watching at a theater make even something as basic as viewership difficult to define. Short of a screaming baby or a comically unaware fellow theatergoer, you’re almost never going to pay for a ticket at a theater and then leave the movie before it’s over. So how much of a movie do you have to stream at home for the streaming to count as a view?
These questions are, of course, not new. But with the release of Red Notice later this month, they take on a new and intriguing urgency. The action-comedy-heist movie, whose supremely top-heavy cast is headlined by Dwayne “Jungle Cruise” Johnson, Gal “Wonder Woman” Gadot, and Ryan “Free Guy” Reynolds, is apparently the “biggest investment Netflix has ever made in a film.” (Fair warning that it was The Rock himself, with his rather considerable interest in drumming up publicity for Red Notice, who made that claim.) The movie’s on-the-record budget is somewhere in the vicinity of $200 million, around half of which went to its three headliners. It’s possible that, as was the case with The Irishman, we’ll find out later that the actual budget was way more.
However: The trailer looks big and bombastic and fun as hell. Netflix’s subscriber base has grown considerably since the onset of Our Endless Pandemic. And Red Notice’s November 12 release date puts it right at the start of the holiday binging season. All the ingredients for a massive success are right there. Since we don’t have traditional box office figures to steer by, though, what does a massive success even look like?
How much does a Netflix movie make? Is it more than traditional releases?
One popular notion we should dispense with right up top is that Netflix movies can’t be profitable if they aren’t released in theaters. The company’s movies sometimes seem unprofitable because we’re so used to seeing weekly box office data and basing notions of profitability on it. But Netflix has something that movie studios do not: the sweet, sweet monthly subscription fee we’ve all got set to autopay. A basic Netflix plan costs $9 per month. As of this writing, Netflix has 214 million subscribers worldwide. The scientific term for Netflix’s monthly revenue stream is “fuckton of money.”
And when you have a fuckton of money coming in at a rate to make Walter White blush, you can afford to try out your very own paradigm shift. In 2019, Carnegie Mellon professors Michael D. Smith and Rahul Telang explained the attempt in the Harvard Business Review:
Netflix is not in the business of selling individual movies to many different customers. Instead, it’s in the business of selling many different movies to individual customers — in bundles. Bundled subscriptions allow Netflix to practice a different kind of price discrimination from the movie studios. The company doesn’t have to figure out how much a consumer values any individual movie on the service. The bundle does that for them — very profitably.
In other words, wondering how much money Netflix movies would make via theatrical release is sort of asking the wrong question. When you subscribe to Netflix, you’re not paying $9 or $14 or $18 for a ticket to a movie. You’re paying for admission to every screen in the movie theater. And you can watch as many offerings as you want, as much as you want, until the calendar kicks over.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not a fun exercise to wonder about how Netflix viewing statistics translate into a hypothetical box office. Nor that it’s a useless exercise. For better or worse, the amount of money a thing makes is still the most effective metric for measuring just about everything in the pop culture ecosystem: reach, influence, celebrity, future projects, future regrets.
The two competing metrics Netflix has given us so far leave something to be desired. Until very recently, the company would (occasionally) reveal how many of its subscribers had tuned in to a given project during its first weekend, its first month, or both. As of this writing, its most successful original release is the 2020 Chris Hemsworth movie Extraction, which had 99 million views between April and May of last year. Number two is Sandra Bullock’s 2018 horror movie Bird Box, with 89 million; rounding out the top three is Spenser Confidential, a movie I had never heard of until I started researching this article, and one that had 85 million views within the first month of the pandemic.
But this month, Netflix also revealed that going forward it will base viewership on the total number of hours viewers have streamed a movie. By that measure, the top films look somewhat different: Bird Box jumps to #1, with 282 million hours (!?). Extraction falls to #2, with 231 million. And The Irishman jumps all the way up to #3, with 215 million hours viewed. (That last number is somewhat skewed, though, by The Irishman’s Shoah-ian running time. You could run an ultramarathon in the time it takes to get through that movie.)
Of course, neither of those statistics is particularly helpful when trying to graft Netflix releases onto box office takes, since neither one presumes a viewing experience akin to the one you have in a theater. A Netflix movie’s total views don’t correlate to views of the movie from front to back. By the company’s own admission, watching just two minutes of a given movie counts as a single view. And, while switching to total hours of viewership sort of clears the picture up somewhat, that figure is likewise only so helpful when you don’t know exactly how many people started watching a given movie in the first place.
