Cinemas Slam Universal After ‘Trolls’ Becomes a Hit at Home

(Bloomberg) -- “Trolls World Tour,” a new NBCUniversal movie rushed into home video when theaters shut down, is doing about as well as similar big-screen films, sparking a debate about how Hollywood studios should release new films.

The animated kids film has generated about $100 million in at-home rentals since its April 10 release, a person familiar with the matter said. It has taken in roughly as much for Universal as the original “Trolls” picture, said the person, who asked not to be identified because the numbers are private. The figures were first reported by the Wall Street Journal.

“Trolls World Tour” is an important test for the industry. While studios opted to delay most of their new blockbusters with theaters closed due to coronavirus, Comcast Corp.’s Universal made the film available to home audiences on its original premiere date after spending millions promoting the picture.

But the film’s performance prompted a strong response from the trade group for theaters, whose members depend on the usual two to three months of exclusive rights they get with new movies. The National Association of Theatre Owners said Tuesday the sales figures are the result of millions of people being quarantined and heavy marketing by Universal, not changing audience preferences.

“Universal does not have reason to use unusual circumstances in an unprecedented environment as a springboard to bypass true theatrical releases,” John Fithian, the group’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “Theaters provide a beloved immersive, shared experience that cannot be replicated.”

In earlier comments, Fithian warned Universal that “exhibitors will not forget this” and told the Hollywood Reporter the studio was “lying” to customers about why it was putting the movie on rental platforms early.

Universal didn’t immediately comment on Fithian’s latest statement.

Test Runs

Universal isn’t the only studio testing its strategy during the shutdown. Walt Disney Co. is releasing a new movie on its Disney+ streaming service, and John Stankey, the incoming CEO of Warner Bros.’ parent, AT&T Inc., said he is rethinking the theatrical relationship because of coronavirus. Warner Bros. also plans to release its kids film “Scoob!” for on-demand home viewing, rather than in theaters.

The performance of “Trolls World Tour” may help Hollywood reassess the value of theatrical runs, historically the industry gold standard for releasing new films.

Though the original 2016 “Trolls” made more at the box office domestically, Universal has done about as well with the sequel, priced at $20 for home rental. The studio collected more than $75 million from the new movie because on-demand services take only a 20% cut, the person said. Theaters typically take half.

The sequel was also much cheaper to make, at $90 million versus $125 million for its predecessor.

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