When Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” lands on home entertainment platforms on Friday, it’ll mark the first major studio movie to skip its planned traditional theatrical release since the coronavirus outbreak forced cinemas to close.
The unprecedented move, going against perennial protocol in exhibition, has many in the entertainment industry wondering: is the bold bet a sign of the times, or a paradigm shift in Hollywood that will shatter theatrical windows?
“The ‘Trolls World Tour’ release boils down to extraordinary measures under extraordinary circumstances,” said Jeff Bock, a media analyst with Exhibitor Relations.
But it’s not the only sign that Hollywood is throwing out the conventional playbook as it struggles to find new revenue streams while multiplexes remain shuttered. Since Universal’s announcement, Paramount sold romantic comedy “The Lovebirds” to Netflix, Disney sent “Artemis Fowl” straight to its streaming service Disney Plus, and STX siphoned off action adventure “My Spy” with Dave Bautista to Amazon Studios. Theater owners have raised eyebrows, and in some cases publicly scolded, studios for liberally amending longstanding policies. In the past, exhibitors have vocally opposed films playing exclusively in theaters for less than 90 days.
Since movie theaters started to turn off their lights in the middle of March, major studios have been forced to retool their release calendars, postponing many films indefinitely and tentatively finding new dates for others. Universal opted not to delay “Trolls World Tour” any longer because the studio was already deep into its marketing campaign for the film. It would have been too costly to ramp up promotional efforts again when cinemas reopen. Instead, Universal offered the film on home entertainment the same day as its global theatrical release. That comes with an asterisk, of course, since virtually all movie theaters are closed. “Trolls World Tour” will screen this weekend in about 20 drive-ins across the country.
“This is something studios have wanted to try for a long time, [so] it’s understandable they did it,” said Peter Csathy, chairman of Creatv Media, a media and entertainment advisory company.
It’s possible that “Trolls World Tour” could be the impetus for a new theatrical model, but industry experts suggest the decision is more likely a unique response to the rare circumstances. For Universal, it’s the chance to offer a film, one that might not have been a theatrical juggernaut, to a captive audience stuck at home.
After all, there’s a reason why “Trolls World Tour” is serving as the guinea pig for this particular experiment, while Universal remains committed to keeping sequels to other properties, such as “Fast & Furious” and “Despicable Me,” on the big screen.
“Trolls World Tour,” based on the popular toys and featuring the voices of Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, was expected to bring back modest box office receipts. Analysts point out there is less of a risk with another “Trolls,” compared to two more high-profile releases that were delayed due to the pandemic, “Fast 9” and “Minions 2,” both of which are part of billion-dollar franchises. The first “Trolls” film earned nearly $350 million globally in 2016, a solid result for an animated film, but not exactly an Earth bestriding blockbuster either.
“Ultimately, everyone wants to maximize revenues. There’s still a prestige factor that comes from a theatrical release. That’s part of the equation,” Csathy said.
More recently, follow-ups to cartoon films geared toward younger audiences haven’t performed to the same level as their predecessors. Universal’s “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” Warner Bros. second “Lego Movie” and Sony’s “Angry Birds 2” each brought in almost 50% less at the box office than the originals. Financially, it might not have made sense for Universal to continue to pump marketing dollars into a film like “Trolls World Tour” given this kind of trajectory for animated sequels.
Still, many are wondering if it is possible to turn a profit while bypassing movie theaters, a major source of revenue for tentpoles. Universal spent almost $100 million to produce “Trolls World Tour,” and tens of millions more in global marketing fees. It’ll need to rack up the digital downloads to get in the black.
“For films that cost a fortune to make, it would be hard to make them profitable by streaming alone,” said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior box office analyst at Comscore.
“Trolls World Tour,” which could benefit from brand recognition among younger audiences, will be available to rent for 48 hours for $19.99. Universal hopes audiences will consider that price tag a bargain, since tickets in urban markets such as New York and Los Angeles can hit nearly $20. And that’s not including the cost of popcorn and soda. As the rest of the industry navigates the digital landscape, there’s a sense that, if this trend continues, price points could fluctuate for different films as studios figure out what people are willing to pay for the at-home experience.
Some note “Trolls World Tour” could create a false positive when it comes to assessing the success of straight to VOD titles. On one hand, they have a willing audience with most of the country staying home in line with social distancing measures. But on the other, people, many of whom already subscribe to multiple streaming services, might be unwilling to part with cash during a time of massive global uncertainty.
“There’s a captive audience, so it’s an artificial test, but nonetheless, this grand experiment will reveal what kind of numbers can be made with this new type of release,” Csathy said.
However, it’s unlikely, for now, that Universal will release information about “Trolls World Tour.”
“The financials will be particularly interesting, although I doubt they’ll ever see the light of day outside the very top of the Comcast towers, unless they want theater-owners to riot,” said Bock. “If it’s a hit for Universal, great, but they should probably keep that to themselves.”
He adds, “We’ll know anyway, as the mark of a successful film, especially an animated one from Universal, is lots of sequels.”
In other words, if there’s a third “Trolls” movie, it means people shelled out to watch “World Tour.”