Film News

Trolls: World Tour – An Improbable Game Changer?

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.

Sigh.

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).

One title you won’t find in that “Theater at Home” section anymore is Onward, because after making it exclusively available to buy/rent for two weeks Disney already put it up on Disney+

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.

Sources: CNBC, Deadline, Forbes, MatthewBall, THR

11 comments

  1. I think Disney smelled a flop with Artemis Fowl anyway. They know that the trailer was not received well by the fanbase. So saving the money for marketing and distribution and instead giving people more reason to spring the money for Disney Plus might actually be the better idea.

    I also get the impression that Disney is planning now for a “The virus runs rampart in the US” scenario. Because if it does, than the US will soon run out of body bags, but will have so many infected that the virus might have run its course by July.

    1. Agreed about Artemis. They’d already delayed and retooled their marketing once and the results weren’t promising. Also, yes, based on how slow-footed the American south has been and that 8 states still have not issued stay-at-home orders this is going to get much worse, long after NY has passed its own local peak. Disney, of course, has its parks in Florida and has to consider how long that revenue will be gone, probably longer than in California I’d guess based on how long it took that state to close. Plus, as a global business, Disney has to also look at Wuhan re-opening and start figuring out when or if its movies can get back into Chinese theaters and when Disneyland Shanghai might re-open. Lots of factors to juggle.

      1. I wonder if the streaming service is something which hinders Disney (since the invested a lot into it), or some sort of light in the dark tunnel because subscriptions are most likely rising to entertain the kids.

        California started its lock-down earlier than anyone else, which is good for the future of California, but I don’t see them accepting travel from anywhere else anytime soon. Florida might actually open up earlier (and yes, I know it is crass to say it) because the stupid local government has ensured that Covid could infect countless people way too long. When this is over, the majority of people in Florida might be immune anyway – if the virus even creates long-standing immunity at all.

        There is actually still one cinema in my own city here in Germany running —- the Autokino. And I have noticed that more of them start to open up. Guess people just need something to entertain them.

      2. From the latest analysis I’ve seen, the streaming service is Disney’s saving grace right now and will continue to be for quite a while. Their worldwide subscription surge to 50 million puts them around 4 years ahead of schedule based on their ultra conservative pre-launch estimates, which means that streaming might be the only growth sector the company has right now. (ESPN, I saw earlier today, is hemorrhaging viewers more than any other major network right now because what’s a sports network with no sports.) So much of Disney’s bottom line comes from theme parks and consumer products, and the parks are closed and families aren’t exactly rushing to order Disney toys online in the numbers they used to.

        That’s likely why they are sound almost as desperate to re-open the parks as Trump is to re-open the country. However, even with mandatory temperature checks, staggered hours, limits on total admissions, or any of the other safety measures they’re talking about it’s still a big question mark as to WHEN the parks might re-open and IF people will feel willing and safe to take the family to Disneyland. Based on the bloodbath coming our way thanks to Trump and his Republican governors, you are right that Florida seems more likely to re-open before California not just because of any chance of herd immunity but also simply the people in charge there clearly prioritize business concerns over health and safety.

        Still, with all of that uncertainty, Iger’s aggressive push toward streaming and getting Disney+ out and established before all of the other wannabe Netflixes from the other studios…well, it always the obvious right move in terms of trends, but it seems all the more prescient now.

        Re: Theaters. Where I live, we do have one drive-in barely hanging on, and like a lot of other places around the country it was looking likely to cash in big as the only game in town. However, our local leaders deemed it non-essential and forced it to close, largely due to concerns about that many people in one spot sharing the same bathroom. (They had set-up contact-less payment and closed the concessions but could not bar people from using bathrooms.) That being said, there are other drive-ins still operating in the US, mostly due to being in areas with less stringent governors. So, I can’t technically say every single theater here is closed, but it’s as close to being that way as possible.

      3. Oh, there are special rules for our drive in…no bathroom use, no heaters in the cars. But with all this in place they are allowed to operate. Thus said, a bunch of shops are open by now, too, as long as they put measures in place to limit the spread (ie only two persons at once are allowed in the local book shop, the flower shop has to entrances, so you now stand in line in distance, collect what you want and then leave through the second door, Restaurants are open in a take-away fashion aso).

        I saw the 50 million news, though there were a lot of special deals offered in Germany, hence I am not sure how many of them are actually paying subscribers. But I guess most of them will be eventually.

      4. It is heartening to hear about some of the parts in your area of the world that are still kinda-sorta open. Someday – God knows when – maybe we’ll be there too, but Merkel trumps Trump every time.

        Also, you are right to be suspicious of that 50 million number. As this recent THR article explains, Disney is probably up to some statistical trickery with its India numbers in particular. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/disney-india-understanding-8-million-surprise-subscribers-1289727.

      5. Well, not really, we are currently figuring out what works and what doesn’t. One of the Autokinos was even briefly turned into a church last Friday, for those who really wanted to worship, but without risk for themselves.

        I guess Disney needs to talk up what they have, in order to keep investors on board. It would be fatal if the crisis leads to a hostile take over of Disney.

      6. That’s excellent. The drive-in near me remains closed for business, but it has at least found a use for itself: a local high school partnered with the owner to arrange a graduation ceremony for the seniors. They’ll all progress through in their cars as the drive-ins two screens run a slideshow of curated pictures from their class over the years. So, that’s something. I guess.

        There continue to be articles here in the States, however, about the thriving drive-ins. In those areas where the drive-ins have been allowed to remain open, business is thriving. It doesn’t matter that they don’t have any new films – other than Trolls: World Tour – to show or can’t offer concessions. People just desperately want/need to get out and have some kind of release.

        On Monday, however, the US state Georgia will allow all movie theaters to re-open, but the local mayors are urging citizens to ignore the idiot governor’s – the same governor who waited so long to order statewide stay-at-home because he claimed he didn’t realize asymptomatic people can be infectious – lifting of restrictions. It’s a complete shitshow, but in a ground-level, practical sense I have no idea what the movie theaters will show – probably just Trolls: World Tour and other recent titles they already had on hand – and how many people will show up. China’s re-opening didn’t go so well, obviously.

        For the foreseeable future, of course, drive-ins remain the only true game in town for public movie exhibition – that is if your town allows them to stay open.

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