CS Soapbox: Should Other Films Follow Trolls World Tour to VOD?
Trolls World Tour landed on VOD to a thunderous welcome. Audiences opened their wallets for the colorful DreamWorks sequel to the tune of a $50 million opening weekend gross, according to estimators who estimate this sorta thing. The successful launch reopens a hotly debated discussion: should studios release movies directly to VOD thereby skipping the theatrical release?
TROLLS WORLD TOUR SUCCESS
By my math, over two million people rented Trolls World Tour on VOD when it was released on April 10, which is huge. Look at it this way, the original Trolls collected $46 million at the box office in its opening weekend back in November of 2016 and went on to gross $153 million at the domestic box office and $346 million worldwide. For a film that cost $125 million to produce, those numbers are quite substantial.
From what I’ve been able to find, Trolls World Tour cost roughly the same amount (if not a little less) to produce. And since parents are desperate to give their kids some sort of entertainment during this whole coronavirus situation — and also allow themselves an hour or so to breathe — it’s likely the sequel will continue to rack in the big bucks over the next month or so.
And therein lies a major caveat to Trolls’ success. It doesn’t add up. Look, the film grossed a pretty penny, but mostly due to a general lack of competition from other movies, sports, or typical normalcies people usually enjoy over the weekend.
According to Film School Rejects, before its planned theatrical release, the Trolls sequel was only tracking to earn some $17-27 million on its opening weekend, or roughly half of the original’s opening weekend gross. Congrats to Universal for having the wherewithal to release the film for home audiences rather than bump the release date further down the road, but Trolls’ success might not be the best barometer to measure the future success of VOD.
THE TENET PROBLEM
I’m a sucker for the theatrical experience, but only for the big releases. I do (did?) the AMC Stubs thing where I pay $20 a month for unlimited movies, and usually reserve my theatrical experiences to movies like Star Wars, Avengers and Mission: Impossible — movies that, in my opinion, are actually helped by a great crowd. I don’t need Dolby Digital surround sound or a rambunctious audience to enjoy a film like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, which plays better on my setup at home than it does in the theater.
And that leads us to the Tenet problem. Christopher Nolan’s films are tailor made for the cinema experience. The Dark Knight’s larger-than-life visuals, amazing sounds, and Hans Zimmer’s booming, theater-shaking soundtrack deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible. Same for Inception — one of the coolest theatrical experiences of my life — Interstellar, The Dark Knight Rises, and Dunkirk.
From everything I’ve seen, Tenet looks to follow the same pattern. I’ll happily fork out $12 per ticket (or $20 per month) to see the damned thing on IMAX or AMC’s Dolby Cinema as many times as possible in its opening weekend. And yes, I’ll still buy the film when it hits digital or Blu-ray/DVD a few months later.
Nothing beats a big summer blockbuster. Even Michael Bay films play better in the theater than at home, which is probably why I only watched his-direct-to-Netflix actioner 6 Underground once. Movies like Star Wars, Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission: Impossible, Lord of the Rings, and the like deserve to be seen on the big screen, because that’s what they were made for. The home video release is more like the icing on the cake.
I have no doubt many audience members would happily fork over $19.99 to rent said films or upcoming releases like Denis Villeneuve’s Dune, or the anticipated sequel Top Gun: Maverick, which they can then binge over the course of 48 hours. But those films will lose something in the downgrade from the big screen. And my worry is that directors, no longer incumbered with luring audiences off their couches, will revert to making cheap, easy-to-produce films along the lines of David Ayer’s Bright.
Or, maybe, just maybe, I’m looking too much at the outliers. Perhaps Nolan’s films are the exception, not the rule. After all, for every Inception that hits the big screen, we also get roughly twenty iterations of Hobbs and Shaw.
NUMBERS DON’T LIE
A majority of people simply do not go to the movie theater. In a poll on Statisa.com, 46% of U.S adults revealed they only go to the theater once a year or less. While 40% go “occasionally,” as in less than once a month. Only 14% includes nuts like me who frequent the theater at least once a week (depending on the time of year).
Here’s another unique stat: George Lucas’ original Star Wars sold roughly 178.1 million tickets back in 1977 (and later re-releases) while The Force Awakens, perhaps the most anticipated film ever made, sold just over 100 million — enough to land it at No. 1 on the domestic box office list with $936 million. Even Avengers: Endgame managed to sell “just” 93 million tickets in America during its initial theatrical run. And that was after a bajillion Marvel movies over the course of a decade leading up to the main event.
