When Universal released “Trolls: World Tour” on VOD April 10, it was also available in the few open (drive-in) theaters. On May 15, Warner Bros. will release “Scoob!” on VOD — and that’s the only place audiences will find it. A Warner Bros. spokesperson confirmed it will play no theaters, and sources suggest that Universal’s “The King of Staten Island” may follow suit.
It seems like a counterintuitive decision. Indoor theaters continue to open, albeit slowly. At this writing they’re still outnumbered by drive-ins, which are doing record business; comparatively, multiplexes’ numbers are suffering.
Both are showing now-familiar VOD titles, the equivalent of second-run movies, yet some of the best drive-ins are grossing multiples better than they did a year ago with “Avengers: Endgame” and “Pokemon Detective Pikachu.” However, indoor theaters must contend with a public suspicious of public gatherings and safety measures. Wouldn’t a new film be exactly what exhibitors need to lure patrons?
Instead, Warners spends heavily on media ads that emphasize “see it at home” with no reference to theaters and push the higher-priced option to own ($24.99), along with the $19.99 48-hour rental.
It seems like a matter that might gain the attention of exhibition chains or the National Association of Theater Owners, much as NBCUnuversal CEO Jeff Shell’s comments regarding the studio’s future VOD strategies inspired fire-and-brimstone statements. Instead, a NATO rep responded with a bland “no comment.” Here’s some reasons why that’s the case.
Theaters are so sensitive and fragile that new films are counterproductive.
Weeks ago, a small number of Chinese theaters reopened, then quickly shut with reported poor grosses. If “Scoob!” didn’t do well, particularly in indoor theaters, it could serve as a false read for theater viability and damage the larger and precarious issue of when exhibition will be able to return to business approaching normal.
Warner Bros. has no requirement to report grosses, but as a publicly traded company it would be unusual. Even if it didn’t, internal gross reporting is hard to suppress.
The real danger is even if reasons for a low response were valid — it was available on VOD, families were cautious — there is so much interest in reopening that whatever leaks out could be very damaging. Better to not take the chance.
Worst-case scenario: “Scoob!” is a theatrical success.
Arguably, it’s an even bigger risk to theaters if “Scoob!” opened and proved to be a hit. That would create an inadvertent case study for the VOD day-and-date model, and exhibitors don’t want to bring studios any ammunition for that fight. Better to not set any precedent.
Technical issues could be a factor.
Movies are digitally delivered, a process that involves a DCP (originating from a master); for wide releases, that requires satellite delivery. Sources suggest that unlike “Trolls World Tour,” which was initially intended for theatrical play and already had a DCP master, “Scoob!” did not. And with so few theaters available to play, leasing the satellite space might be more difficult. Like film production, exhibition faces unusual challenges as vendors and normal partners are closed or not operating at full strength.
Studios don’t want to do piecemeal releases.
Had theaters been open with no pandemic, “Scoob!” would likely play at far more than 3,000 theaters. Studios want their films to open in theaters when all theaters (or close) are available. To offer a film when only a handful of indoor theaters are available might set an uncomfortable precedent. What happens, for example, if by July 17 most of the country is open — but New York City and a few other key locations are not? To play now might increase the pressure to release “Tenet” anyway.
Still, it seems surprising that the open theaters aren’t outspoken about not having the chance to play “Scoob!” Though no figures have been reported, sources have suggested “Trolls World Tour” is approaching $1 million in theatrical gross. Theater owners — especially the brick-and-mortar independents and smaller chains — might have liked to risk the positive signs, along with the revenue. For now, however, nothing is worth suggesting that VOD and theatrical can successfully coexist.