In sum, we can’t take Extraction’s 99 million views, multiply them by the $9.37 average cost of a movie ticket in 2020, and come away feeling confident that Extraction would therefore have made $927,630,000 had it been released in theaters. Nor can we take the 16,920,000,000 total minutes Netflix subscribers have spent watching Bird Box, divide that by the movie’s 124-minute running time, and conclude that had Bird Box’s cumulative audience of 136,451,612 people each paid approximately $9 to see the movie in a theater (recall that it came out in 2018, when ticket prices were on average a whole quarter cheaper than upon Extraction’s release), its box office take of $1,228,064,508 would have made Bird Box the then-16th highest-grossing movie of all time.
Unless we can, in fact, draw those conclusions. There’s no way to know for sure! Netflix, like Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight, likes to play things very close to the chest. And, like Batman in The Dark Knight, Netflix has constructed what amounts to a massive surveillance state for what it considers to be the common good.
How much would Red Notice make in theaters?
Which brings us back to Red Notice. By this point in the pandemic, the movie has become something of an inverse Tenet. Christopher Nolan’s movie was supposed to be the irresistible blockbuster that brought people back to the theater. But that didn’t quite work, because germs, and now we have another irresistible-looking blockbuster being piped right into our homes. The question of how successful it will be looms large.
For one thing, despite the Big Three leading its cast, Red Notice is an original idea. In Hollywood terms, this is kind of a no-no. Original ideas are risky, since they’re not based on a property with a built-in fan base — like, say, a comic book or a novel or an old TV series ripe for the updating. Go back and look at that list of the highest-grossing films of all time again. Of the top 20, only three — Avatar, Titanic, and Frozen — aren’t based on an established, well-known idea from another medium, or are a sequel to another movie. (Yes, Frozen is based on a fairy tale made popular by Hans Christian Andersen. I feel comfortable asserting that this is not the reason for the movie’s success.)
This also means that while Red Notice is a high-profile release, there’s somewhat less buzz about it than other, non-original movies of similar scale. Its trailer got 2.3 million views in the eleven days since Netflix put it up; Dune’s final trailer got 26 million in the ten weeks between its release and the movie’s. Tenet’s crossed the 20 million mark as well. And these numbers don’t even come close to the most-watched trailers.
Which is not to say that Red Notice is going to bomb — just that it’s unusual, to say the least, in the landscape of Major Motion Pictures. But countering this uncertainty is the movie’s serious star power. Dwayne Johnson’s last seven major releases have averaged $49 million opening weekends, a figure which includes Jungle Cruise (which came out during the pandemic) and Baywatch (which did not, but nobody bats a thousand). Ryan Reynolds’s last six major movies averaged $42.3 million.
And Gal Gadot’s last four — can you believe she hasn’t been a major, A-List star for ages? — averaged $67.3 million. That figure is even more impressive when you realize that while it does include Wonder Woman’s enormous $103.3 million opening weekend back in 2017, it balances that out with the $16.7 million Wonder Woman 1984 made its opening weekend late last year, when — say it with me! — the pandemic depressed the box office draw of every single movie across the board.
Rawson Marshall Thurber, Red Notice’s writer and director, has had a fair bit of success working with The Rock (on Central Intelligence and Skyscraper). Thurber’s other big movies, Dodgeball and We’re the Millers, also made a bunch of money. Hollywood, Netflix included, likes banking on established moviemakers.
Which brings me to a final point about Red Notice. While it’s an unknown quantity in an increasingly risk-averse business, that also means it can surprise people. Watching the trailer, I detect definite notes of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1994 action-comedy True Lies. I get Ocean’s Eleven vibes, particularly from the soundtrack and the promise of heisty goodness soon to come. I sense Dirty Rotten Scoundrels-esque scheming and double- and triple-crossing, and I am pleased.
Reynolds, in particular, brings to mind Steve Martin’s legendary Freddy Benson. And Gadot for sure reminds me of Glenne Headly’s effortless Janet Colgate. The Rock looks like The Rock, but I really hope he isn’t as dour as the trailer makes him out to be. The dude has comic chops, and a movie like this is the place for them.
Or anyway I assume it is; I only have the trailer to go on. Based on it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Red Notice garner a ton of positive word of mouth and rack up viewership numbers to make Squid Game do a double take. I want to live in a world were a goofy-ass heist adventure gets as much attention as a disturbingly accurate allegory for life in late-stage capitalism. Red Notice, leave Bird Box squawking in your dust; fill my mind with bliss.