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Universal Just Told the World That Theaters Are No Longer the Priority

After the premium VOD success of "Trolls: World Tour," theaters are still important — but studios will use them as they see fit.

Trolls World Tour

“Trolls World Tour”

DreamWorks Animation

Very early this morning, Universal Studios dropped a bomb courtesy of The Wall Street Journal: No matter when or how theaters reopen, premium VOD is going to be part of its new normal.

Crediting “a person familiar with the matter,” the premium VOD release of “Trolls World Tour” generated $100 million in revenue in three weeks  — more than the original “Trolls” did in its time in theaters in 2017. And in case that wasn’t clear enough, a quote from parent company CEO Jeff Shell took a highlighter to it:  “As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats.”

Universal has been the leader in bringing its titles to VOD, both with movies that saw their releases truncated by the pandemic (“The Invisible Man,” “Emma,” and “The Hunt”), followed by “Trolls: World Tour” and now, Judd Apatow’s “The King of Staten Island,” which Universal announced the day before the WSJ report. Up next is Warner Bros. title “Scoob!”

Clearly, the priority isn’t protecting the feelings (or the revenue) of exhibitors. Theaters deeply resented the studio’s initial moves, which came as large circuits were finalizing their decisions on closing. And now, this thunderclap in the paper of Wall Street record has all the clarity of a baptismal announcement: Comcast-owned Universal is going to make whatever moves it deems necessary to move forward as a business, viruses and theatrical windows be damned.

“The King of Staten Island”

Universal Pictures

Let’s break down the numbers, as best we know them. In 2016, “Trolls” grossed $153 million in North America, for $346 million worldwide. At a 55 percent split with theaters, that would generate $84 million domestic, for perhaps $173 million worldwide. (International splits tend to be lower.)

VOD splits are much higher; according to WSJ, they were around 80 percent for “Trolls: World Tour,” which may be unusually high for premium VOD. The studio saw $100 million in revenue; after the split, about $77 million. With a domestic rental charge of $19.99 (the UK is about the same, with the film now available in Europe and Japan), that would mean about 5 million transactions.

While this makes for an extraordinarily successful experiment, it’s one that comes with an awful lot of variables. We don’t know how a premium VOD title performs in comparison to a theatrical release that transitions into a VOD life. There’s the question of the international VOD market, which is still underdeveloped and excludes many major territories like China.

Perhaps most of all, this experiment took place in circumstances that will never be repeated: It was the only new-release title available on VOD during a pandemic.

WSJ characterized theater owners as accusing Universal of “taking advantage of the pandemic” and promised a return to “normal” business practices, with National Association of Theater Owners president and CEO John Fithian brushing off the “Trolls” performance: “A limited number of exceptions doesn’t really make a changed business model,” he told the paper.   

If he means that VOD will not execute a wholesale takeover of theatrical, true enough. But why would any studio want that? Certainly theaters are the ideal setting for many films, particularly prestige and tentpole titles. However, this is our prediction for how studios will define “normal” going forward: No film will give theaters an exclusive 90-day window unless the studio has determined that’s the best strategy. As to exactly what that looks like, there’s as many possible variables in that scenario as there are movies.

Shell’s pronouncement tells theaters that they are no longer the priority, or equal players. They are one platform among many, and studios will continue to use them — as they see fit.

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