Aja Romano for vox.com, | November 22, 2021

Red Notice is a huge hit for Netflix. But what does that actually mean?

The Rock, Gal Gadot, Ryan Reynolds, and Cleopatra’s eggs?

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Netflix’s Red Notice spent the week enjoying a run at the top of Netflix’s Top 10. A fun, slick archeology heist flick in the tradition of Indiana Jones meets Ocean’s Eleven, the film stars The Rock, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot; reportedly came with a massive production price tag, possibly as high as $300 million; and was originally subject to a huge bidding war from various Hollywood studios when writer Rawson Thurber pitched it in 2018.

Yet despite its hugeness, Red Notice seems to barely exist on the cultural radar. While the Netflix streaming numbers are striking — the film racked up an impressive 148 million viewing hours in its first week, according to Netflix’s newly released top 10 metrics — and there was some buzz on social media, Red Notice looks and feels like the kind of movie that would be subject to a balls-to-the-wall marketing campaign and widespread distribution in US movie theaters. Why is the kind of cheesy, big-budget fun that would make a perfect summer blockbuster debuting on Netflix in November?

It’s the kind of thing that feels like an anomaly but probably shouldn’t. With Covid-19 changing the way we experience the movies, and Netflix still disrupting the industry, the trajectory of Red Notice provides us with interesting insight into the direction “big” movies are headed: to a small screen near you.

Hear me out: Yes, it’s become routine for films to either premiere exclusively on streaming platforms or to debut on streaming simultaneously or shortly after an in-theater run. The pandemic, obviously, has made staying indoors and streaming films preferable to braving long lines at the movieplex. Even before the pandemic, there was a reason “Netflix and chill” became the new euphemism for staying indoors and relaxing for the night.

Additionally, streaming companies often negotiate partnerships with major studios, like the surprising “same day-and-date release” contract that HBO Max and Warner Bros. briefly tried out for this year (though Warner Bros. quickly pivoted to an exclusive in-theater window only for 2022).

So, yes, movies are streaming now. That’s not the weird part about Red Notice.

What does feel weird is that Red Notice, panned by critics and beloved by audiences, seems like a film that’s designed to pack ’em in movie houses — and in another age, it would have. Red Notice is one of those films that seem destined to play to fans of niche geekery as well as fans of high camp. Reviewers dinged it for having terrible writing, an absurd plot, and a cast whose cardboard chemistry made the aforementioned terrible writing excruciating. All of this is profoundly true, and yet I, a plebeian, howled with laughter the whole time I watched it. I actually went and microwaved popcorn, because it felt like such an enjoyably popcorn-y movie.

The plot of Red Notice, such as it is, involves a deeply earnest search for “Cleopatra’s third egg,” a deeply ridiculous jeweled MacGuffin. Ryan Reynolds even refers to it as a MacGuffin, shortly after whistling the Raiders of the Lost Arc theme song, which tells you the no-fucks-given meta ambiance we’re dealing with. There’s also a deeply unsexy, hilariously flat tango between The Rock and Wonder Woman, and a splashy Ed Sheeran cameo. That’s everything you need to know.

In short, it’s the kind of frothy, superfluous glossy action comedy you want to watch on a big screen. Too bad that’s probably not going to happen, unless you live near a small town with a relatively large independent movie theater.

Originally, Red Notice was meant to be a big hit for Universal, which acquired the rights based on Thurber’s idea for a Dwayne Johnson star vehicle. (Thurber had previously directed The Rock in Central Intelligence and Skyscraper, which both had significant global box office returns despite flopping domestically.) After Universal got cold feet due to a flagging production schedule, however, a bidding war ensued and Netflix snapped up the film and committed to a hefty budget, reportedly between $130 million and $200 million.

From there, Red Notice’s fate shifted significantly. Netflix taking on the film meant a trade-off: The platform was able to commit to the blockbuster-size budget and hefty star salaries, and the massive size of Netflix’s subscriber base — now 214 million worldwide — guaranteed that a huge number of people would be directly introduced to the film when they logged on to their Netflix account.

