Trolls World Tour Universal AMC Regal digital streaming dispute ban theaters

If you’d asked people to identify the flashpoint movie of 2020, very few would have said Trolls World Tour.

Nevertheless, the jaunty kids’ movie about adorable toyetic monsters playing out the age-old “rockism versus poptimism” debate with catchy jingles has become a focal point for debates about the future of movie-going. It was one of the most significant releases to go directly to streaming in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, but it increasingly looks like a trial balloon for something larger.

Of course, there are reasons that Universal Studios chose to use Trolls World Tour as a test case for this experiment. The movie was projected to open soft even before the crisis hit, to become another underperforming animated sequel like The LEGO Movie 2 or The Secret Lives of Pets 2. In contrast, Universal opted to postpone the sure-fire hit Minions 2 rather than dump it on streaming.

Trolls World Tour set a template for one of the kinds of movies that would premiere on streaming during the crisis: the kids movie that was unlikely to become a breakout box office smash in cinemas. Studios like Disney and Warner Bros. followed Universal’s lead by announcing movies like Artemis Fowl and Scoob! would bypass cinemas entirely and launch on digital streaming.

The logic for pushing these movies to streaming is clear. Families in lockdown are quite literally a captive market. Parents are looking for something new and exciting to show their kids. Netflix had its biggest growth quarter ever. While Universal’s assertion that Trolls World Tour made $100M in its first three weeks is unverified, it’s plausible that it is the biggest streaming debut ever.

Trolls World Tour Universal AMC Regal digital streaming dispute ban theaters

While such success pales in comparison to a blockbuster box office haul, it’s easy to understand why these figures would make Universal bullish: It’s about as much as they made for the total box office run of Trolls. The studio has long dreamed of combining theatrical box office with streaming rental revenue, proposing a similar plan for Tower Heist back in 2011. This success may make them bold.

Talking with The Wall Street Journal, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell suggested that even after theaters reopened Universal would look at releasing movies “on both formats.” He hinted the model could be applied to films like Jurassic World: Dominion or F9, the first time a prominent studio had mooted films of that scale going direct to video. Waters were being tested.

Theater owners are understandably anxious about such prospects. When Universal first announced plans to send Trolls World Tour to streaming, John Fithian of the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO) rather ominously observed, “Exhibitors will not forget this.” In response to Shell’s comments, AMC boss Adam Aron rendered the threat explicit.

Writing to Universal chairman Donna Langley, Aron warned that AMC would not screen movies “on these terms.” This includes international subsidiaries, such as ODEON in the United Kingdom. Cineworld (owner of Regal Cinemas) was only slightly more diplomatic, avoiding an explicit boycott while promising that they would continue to “play movies that respect the theatrical window.”

Trolls World Tour Universal AMC Regal digital streaming dispute ban theaters

It is easy to understand why theater owners feel so anxious about this. Even before the pandemic, companies like Disney had been pushing for more advantageous profit shares on big releases and trying to shrink the exclusive theatrical window. The lockdown pushed an already precarious industry to the brink. Analysts suspect that AMC may have to declare bankruptcy. Industry observers expect a “culling.”

It’s no surprise that NATO has requested a government bailout. Even when the lockdown eases, what happens to cinemas? Social distancing is likely to remain in effect meaning that even sellout screenings will probably only house about 50% capacity at the best of times. When cinemas reopen, what are they going to screen? Which studio is going to release a blockbuster first? Will people buy food there? Could all cinemas become repertory cinemas?

Blockbusters have drawn the most attention in this debate, because that’s where the most money lies. However, this is a top-to-bottom shift. This week, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) ruled that movies that premiered on streaming services would be eligible for next year’s Oscars ceremony, so long as they had a planned release date before the pandemic. This is a major change in the body’s attitude to streaming.

Film festivals are looking at going online, with SXSW partnering with Amazon to make films available to customers. Festival darlings are dropping quietly on streaming services. The Assistant is available to buy and watch online as of this week. It premiered at Telluride in August 2019 and was one of the breakout hits at this year’s Sundance. The Assistant seemed destined for a more auspicious release, playing arthouse cinemas in the late summer to rave reviews. Even in these little ways, the industry is changing.

Trolls World Tour Universal AMC Regal digital streaming dispute ban theaters

Of course, this remains largely theoretical while cinemas are closed. Studios and cinemas are locked in a war of words, because there are currently no open cinemas to refuse to show Universal films. This is posturing. Rob Harvilla at The Ringer accurately described the situation as “a multibillion-dollar game of chicken between cars all stuck in different garages.”

One of the most striking and frustrating things about the current crisis is how difficult it is to see what things will look like afterwards. Nobody has any idea what form the future of cinema-going, film-making, or movie distribution will take. It’s impossible to know whether Jeff Shell’s plans will be executed and whether AMC will stick to its ultimatum. The particulars remain abstract for the moment, even as both sides come from clear positions.

It seems likely that the studios and the theaters will reach some sort of compromise on the issue, likely a staggered release with a much shorter exclusive window for cinemas. However, it’s impossible to tell whether it would be enough. Would cinemas trust audiences to turn out, knowing a movie would hit streaming in a few weeks anyway? Could cinemas turn a profit in that time?

There’s no way of knowing how this will play out, just as there was no way of knowing that a feature-length commercial for toy dolls and Spotify playlists would become the spark for one of the most heated debates about the future of the cinematic experience.

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a self-professed nerd living on the East Coast of Ireland. He runs his a blog (the m0vie blog), co-hosts two weekly film podcasts (The 250, Scannain) and has written books on The X-Files and the films of Christopher Nolan. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.

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