If you thought they were mad about Trolls: World Tour, wait till they hear about Artemis Fowl.
“Exhibitors will not forget this.”
Those were the ominous, mob-boss like words from John Fithian, National Association of Theatre Owners chief, just two weeks ago in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. At that time, the bane of his existence was Universal’s Trolls: The World Tour, a mostly innocuous, animated jukebox musical about cute trolls solving life’s problems through song. Kids loved the first Trolls four years ago, parents tolerated it, and theater owners enjoyed a nice spike in candy sales. A similar pattern was surely going to play out again before, well, ya know.
The world came to a screeching halt, sideswiped by the society-disrupting neutron bomb that is COVID-19. Forced to close indefinitely around the globe for the sake of public health, theater owners were staring down the barrel of an unprecedented existential crisis. (Theaters closed during the 1918 Spanish Flu but not all at once around the world.) The Trump administration’s much-talked-about stimulus package was still being kicked around by Congress. AMC’s CEO ominously warned that without a federal bailout there would be no movie theater industry in America anymore.
As Eddie Vedder might put it: “This fucked-up situation calls for all hands, hands on deck.” (Why the double use of “hands”? Because he’s Eddie Vedder and he can do what he wants.)
So, why the heck was Universal jumping off the deck, breaking ranks with the beleaguered theater owners by rebranding Trolls: World Tour as a direct-to-video release? Officially, if by the grace of some higher power any theaters – like maybe drive-ins – were still open on April 10, Trolls: World Tour would happily play there. Otherwise, it was going straight to video on that date for a 48-hour rental fee of $19.99.
Break the theatrical window? No other studio dared go that far.
“Only Universal on Trolls undermined the theatrical model. And Universal told no exhibitor about their plans on Trolls until approximately 20 minutes before their announcement,” Fithian explained, cartoon steam presumably coming out of his ears. “Exhibitors know who their partners are. And every other studio has demonstrated true partnership and belief in the theatrical model during this time of crisis for all Americans, and indeed all moviegoers around the world.”
Again, that was just two weeks ago. What a year we’ve had since then. The stimulus package passed, but no one – theater owners or otherwise – fully understands how to get a piece of the $350 billion small business loan pie. That toiler paper crisis that was supposed to pass once we stopped panic-buying has turned into a genuine shortage. We’ve gone from saving masks for medical personnel and symptomatic people only to everyone in the US advised to wear some kind of face-covering whenever they leave their home, ushering us into a new era where it will be socially acceptable to walk into a bank looking like a bank robber. (That is if your bank hasn’t already closed its lobby, which it almost definitely has.)
In a desperate bid to maintain some – any – kind of cashflow, Hollywood has taken a sledgehammer to the traditional home video window, rushing major theatrical releases to VOD at a record pace. Vudu’s new “Theater at Home” section now lists 14 such titles, ranging in price from $19.99 (Sonic the Hedgehog, Birds of Prey, Bloodshot, The Way Back, I Still Believe, The Invisible Man, The Hunt, Never Rarely Sometimes Always, Emma) to $9.99 (Brahms: The Boy II, Downhill) with Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Call of the Wild landing in-between at $14.99. Basically, if there is a major movie that played in more than 3,000 theaters earlier this year, it’s already available on home video or is about to be (Fantasy Island).
Still, to John Fithian’s relief, Trolls: World Tour remained the sole outlier on breaking the theatrical window. All other movies that were due for a wide release simply delayed. Sure, rumors ran wild about Disney and WB following Universal’s lead and shifting Black Widow and Wonder Woman to VOD and/or their own streaming service – Widow to Disney+, WW84 to the yet-to-be-launched HBOMax. The studios have since downplayed those reports.
AMC CEO Adam Aron sounded positively bullish about the chance for the industry to at least salvage some kind of summer blockbuster schedule. “The summer has always been one of the biggest movie seasons of the year, the summer and Christmas,” he told CNBC’s Squawk Alley. “I would love to think that America will be enjoying the summer movie season again.” He did concede, however, that “nobody knows” when summer might actually start.
Disney has got his back. Kind of.
Yesterday, the Mouse House unveiled its newly revised release schedule through 2022. Obvious takeaway: Marvel’s Phase 4 has been rescheduled. Black Panther 2 is the only film to keep its previously announced date, May 8, 2022. Everything else has either been pushed back (Black Widow to 11/6/20, Eternals to 2/12/21), Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Rings to 5/7/21, Doctor Strange 2 to 11/5/21, Thor: Love and Thunder to 2/18/22) or moved up (Captain Marvel 2 to 7/8/22).
Optimistically, however, Disney believes it can put Mulan into theaters in July, 7/24/20 to be exact. Furthermore, Soul – previously scheduled to open on 6/19 of this year – is sticking to its target date, at least for now.
