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'Trolls World Tour' on demand during coronavirus is a premiere Hollywood will be watching

This family film may ultimately have outsize influence this year due to the ripple effects its unorthodox premiere could create in the film industry.
Image: Trolls World Tour
Trolls — they're just like us!DreamWorks Animation

COVID-19 has affected just about every global industry, including the entertainment one. TV series have shut down production, and the big-budget franchise films that were supposed to be released in the second quarter of 2020 have been postponed. In such an atmosphere, it is surprising, nay, a little shocking, to see that one franchise, “Trolls World Tour,” is not only arriving this weekend, but releasing into the very small portion of (mainly drive-in) theaters still open around the world, according to Variety.

Anything expected to bring in a decent box office return has rescheduled. All except “Trolls: World Tour.”

In another world, “Trolls World Tour” would have been opening against one of the biggest films of the year, the 25th James Bond movie, “No Time to Die.” That was expected to have a monster box office opening weekend of $100 million. “Trolls: World Tour” was, at best, expected to come in second; its biggest rival for the moms-and-kids crowd was “Peter Rabbit 2,” scheduled to premiere the weekend before.

But now, “No Time to Die” is scheduled to arrive Thanksgiving weekend, “Peter Rabbit 2” has hopped down the calendar to August and in fact all of the films that were expected to arrive in April — from the superhero oddity “The New Mutants” to the revenge comedy “Promising Young Woman” — have disappeared. A few, like the expected flop “My Spy,” are keeping their release dates and will debut strictly on streaming. In other words, anything expected to bring in a decent box office return has been rescheduled. All except “Trolls World Tour.”

Like 2016’s “Trolls,” this DreamWorks animated sequel is loud, sparkly and filled with music. But unlike the first film, music is the real star. The original “Trolls” didn’t totally trust its musical elements and struggled to make some sort of hero’s journey for its leading characters Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Branch (Justin Timberlake). It wound up with the worst of both worlds: a dull plot that rested on a message that seemed to take aim at anti-depressants, of all things.

This time, more confident that the music can carry it, the plot leans into the idea of the trolls as musicians. That doesn’t make the film any less formula-driven — or transparent in its hope that every child in America will ask their parents for Troll™ dolls. Though it’s pleasant enough for two hours, as a film it’s fun and mostly forgettable, save an earworm or two.

So why is it being released now?

In fact, Universal (which owns NBC News) is actually doing something that hasn’t really been done before in the industry: a simultaneous video-on-demand and theater release. The three biggest theater chains, AMC Entertainment, Cinemark and Regal Cinemas have closed across the nation, but with no countrywide stay-at-home order, there are a handful of theaters reportedly still open. And yet, “Trolls” could still have the best theatrical release in April — Disney’s “Onward” finished its truncated run at the box office at No. 1 on March 19, a couple of days after the major chains closed, with a final-day domestic haul of $33 million. Universal should be able to say after this weekend that “Trolls World Tour” is the “No. 1 movie in America,” even if its haul is barely half that.

Meanwhile, kids can watch “Trolls” on demand for the low price of a $20 rental for 48 hours. There’s a Twitter Watch Party to encourage older fans to watch together on social media. If Universal plays its marketing cards right, it could make history this weekend, with the first film to open at No. 1 both in theaters and streaming. It’s the best of both worlds.

If Universal plays its marketing cards right, it could make history this weekend.

Up until now, there has always been a significant delay between theater releases and streaming debuts, with most allowing a 90-day window between the two. There is no law that demands such a thing. But there are guild rules that determine eligibility for awards season (which have to do with how long a film must stay in theaters). Moreover, most production studios seem to believe collapsing this window isn't prudent or profitable. Indeed, Disney’s “Onward” left theaters on March 19, but did not turn up on Disney+ until April 3. Netflix, which is more beholden to its on-demand subscribers than others, has a shorter window than most; “The Irishman” arrived in mid-November in theaters and mid-December on streaming, for instance. But as a result, many theater chains refused to screen “The Irishman” at all.

And despite the pandemic and its economic fallout, movie theaters are already stating they won’t forget Universal’s breaking of this long-accepted norm. It’s one thing to move up a digital release date a few weeks. But simultaneously releasing films at home and in theaters is what movie chains have long feared will drive them out of business.

“Trolls World Tour” isn’t worried about being shut out of the Oscars. And this mostly unremarkable family film may ultimately have outsize influence this year due to the ripple effects its unorthodox premiere could create in Hollywood.