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Is ‘Trolls World Tour’ Really Going to Destroy Movie Theaters?

Universal says the kids’ movie had $100 million in PVOD rentals in the past three weeks. That has it rethinking its distribution model, and the cinema chains aren’t happy.

Dreamworks/Ringer illustration

A children’s movie about rock-critic infighting may destroy the movie industry as we know it. What a time to be alive; what a time for the Theatrical Experience to be that much closer to death.

As fellow weary parents might recall, Trolls World Tour, a glitter- and poptimism-drenched sequel to the 2016 hit Trolls, was slated as a spring 2020 multiplex blockbuster. But after the COVID-19 pandemic closed movie theaters worldwide, Universal Pictures took the extraordinary step of releasing the film, as expected, on April 10, via a method unthinkable even a few months ago: The company offered it as a $19.99 Premium Video on Demand rental, meaning consumers could enjoy it for the usual 48-hour streaming window on Amazon, Apple, and other services. And self-quarantined children worldwide did rejoice. And weary parents did grind their teeth while biting the bullet. And Anderson .Paak, playing a “funk troll” named Prince D, did rap at length about cultural appropriation.

Universal is now touting this new movie as a huge hit, with nearly $100 million in rentals in its first three weeks, per a Wall Street Journal report Tuesday. (This figure is perhaps less reliable than heavily regulated box office receipts, but requires more corroboration from Apple, Vudu, and so forth than your average closed-loop Netflix boast.) “The results for Trolls World Tour have exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD,” enthused Jeff Shell, CEO of NBCUniversal. “As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.”

That’s both formats meaning in theaters, and not, simultaneously. That’s a very cheerful declaration of war. Which is why the world’s two largest movie-theater chains, terrified at losing their usual months-long exclusivity windows for Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters, swiftly responded by threatening to ban future Universal movies from their screens altogether. Including Fast & Furious 9 and Jurassic World: Dominion. For starters.

AMC, which has more theaters than any other chain in the country, fired back first, and within hours: “Effectively immediately, AMC will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theaters in the United States, Europe, or the Middle East,” wrote chairman and CEO Adam Aron in a publicly circulated letter to a Universal executive. “This policy affects any and all Universal movies per se, goes into effect today and as our theaters reopen, and is not some hollow or ill-considered threat,” he added, seemingly cognizant of the fact that it might come across as a hollow or ill-considered threat. (The Ringer’s NBA contingent would want me to mention that Aron was briefly CEO of the Philadelphia 76ers in the early-’10s Andrew Bynum era; make of that what you will.)

Regal Entertainment, the world’s second-largest theater chain, joined the fray Wednesday with a lengthy public statement throwing down that same gauntlet. “Today we make it clear again that we will not be showing movies that fail to respect the windows,” it read in part, “as it does not make any economic sense for us.” (Mooky Greidinger, CEO of Regal parent company Cineworld Group, unfortunately has no NBA connection.) Universal is likewise in a pitched back-and-forth battle over Trolls World Tour’s rollout with the National Association of Theatre Owners, a.k.a. NATO, which has accused the studio of making a “reckless charge” in pursuit of a “destructive tendency.”

This is a multibillion-dollar game of chicken between cars all stuck in different garages. While many fine states are touting their plans to reopen movie theaters on Friday, a U.S.-wide return to anything resembling normalcy is likely months away, which means there are no current blockbusters that AMC and Regal can even refuse to screen. The gaudiest 2020 tentpoles, from Mulan to Black Widow, were long ago delayed, many to 2021. This war of words is, for the moment, hypothetical, but the stakes are real, and on the theater side, especially dire: AMC is widely reported to be on the brink of bankruptcy, and NATO was quick, in mid-March, to call for an industry-wide government bailout. Even in the rosiest projection of the next year of our lives, a multiplex ecosystem that willingly deprives itself of Fast & Furious 9 is facing an existential threat.

So Universal, in the short term, has more leverage, in that it and the other studios have, y’know, the movies. But there is a danger in extrapolating the success of Trolls World Tour too far. Other films that got a few weeks, at best, of pre-coronavirus theater time—from The Invisible Man to Emma to The Huntalso wound up on PVOD for $19.99 a pop, with at least publicly more modest returns. (Blumhouse Productions CEO Jason Blum, who shepherded The Invisible Man to the last box office success story on record, talked through some of the VOD calculus on a recent episode of The Bill Simmons Podcast.) And given the ever-worsening plight of parents of young children, new kids’ movies are in outsizedly high demand, which explains why we’re getting the Scooby-Doo jam Scoob! via PVOD on May 15, and Artemis Fowl on Disney+ on June 12. (Minions: Rise of Gru, as any good parent knows, was pushed to 2021.) Also in June, The King of Staten Island, directed by Judd Apatow and starring Pete Davidson, will hit VOD as well. That’s gonna be a way tougher sell to my kids.

Moreover, the Theater vs. Streaming debate is not just about raw numbers, or about money at all: To Hollywood giants from Steven Spielberg on down, a healthy movie-theater industry is an artistic, philosophical, emotional, and moral necessity. In mid-April, when WarnerMedia CEO John Stankey, who is now CEO of AT&T as a whole, suggested his company was “rethinking the theatrical model,” he quickly walked those comments back: Sure, Warner would let Scoob! go straight to streaming, but proud pro-theater evangelist Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, still slated for July, remains ticketed for multiplexes. It’s not just that this fight hasn’t really even started yet; it’s also still impossible to even get a realistic sense of the battleground.

The COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly changed some portion of the movie industry for good, but even amid the threats and counterthreats, all sides in this debate are still proceeding as if order will one day be restored. The other big Hollywood news this week, of course, is that the 2021 Academy Awards will consider movies that didn’t get at least a one-week premiere in an L.A. movie theater—a very obvious concession, given the circumstances, to a very silly distinction that the biz nonetheless takes ultra-seriously. Oscar bigwigs described this momentous decision as a “temporary exception.” Just this year. Just this once. Sure. But speaking of Oscar contenders, the plot of Fast & Furious 9 will pale in comparison, drama-wise, to how, when, and where you finally get to see it.