Is that actually feasible? “Come summer, Americans might get restaurants but no music festivals, offices but no crowded beaches, bars with spaced-out seating,” argued The Atlantic’s Joe Pinsker while also noting none of this will truly end until there’s a vaccine, which sure as heck won’t be here by summer. Whether movie theaters fall into that faint promise of something sorta kinda but not really approaching normalcy…way above my pay grade. I’m not optimistic.
Even the countries that have been fighting this longer and seem closer to moving past their first wave aren’t exactly in a rush to reopen public spaces. China’s theaters, for example, remain closed after briefly re-opening last month, forced shut for public health reasons or lack of new product or both. The government gave the theater owners no official reason for the order.
By summer, beyond whether the theaters will even be open, there’s also: will we feel safe in a theater? How much free money will we have during what’s already an historic economic downturn? Will our media consumption patterns end up permanently altered by quarantined Netflix viewing? All unknowns with limited historic precedent since nothing on this scale and for this long has happened in a century.
So, yeah, for now any theatrical release date that has 2020 at the end is written in pencil with an eraser nearby.
That being said, notice that Black Widow is not going direct to streaming as rumored. Forbes argued a Black Widow VOD release would leave far too much money on the table to make it worthwhile unless Disney is truly and utterly desperate for money. Iger and his underlings apparently agree. For now, Black Widow is being held back for November.
The studio has instead settled on a different guinea pig: Artemis Fowl.
Slated for May 29, the fantasy novel series adaptation Artemis Fowl – which had already been delayed multiple times – is now off the schedule entirely and heading straight to Disney+, although exactly when that’s going to happen remains unclear. Forbes thinks Disney should go even further and add the now-undated New Mutants to the streaming service as well. “Both were theatrical long shots, and both would get the same Disney is offering at-home families a special treat for these troubled times!’ pr win without making Black Widow or Mulan walk that perilous plank.”
Logical, but from the theater owner’s point of view John Fithian should probably be more upset over this than Trolls: World Tour. As industry analyst Matthew Ball recently explained, Universal’s decision with Trolls: World Tour was largely related to how much the studio had already spent on marketing:
The first Trolls film grossed a modest $350MM in 2016, and the box office in 2020 is far more hostile, irrespective of the effects of COVID. In addition, pre-release marketing spend was essentially complete. As a result, it made sense to try and lever this spend into the home video window and take advantage of kids cooped up due to COVID, rather than reschedule and re-market the film at a later date and with a more competitive schedule.
All of those others movies which were originally meant to come out in late March and April that delayed – No Time to Die, Fast and Furious 8, Mulan, A Quiet Place II – are eating all of the money they lost on marketing, a not small amount for the average blockbuster. It’s being rolled into the new marketing campaigns that’ll have to be launched down the line, thus elevating each film’s break-even point. The dire need to quickly make up for that lost money is partially why perennially-troubled Paramount simply sold its Kumail Nanjiani-Issa Rae rom-com The Lovebirds – originally due out this weekend – to Netflix.
Disney, on the other hand, has had a longer lead time to make this decision on Artemis Fowl, meaning that while marketing costs surely played a role this does feel more like an experiment. Just last month, Iger’s crew gave Onward a two-week run as a rental/purchase for $19.99. Then came a near-instant shift to dynamic pricing, offering formerly-Fox-produced films like Downhill and Call of the Wild for slightly cheaper. Now Onward is already on Disney+ and Artemis Fowl is bypassings VOD altogether, going straight to Disney+ as a bonus for current subscribers/enticement for future subscribers.
Which brings us back to John Fithian. It’s one thing to threaten Universal with some vague promise of retaliation, perhaps a stricter stance on ticket sale splits; it’s another matter entirely when it comes to Disney. Thanks to its Fox acquisition, Disney is now basically half of Hollywood, and what Universal started Disney is now finishing.
On the other side of this, Matthew Ball forecasts some movie theaters will probably never reopen, and all of the trend-lines which preceded this crisis – fewer movies released in theaters, heavy emphasis on blockbusters, steadily declining attendance, shift toward streaming at home – will continue on steroids. What Universal and Disney learn from Trolls and Artemis Fowl might well add to all of that.
Does that mean Trolls: World Tour will go down in film history as a game changer? 1982’s thriller Tangiers, for example, isn’t really remembered by anyone other than the hardcore fans of the actor Ronny Cox, but it will always be a historical first, the first major film created specifically for a home video release. Might we similarly look back at Trolls: World Tour as a trivia question answer, the movie that changed the theatrical release window for good? Seems unlikely, but in the here and now everyone’s just trying to get by one day at a time. The studios gotta find the money somewhere.