Trolls World Tour Is the Most Controversial Movie of the Decade
Springtime is here, the school year is ending, and summer is right around the corner. We usually get our first summer blockbusters in May, but this year is going to be very different. Marvel’s Black Widow was slated for release on May 1st, and Fast and the Furious 9 was expected on May 22nd. Like many other movies, their theatric releases have been postponed.
When will the cinemas open again? We don’t know. In the meantime viewers can spend their movie budget streaming Trolls World Tour. Rather than postpone the release, Universal opted to go digital. Movie cinemas aren’t happy.
Yes, Trolls has become the face of cinematic controversy. Not because of the content in the film, but because it bypassed the big screen and went straight to the small screen.
Movie theaters have not taken kindly to Universal’s decision to push Trolls World Tour to a paid video on demand (PVOD) release. AMC CEO Adam Aron recently stated the chain would ban Universal’s movies because of the company’s decision to skip the “theatric window.” This is the margin of time when a movie can only be viewed in theaters, before it is release on other formats. Cineworlds, owner of Regal Cinemas, has issued a similar warning. They stated they won’t show movie who skip over this window.
This could spell bad news for Universal, or good news for customers.
The Success of Trolls World Tour
On the surface, the PVOD release of Trolls World Tour is reasonable. All movies are postponed, but there’s demand for new movies right now. Especially from the younger crowd who have been out of school for almost two months. So Universal made the decision to give people Trolls!
Unlike Disney’s decision to push Onward to an early release, Trolls was not exclusive to one service. Amazon listed the rental for $19.99 upon its April 10th release, and you can rent the movie for the same price on other services like iTunes, Google Play, or YouTube. A 48 hour rental costs more than a single movie ticket, but people still rented it.
Truth be told, the Trolls World Tour audience was never going to buy just one ticket to the movie. Most viewing parties are going to include child and a guardian at a minimum. Add in the inevitable snacks at the concession stand, and a trip to watch some animated trolls can hit about $50.
The parents who rented the movie know this, and despite the high sticker price, Trolls World Tour is a bargain. Sure, you don’t get to see the movie on a huge screen, but who really cares? Certainly not the parents who are only there to chaperone their kids. Probably not the kids either, because they’re used to streaming movies all day at home. Plus, there’s no commute, you can pause for bathroom breaks, and it doesn’t matter if the kids get a little loud.
Now Trolls World Tour holds the record for the biggest digital release of all time. The PVOD format works well in this situation, perhaps a little too well. Universal knows this, and they’re happy with the near $100 million the movie has earned during its first three weeks. While the original Trolls earned over $157 million during its box office run, Universal may see more money from World Tour. Universal only received $77 million from the original after the theaters got their cut of the deal, but they retain about 80% of profits from the sequel. As it stands now, World Tour has probably earned Universal more, and its PVOD run isn’t over.
Bigger Problems Are Coming
Theaters were definitely irked by the PVOD release of Trolls World Tour, but the single release wasn’t going to sever ties with Universal. The real drama stems from the intent to keep PVOD as an option for future movie releases. NBC Universal Chairman Jeff Shell stated that both theatric and on-demand releases would be considered once theaters were reopened. This is the driving force behind AMC and Regal Cinemas banning Universal from their theaters.
Despite these bans, other films have opted to go straight to the small screen. Warner Bros will be testing the PVOD format for their release of Scoob! The movie, originally expected to release in theaters on May 15th, has decided to release digitally on the same day. Viewers can rent for $20, or digitally own the film for $25.
It would be hard to deny the release of Scoob! wasn’t impacted by the success of Trolls World Tour. The animated Scooby Doo installment is geared toward the same audience as Trolls, a demographic particularly receptive to home releases. Universal’s next risk will come in the form of King of Staten Island. The Judd Apatow-direct comedy will have a PVOD release on June 12th. This adult comedy targets an older demographic than Trolls World Tour and Scoob! and will test an adult’s receptiveness to PVOD releases.
Warner Bros differs from Universal because their future releases will remain exclusive to theaters. Wonder Woman 1984 has been postponed from June 5, 2020 to August 14, 2020. The superhero movie is an attempt for Warner Bros and DC to create a summer blockbuster, a feat best suited for the theater. These big-budget movies are likely to be the last to adapt to a PVOD format as they’re the ones trying to generate major ticket sales.
A trend is starting, but it’s unclear whether the PVOD release of Trolls World Tour would have been successful if it weren’t for movie theaters shutting down. Certainly some rentals are due to the stay-at-home orders, but there are also parents who would rather not sit through an animated movie about singing Trolls. If given the option to rent at home or trek to the cinema, many parents would choose to stay put.
Are the Theaters in Trouble?
Viewing habits have been changing for over a decade, and the movie industry is another sector forced to adapt to COVID-19. It is very possible this could have a longterm impact on theaters, though not all movies will be willing to transition just yet.
Universal took a risk releasing Trolls World Tour directly as PVOD, but this was probably the least risky movie they could have released in the format. There’s a need to keep kids entertained while they’re stuck at home, the Trolls franchise already exists with young fans, and parents are happy to skip the trip to the theater to see another children’s movie. When King of Staten Island is release, we will begin to see the viability of PVOD for an older audience. Still, this movie’s release will be impacted by stay-at-home orders. The real test will come when viewers have the option to go to the theater.
Theaters should still be scared. A young, impressionable generation is seeing movies released directly to home media. They will become accustomed to these releases, and question the necessity of going to the theater. Even older viewers are seeing the benefit. They pay one price, have 48 hours, guaranteed great seats, and avoid overprices snacks. With all of these benefits, they’ll begin to question whether cinemas provide any real benefit to the viewing experience.
The biggest concern comes from Universal’s profit margin. Production studios see the benefit of cutting out the middleman. Even if they’re making fewer sales, they might have a greater profit. If customers are willing to stay home, studios might be swayed toward the option where they earn more for each sale.
Of course, Trolls World Tour’s success was a result of COVID-19, at least partially. Universal saws success during a unique time period, but they’re betting the formula can work longterm. For families who did rent the movie, it also highlighted the conveniences of a PVOD release. This is a big opportunity for film distributors, and one that Universal was quick to embrace.
The viability of POVD will vary with each movies. While animated movies and comedies may adapt well to the format, major action films will likely remain in theaters. They’re designed for the big screen and viewers tend to want the full experience. Given their earning potential, they’ll want to sell more tickets at the box office rather than opt for a digital release multiple people can watch at once.
Longterm, this shift could spell disaster for the theaters. AMC’s anger toward Universal is understandable, but it’s also hard to deny the benefit for Universal to shift toward the PVOD format. Even after COVID-19, they seem willing to release movies directly to PVOD. This is why the theaters are really mad.
We’re now entering an experimental phase thanks to Trolls World Tour. It’s a time that could benefit movie viewers and studios while leaving the theaters already see themselves getting left in the dust.