Would you pay $20 to rent ‘Trolls World Tour’? Universal says it broke digital records

"Trolls World Tour" is a DreamWorks Animation production, released by Universal Pictures.
(DreamWorks Animation)

Universal Pictures on Monday said “Trolls World Tour” was the biggest digital debut ever for an original title. But what that might mean for the future of moviegoing is murky.

The Los Angeles studio declined to disclose actual sales figures for the film, which was released online Friday amid widespread movie theater closures because of the coronavirus crisis.

“Trolls World Tour,” a DreamWorks Animation musical production, was launched by Universal through online outlets, including iTunes and Amazon Prime Video. Viewers were charged $20 to watch the film during a 48-hour rental window.

Comcast-owned Universal announced the bold plan in mid-March as theaters across the country shut down following strict orders from government officials to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. The company said it would offer the film online on the same day of its planned theatrical release.


The experiment allows Universal to still release the film and generate revenue from it, after the company had already spent millions promoting the computer-animated sequel for a wide theatrical launch.

Buried deep inside the postproduction facilities on the 20th Century Fox lot, beyond where executives decide how best to sharpen Wolverine’s claw and make Alvin sound like a chipmunk, sits a space with a more mysterious purpose.

The question going into the weekend was how much money the film would make through video on-demand, and whether the numbers would portend a larger shift in the way movies are released.

Studio films on average wait 90 days between their premiere in theaters and their at-home release. Big-budget films typically depend on big box office at the multiplex to make a profit.

So far, the results are inconclusive for “Trolls World Tour,” the follow-up to the 2016 original.

The new title ranked No. 1 on sales charts for outlets including iTunes, Amazon, Vudu and YouTube throughout the weekend, Universal said. On its first day of release, the movie generated 10 times that of Universal’s next biggest opening day for a normal digital release, according to the company.

But that information is tainted by the fact that the vast majority of viewers didn’t have the option of seeing it at their local cinema. Any data are further skewed by the reality that Americans, especially parents, have been cooped up at home for weeks and are desperate for fresh entertainment options.

The movie played in only 21 drive-in theaters that have not shut down over fears of the COVID-19 pandemic. Universal also did not report box office results for the film.

Universal acknowledged that the video on-demand numbers are difficult to interpret.

“We will wait for a clearer picture of results that will emerge in the coming weeks before sharing additional statistics,” the studio said.

Universal’s decision to put “Trolls” online and in theaters at the same time (known in industry parlance as day-and-date) angered theater owners who see any move to collapse the so-called theatrical window as a threat to their business model. National Assn. of Theatre Owners President John Fithian last month called Universal’s “Trolls” strategy “symbolically, a bad move.”

Some studios have followed Universal’s lead, but in different ways. Paramount Pictures and MRC sold their comedy “The Lovebirds” to Netflix after canceling its theatrical release. Walt Disney Co., the studio most committed to the theatrical model, said its big-budget fantasy film “Artemis Fowl” would skip theaters and premiere on Disney+, which viewers access for a fee of $6.99 a month.

Universal’s pricing has also proved controversial.

Multiple reviews on iTunes and other outlets decried the $20 rental charge, with users complaining the price was too high. Most online rentals cost $4 to $6, while studios generally charge $20 for viewers to own a movie. “Very sad to see Dreamworks taking advantage of this terrible situation,” read one typical review.

On the other hand, the average ticket price for a domestic theater was $9.16 last year, meaning a family would have to pay much more than $20 to see it in theaters ( not counting the price of popcorn and soda).

Meanwhile, theater chains are struggling to stay afloat amid indefinite closures.

AMC Theatres, owner of the world’s largest circuit, could file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from creditors if the closures persist. The company has $4.85 billion in debt and last week reportedly told landlords it would no longer pay rent on its theaters. B. Riley analyst Eric Wold on Monday downgraded AMC’s stock to “sell” from “neutral.”

“We continue to believe that AMC has minimal liquidity options to make it through an extended theatrical shutdown period,” Wold said in a note to clients.

Cinemark, the nation’s third-largest cinema operator, said it would raise $250 million to stay afloat during the shutdowns.

Mark Zoradi, Cinemark’s CEO said the additional debt, along with other cost-cutting measures, would “provide us sufficient liquidity to endure the COVID-19 crisis, even if prolonged, and once again open our theaters and welcome moviegoers to experience the magic of cinematic storytelling on our big screens.”

In the meantime, studios will continue to try to make money online as theaters remain shuttered. Universal has also released recent theatrical movies “The Invisible Man,” “Emma” and “The Hunt” through the $20 rental plan. The studio has not disclosed results for those titles either.