(Obviously, situations have changed for us domestically. There are more forms of entertainment now than there was in 1977. But there’s also over 100 million more people now than there was 40 years ago. So, I don’t know.)
In other words, it takes a monumental Avatar-like effort to lure people off their couches and into a theater. Whereas, it only takes a few weekends of boredom for people to make an average film like Trolls World Tour a blockbuster — or is it couchbuster? — on VOD.
Of course, we have to see how the animated sequel does in future weeks before we can truly call it an overwhelming success, but at the very least we know interest exists for a direct-to-VOD format. And while some might baulk at the $19.99 price tag, consider that, once paid, the film is yours for 48 hours. Plus, you don’t have to pay for concessions, or travel to the theater. For a film like Trolls World Tour, which would have cost me around $50 total to see with my entire family (kids don’t qualify for the AMC pass), that sounds like a bargain.
NETFLIX: A SOLUTION?
Another factor in this is Netflix, which continues to produce original content at ludicrous speed. Speaking of 6 Underground, did you know that 83 million people watched Bay’s latest action extravaganza during its first four weeks? That’s a lot of eyeballs. And 6 Underground isn’t Netflix’s top original movie. That distinct goes to (inexplicably) the Sandra Bullock thriller Bird Box.
Netflix continues to pave the way for streaming platforms with original (and ambitious) titles like Martin Scorsese’s costly, but terrific The Irishman; and Zack Snyder’s upcoming Army of the Dead, which carries a $90 million price tag.
Do these films make money? I’m not sure. In fact, no one knows. Netflix doesn’t release its numbers. Plus, its model is based on statistics like number of subscribers attained, retained, etc. There are other factors to consider as well, most of them typically long-haul estimates that are hard to gauge. I’ve read that The Irishman was a substantial hit for Netflix, and also that it might have lost the streaming giant $250 million.
I include Netflix into the argument because I believe it serves as a nice bridge between the theatrical release and VOD. At the very least, Netflix serves as a platform for artists to unleash their true vision. Speaking specifically of The Irishman, Scorsese would have likely had to cut 45-60 minutes or so of the film just to get a serviceable theatrical release. There aren’t many people who will willingly go to a theater to watch a 3-hour movie, let alone a 3 hour and 30-minute movie. Netflix gave Scorsese the creative freedom to do his thing, which I respect.
Similarly, 6 Underground was, for better or worse, Michael Bay dialed up to about 15. And I imagine Snyder’s Army of the Dead will feature the director in his purest unabridged form — again, a notion that is good or bad depending on your perspective.
So, while I’m against the idea of nixing the theatrical experience altogether, I quite like the idea of seeing an artist’s complete vision without tampering from marketers and number crunchers. Netflix (and other streaming services like Disney+ and Apple) provides the perfect platform for such films. Plus, people need only subscribe to get the newest content. Imagine the gratitude parents would feel if they could play Trolls World Tour on an endless loop for $15.99 per month. Wouldn’t you pay that much monthly to see films like The Invisible Man and Birds of Prey?
I imagine the subscriber method makes more sense than VOD, which is still too much of a risky venture. Garbage movies like Bloodshot and The Hunt make more sense on VOD. No one was going to see them in theaters anyway. And again, with Trolls World Tour, the situation at hand produced a situation where entertainment-starved families flocked to the only thing that was available. Had Trolls released on VOD amidst competition like the theatrical release of No Time to Die or A Quiet Place II, not to mention the start of the MLB season and the NBA playoffs, chances are its number would not have reached the same heights. But that’s just me speculating.
A FINAL THOUGHT
Right now, demand exists for more films to release directly to VOD. Why? Because we’re all eager to see Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Top Gun: Maverick, Black Widow, and the other big summer releases. Movie studios have spoiled us over the years with non-stop entertainment. It’s weird to wake up on a Friday with no new movie releases. And difficult to cope with the thought of waiting another damned year for a film like Ghostbusters.
Once everything settles down, I’m guessing audiences will return to theaters the same way Florida residents flock to open beaches. Going to the movies is part of our culture. And while I welcome streaming options such as Netflix under specific conditions, I will always champion the opportunity to sit in a dark theater with a bunch of obnoxious strangers, and a large bucket of overpriced popcorn to enjoy the magic of Hollywood.