It only took about 15 years, but premium VOD may actually be a thing.
Universal Pictures took a victory lap in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday, disclosing the release of “Trolls World Tour” in U.S. homes via streaming generated more revenue in three weeks than the animated franchise’s original installment collected in five months at the box office.
There will be those who dismiss the results here are as an isolated example that won’t be replicated at a time when audiences are free to leave their homes and elevated streaming consumption subsides. But bet on viewing habits not returning to normal so much as they will arrive at a new normal — one that realizes the long-awaited, elusive potential of rewriting the traditional rules of film distribution.
But before there’s any expectation that we’ll see day-and-date releases start flooding the schedule anytime soon, understand that there is much more experimentation needed. Expect some flops to come on this front; taking one step back now and then will be necessary before inevitably taking two more forward.
What makes the “Trolls” breakthrough so dramatic is that PVOD gambits have come few and far in between ever since Steven Soderbergh’s 2006 experiment with the indie film “Bubble,” which was distributed simultaneously in theaters and home entertainment.
Fast-forward to 2020: “Trolls” generated roughly 5 million rentals at $19.99 a pop, driving nearly $100 million in sales, per WSJ.
It’s not typical to see notoriously opaque home-entertainment receipts touted in the press, but there’s a reason Comcast-owned Universal divulged those numbers. An announcement earlier this month declaring the “biggest digital debut ever” was essential ignored because that superlative is essentially meaningless lacking data, hence the follow-up leak.
It’s also a shot across the bow at theater trade org NATO, which has long been an outspoken opponent of PVOD. Expect this feisty group to do some serious saber-rattling and wagon-circling real soon as the exhibition industry waits to return to business amid the pandemic.
This is a big win for incoming NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell, who has long been knocked for not having movies on his TV-heavy resume. Perhaps it took an executive devoid of cinema sentimentality to pull something like this off.
That begs the question how many other studios will fall in line behind Shell and Universal. Some, like Disney and Warner Bros., have already plotted similar release strategies in the wake of “Trolls” (see chart). Others, like Sony, have stood behind NATO. These calculations will be revisited now that the “Trolls” numbers are clear.
Studio chairman Tom Rothman: "Sony Pictures is firmly committed to theatrical exhibition and we support windowing.”
Translation: "Don't expect us to pull NBCU's day-and-date trick, too." https://t.co/JecNopofIE
— Andrew Wallenstein (@awallenstein) March 18, 2020
The WSJ leak is also Universal’s way of clearly signaling here there will be more PVOD releases to come, having just announced Monday that Judd Apatow’s next film, “The King of Staten Island,” will get a similar treatment.
This is where any back-patting at Universal needs to end: There is no guarantee premium VOD is going to make solid progress with each and every experiment, and the difference between “Staten” and “Trolls” could bear this out.
“Trolls” is a very different consumer proposition than “Staten”: The former is family entertainment that benefited from having a marketing campaign already in motion when the decision was made to release it in homes. Kids had an expectation of seeing a movie like this in theaters, and parents got themselves a bargain by having to pay just $20, a fee less than multiple movie tickets and concessions.
But “Staten” is more adult-oriented fare that isn’t pre-branded and enjoyed no marketing support so far. The $20 price point seems inflated relative to the value “Trolls” brings; variable pricing is just one of the ways premium VOD is going to have try out different things.
“Staten” is likely going to live or die on the word of mouth that Apatow has proven time and again he can generate with a buzzy comedy. But if it doesn’t live up to his best stuff (i.e. “Knocked Up,” “Bridesmaids”) and “Saturday Night Live’s” Pete Davidson doesn’t turn out to be a leading man, it will sink.
Whether it’s “Staten” or “Trolls,” some will say premium VOD won’t truly have arrived until we see Universal try something with its top-shelf franchises, including “Fast and Furious,” which has a ninth installment waiting for release in theaters next year.
We are a long way’s away from what would truly mean premium VOD is here: a blockbuster film bypassing theaters worldwide or getting day-and-date streaming. That’s probably still years in the future. But make no mistake: “Trolls” just accelerated the industry’s journey to get there.