The most controversial movie of the year is … “Trolls World Tour”?
As innocuous as the rainbow-colored, music-blaring animated movie may seem, the digital release of the “Trolls” sequel has caused a storm to course through the movie industry. Just as the pandemic worsened and movie theaters were shuttering, Universal Pictures shifted the film’s release to video on demand, leading a charge straight through the theatrical window.
Universal calls the “Trolls World Tour” digital release a success and suggests it may be the beginning of a sea change in how movies are released. Theater owners strenuously disagree. AMC Theaters, the largest chain in the United States, is signaling an all-out war, saying it will no longer show Universal movies.
While few anticipated a skirmish would come over a glitter explosion like “Trolls World Tour,” it has been long in coming. Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services have in recent years broken the industry’s traditional theatrical window of 72-90 days (and thus had their films excluded from major theater chains), and the major studios have sometimes been tempted to try their own luck and head straight to homes.
On Tuesday, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell told The Wall Street Journal that the digital release for “Trolls World Tour” has gone well enough to demonstrate the viability of direct-to-home releases. He promised that even once theaters reopen, “We expect to release movies on both formats.”
The Journal reported that in three weeks of $20 on-demand rentals, “Trolls World Tour” has grossed about $95 million. The studio, which normally splits sales approximately in half with theaters, pocketed about $75 million of that. A spokesman for Universal did not dispute those figures.
By comparison, 2016′s “Trolls” grossed $116 million in U.S. and Canada and $346.9 million worldwide. The sequel cost a reported $90 million to produce, not including marketing costs that likely exceeded $50 million.
Whether that performance constitutes a “hit” or merely an intriguing pandemic-era experiment has been the subject of much debate. Under stay at home orders, the country’s moviegoers are on lockdown. “Trolls World Tour” benefited by being the first such release during the crisis. And even in those extreme circumstances, it’s made significantly less than the original film did. The rentals may have also eaten into other “downstream” home entertainment revenue sources.