Like countless other businesses, the film industry has seen a significant upheaval due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. As of now, the future still remains uncertain. Major studio releases like Disney/ Pixar’s Onward, Universal’s The Invisible Man, and Columbia’s Bloodshot all had their theatrical runs cut short once movie theaters shut down and stay-at-home orders were issued throughout the world. These films would arrive on VOD a couple of weeks later, but the damage was already done and studios quickly moved to push back the dates of more and more future releases. One film, however, stood out from the rest – Trolls: World Tour.
Before the pandemic put the world on pause, Universal Pictures was deep in their promotion for their soon to be released sequel to 2016’s Trolls, based off the popular brand of dolls. Animation isn’t cheap, the film has a stacked cast full of music stars and marketing to children is a hefty effort. So when COVID-19 swept the planet, NBC Universal CEO Jeff Shell understandably didn’t want all that work to be for nothing. On April 10th, the day Trolls: World Tour was set to come out in theaters, it became available on digital platforms to rent. It was the first movie to be released digitally on the same day as its planned wide theatrical release, and it became Universal’s most successful day-one rental.
Three weeks later, the film raked in over $100 million in profit – outperforming what the first film had made in theaters over the course of five months. The math was a no-brainer: Shell announced that the company would begin releasing movies on both the big screen and the small screen simultaneously. It’s the next inevitable step for entertainment in the age of streaming, but reactions have been harsh.
Both AMC and Regal Cinemas, the two largest movie theater chains in the world, have vowed to not license any Universal movies that are released this way. They went so far as to call the practice “completely inappropriate”, while claiming that it breaches their previous agreements. Regardless, if audiences decide to rather rent new films at home than go out to the theater, it could put the business out of commission entirely. Even the film’s stars were caught off guard by the VOD release, and are now demanding compensation for the fact that much of their pay is tied to box office bonuses.
Universal has clarified that they are still committed to the theatrical experience, but are not backing down from this decision. It’s possible that the success of Trolls: World Tour could be a fluke, but the draw for audiences is impossible to deny. The novelty of getting to watch a brand new major movie from the comfort of home the day it’s released is huge, and spending $20 as opposed to paying for several tickets (if you’re going with family or friends) costing way over $10 apiece may not just be the better option, but the only option for many.
Universal is moving forward with VOD releases for The High Note on May 29th and The King of Staten Island on June 12th, in lieu of their previously planned theatrical windows. Warner Bros has also followed suit, scrapping the theatrical release for Scoob! and making it available for both rental and purchase starting May 15th. Disney, the current titan of the movie industry – the company saw roughly $13 billion in box office revenue last year – changed their release plans for Artemis Fowl, and will now launch the film through their Disney Plus streaming service on June 12th.
Movie theaters still don’t have a clear date for when they’ll be back at full operating capacity, but Warner Bros and Disney will roll the dice in July with the releases of Tenet and Mulan. How these films, and the previously mentioned VOD releases, fare will likely determine the future of movies. The fact that all of this was brought on by a product as silly as Trolls: World Tour is about as Hollywood as it gets.