But the Netflix acquisition also meant a much shorter run in movie theaters and a very nontraditional marketing rollout. That’s because Netflix films, in general, tend to have a hard time getting play in mainstream cinemas. And that’s because, as independent movie theater owner Jay Levin told me, cinema franchises were never going to release these films in traditional movie houses.

“The big boys — AMC and all — they’re not playing games with Netflix,” he told me. “They have enough films. ... They’re not going to just bow to Netflix and just get a two-week [distribution window]. It’s not worth it to them.” The terms under which Netflix and other streaming platforms work with movie studios and distributors can vary widely and be subject to change. In other words, which films actually make it to theaters and how successful they’ll be alongside a streaming release is something of “a crapshoot,” Levin said.

“I only do it because they’re very reasonable in their terms,” he added. “And I [have] seven screens — I certainly wouldn’t do it if I had less.”

Levin runs the Bellmore Playhouse, an independent theater on Long Island. Red Notice played there, but just for a few days. The movie, he said, “is really what they call a filler” — but the prospect of a seat filler doesn’t appeal to major movie distribution franchises. A movie theater franchise like AMC, he told me, would “rather hold something from a major [film] company rather than go to Netflix.”

While other major streaming platforms like HBO Max and Disney+ also release their films in theaters, most of them have much longer windows for theaters to show the films in. Disney, for example, is giving all of its upcoming films an exclusive 45-day theatrical release before releasing them on Disney+. But because Netflix is solely a streaming company rather than a movie studio like Disney or a cable network like HBO, its ultimate goal is to drive subscribers. Therefore, it has less incentive to push for a longer in-theater release.

The difference makes itself felt at the box office: Red Notice star Gal Gadot’s 2020 hit Wonder Woman: 1984 premiered the same day on HBO Max and in theaters; but with a much longer release window, it went on to gross over $166 million worldwide. Compare that to Red Notice’s estimated opening weekend take of barely $1 million.

The short distribution window, combined with Netflix’s upstart role in the industry, means that a lack of a traditional movie run for these big-budget movies may be inevitable — at least as things currently stand. For Red Notice, the move to Netflix meant that not only did its time in movie theaters shrink, but the number of theaters showing it became minuscule. In the region around New York City, for example, Red Notice in its opening week primarily played a handful of independent theaters in small towns in New Jersey.

Granted, it wasn’t all bad; the movie chain Cinemark, which reportedly showed Red Notice in 750 theaters around the country, proudly declared in a November 12 press release that Red Notice was its best-performing Netflix film to date. But neither Netflix nor Cinemark has actually disclosed Red Notice’s box office performance — an omission that highlights just how nontraditional Netflix movies are.

So even though Red Notice is a blockbuster-size movie, we have to adjust our expectations for what its success looks like.

This minuscule theater run is part of an increasingly typical pattern for Netflix, in which the company has focused on producing and distributing high-budget genre movies with big rollouts straight to the platform. In lieu of a traditional theater release, the buzzy 2020 Netflix action flick Old Guard still gave the platform the ability to boast about its high streaming numbers — even if the movie quickly vanished from the Netflix Top 10.

In February 2021, Netflix pushed the Korean sci-fi flick Space Sweepers, whose $22 million budget was atypically large for Korean cinema, to a receptive global audience of geeks, and that film, too, hit No. 1 on its opening day on the platform. Then came Zack Snyder’s May horror movie Army of the Dead, a major summer release with ongoing buzz — but one that, again, opened directly on Netflix. Though Army of the Dead did get a run in a few hundred Cinemark theaters, it was only a week-long deal, and the film grossed less than $800,000 in its opening weekend at the box office.

Levin pointed out that AMC recently negotiated a 45-day theatrical release window for Warner Bros. films, superseding the previous day-and-date release deal Warner Bros. had with HBO Max. That deal had been controversial, and seemed to produce disappointing returns for Warner Bros. — perhaps, as Levin noted, because the lack of an exclusive distribution time in theaters meant that audiences, conditioned to stay home due to the pandemic, were more likely to choose to watch the film on the streaming platform. (Vox has reached out to AMC for comment.)

