Why 'Trolls: World Tour' has theater chains spooked

Brad Keefe
"Trolls: World Tour"

We’re already seeing signs of what the movie industry and theatrical release might look like post-COVID, and not everyone loves it.

For a little industry perspective, the box office gross for March 6-12, the last full week before widespread stay-at-home orders and theater closures, was $134 million, according to the tracking site Box Office Mojo.

The average weekly gross for the past six weeks (almost exclusively indie distributors doing virtual screenings to support indie theater): $9,865 a week.

But for the major studios, there has been one success story: the VOD release of “Trolls: World Tour.”

Universal was the first (and, so far, only) major studio to make its current theatrical slate available for home rental, releasing “The Invisible Man” and “The Hunt” before bypassing theaters altogether with its sequel to “Trolls.”

This week, Universal announced that “Trolls: World Tour” has brought in over $100 million, putting it on a similar pace to the theatrical release of the original.

"The results for 'Trolls: World Tour' have exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability of PVOD (paid video on-demand)," NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell told The Wall Street Journal this week. "As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats."

I’m sure a lot of moviegoers would welcome the option to see a major release in its opening weekend, either in a theater or in the comfort of your own home. But for major theater chains, that could be a deathblow to revenue.

AMC Theaters reacted to Shell’s announcement swiftly, announcing “effective immediately AMC will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theaters.” This decision seems to be positioned to chill other studios from following Universal’s decision.

If the whole industry followed suit, it would likely mark the end of many theaters. Wall Street analysts were even speculating that AMC might have to file bankruptcy over current theater closures.

In another move that points to a changed theatrical window, Disney will be dropping “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” on its subscription streaming service Disney+ on May 4 (obvious date is obvious).

That’s a move meant to bolster subscriptions to a service that has a deep archive but likely can’t keep up with new content. But it also means Disney is shortening the window for “Skywalker” on VOD and Blu-ray, which is another moneymaker gone if consumers get an expectation that releases will be on subscription services this quickly.

For some perspective, “Skywalker” still made $285,961 the last full week theaters were open.

Obviously, there are some major caveats to the success of “Trolls: World Tour.” It had a uniquely captive audience with millions staying home and other entertainment options eliminated.

Also, as a family movie, the rental price of $19.99 is a relative bargain for a family of four. That’s a lot to pay if you’re watching alone.

And if it’s a movie date night, are you going to choose a new release or find something on Netflix? Especially if you’re planning to “chill”?

On the bright side, this could help level the playing field for independent and neighborhood theaters who have to compete with the big chains for prints of hot releases.

But this much seems evident: The “new normal” for theatrical movie releases may never be normal again.