Universal Tests the Bounds of Premium On-Demand With 'Trolls' Sequel

Trolls World Tour Still 3 - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of DreamWorks Animation

Beginning Friday, the animated movie was available to rent in the home for $19.99 after the studio decided to break the theatrical window.

"World premiere. Stream from home!" So trumpeted Fandango's homepage on Friday in touting Universal and DreamWorks Animation's Trolls World Tour, which is defying tradition in launching on premium VOD and a smattering of theaters that remain open.

Universal is hoping the test will help answer the question of how much consumers are willing to pay to watch a high-profile new movie in the home. The release of almost every other Hollywood spring and early summer title has been delayed amid the novel coronavirus pandemic and resulting theater closures, but Universal opted to stick to Troll's Easter weekend release and make the film available to rent in the home for 48 hours for $19.99 (it will also be made available to 25 or so U.S. drive-ins and any cinemas still in operation overseas).

Theater owners have denounced Universal's decision to break the theatrical window, arguing that a film's home entertainment potential is based on a high-profile run in theaters that generally lasts three months. But some Wall Street analysts aren't as quick to judge.

"You have hundreds of millions of families stuck at home. I don't know if a new title would work on a weekly basis, but I actually think Trolls will surprise people in terms of how well it does," says media and entertainment analyst Richard Greenfield of LightShed Partners.

Unlike box office grosses, home entertainment numbers for individual titles aren't disclosed. It isn't yet clear whether Universal will share any information it collects in the coming days.

The first Trolls opened to $46.6 million domestically in October 2016 on its way to earning $346.9 million globally. Greenfield calculates that Universal, which splits grosses with cinema owners, received back about $190 million of that in theatrical rentals. "That would equal fewer than 10 million pay-per-view hits for Trolls World Tour," he concludes.

Greenfield adds that cable giant Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal, reaches 20 million homes alone. Overseas, Comcast also owns Sky, whose subscriber count is 30 million homes. And rival platforms such as Apple Movies and Amazon Prime are also pushing Trolls in a major way.

A premium VOD play would be far more difficult in terms of economics for tentpoles relying on mega-grosses, such as a Star Wars movie or even Disney's Mulan, says Greenfield.

But the Trolls franchise — voiced by Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick — is a different proposition. The first Trolls cost around $125 million to produce before marketing, while the sequel cost closer to $100 million after tax incentives and rebates.

The other Hollywood movie that will now go straight to digital is Disney's Artemis Fowl, which cost in the same range as Trolls and is headed for Disney+ (it had been set to hit theaters at the end of May).

Universal insiders say it ultimately didn't make sense to delay the release of Trolls World Tour, since the marketing campaign was in full swing when the pandemic hit, including brand and merchandising partnerships.

They add that home entertainment isn't an economic stand-in for theatrical, but that it could prove beneficial in the future to shorten the window so that there can be one campaign for both theatrical and home entertainment. As it stands now, the traditional window is roughly three months.

"I look at this as an incredible opportunity to be able to offer joy and happiness for 80 minutes," Trolls World Tour director Walt Dohrn tells The Hollywood Reporter.

"This is an opportunity to reach more people. The other option was pushing the release date, but everything would be out-of-balance and crowded. This just felt like the right thing to do," he continues. "If we took ourselves out of this unprecedented situation, there might even be room for both."

Universal has wanted to shrink the theatrical window for years. In the latter half of 2011, the studio proposed offering Brett Ratner's Tower Heist available to rent in the home for $59.99 three weeks after its theatrical release on Nov. 4. The studio quickly backed down amid the threat of boycotts from theater owners.

Earlier in 2011, Universal, Warner Bros., Sony and Fox dropped a a proposal to make certain titles available 60 days after their release in theaters for $29.99 via DirecTV.

"I think Comcast wanted to test something, and this [Trolls World Tour] is the film they chose to do it with," says Eric Handler of MKM Partners. "Will they make money? We'll see."