It’s also arguable that Netflix doesn’t really need to offer a longer distribution window. The October prequel to Army of the Dead, for example, Army of Thieves, didn’t get the same in-theater treatment but was still a major success for the platform. If Netflix’s ultimate goal is generating new subscribers, then overall optics — like its newly public top 10 lists — are more important than the success of an individual film or series.

Still, it certainly seems like Red Notice, which potentially offers the kind of silly, fun moviegoing experience that was routine before the pandemic, should be a film that plays on a big screen. Levin told me it did well for his movie house, pulling in about $1,500 for its one-screen, one-week run, but added that this was unsurprising, given its stars.

Levin observed that even though critics hated the film, it had the right ingredients to have done well at the cineplex with a traditional rollout. “It had Dwayne Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. ... If they had done the right advertising, it should have been a picture that probably would have grossed $30 million, even with the bad reviews, because they’re very likable guys, you know?”

Levin pointed out that Red Notice also didn’t get a traditional marketing campaign — you won’t see many ads for it on television, for example — but this is arguably by design. Reached for contact, a Netflix spokesperson pointed out that the company did a widespread global ad campaign for the movie, including targeted advertising on television shows and sporting events. The trio of stars did the typical talk show circuit, but also dabbled in more unconventional forms of marketing like Ryan Reynolds’s Antiques Roadshow drop-in, as well as a major — and, honestly, deeply weird — TikTok trailer campaign.

Cringe though the TikTok marketing may be, it’s effective. The TikTok trailers have racked up more than 180 million views overall, and indicate that traditional, pre-Covid movie marketing may be neither as effective nor as necessary in 2021. And Netflix, perhaps more than any other streaming platform, has always had the added advantage of access on its side: As Ted Sarandos, then the company’s chief content officer and now its co-CEO, said in a 2015 interview, Netflix can forgo typical marketing campaigns because all it needs to do is serve content directly to viewers.

“A lot of the heavy lifting of getting audiences to the show is done with the user interface,” he noted. “We can launch a lot of these shows without spending any marketing. ... The actual viewing of shows, the user interface is driving almost all of that.”

The company’s size and aims have obviously ballooned in the six years since that interview. Red Notice was part of a half-billion-dollar push to bring big-budget films to the platform; the runaway hit Squid Game was part of a half-billion-dollar investment in Korean entertainment and part of an even larger campaign to generate Asian subscribers. But the company’s approach to marketing seems largely unchanged: Awkward TikTok campaigns notwithstanding, the platform’s main marketing tool seems to be itself.

That said, Netflix has always been aware of the power an in-theater run holds for its prestige films — its Oscar-nominated titles like Mank and The Irishman have all had theater runs, if only to satisfy the Academy’s eligibility requirements. Its current crop of fall prestige films have each been given one- to two-week limited theater runs. And recent reports indicate the company is interested in expanding its in-theater window for films in order to make a bigger cultural impact.

It’s pretty hard to envision Netflix’s cultural impact becoming any bigger, but it’s true that individual Netflix films lack the cultural staying power of its major series. Arguably no Netflix movie has had the cultural cachet of Stranger Things or Orange Is the New Black, for example. Could a movie like Red Notice, despite the critical pans, wedge its way into the zeitgeist with a little more exposure?

There’s only one way to find out. But even if Netflix commits to a longer theatrical release window, there’s one unpredictable factor that no industry change can control.

“I don’t think we will ever see the [audience] numbers that we saw pre-Covid,” Levin observed, assessing the state of pandemic moviegoing. “The [studios] see now that the theaters can give relatively big grosses, still, on the big pictures. The little pictures still have trouble. And the arthouses are a disaster.”

Will they come back eventually? “I don’t know,” he said. “You just never know what’s going to happen next.” But whatever fate befalls movie theaters and their audiences, one thing seems abundantly clear: Netflix wins in the end, whether audiences stay home or not.