'Trolls World Tour' Going Straight to VOD Was Its Best Possible Outcome

The animated sequel made history with its digital release and broke records in the process. But does that mean much for the future of Hollywood?

Trolls
Universal Pictures

On February 21, 2020, less than two months ago, Box Office Pro published its long-range box office prediction for Trolls World Tour. This was before COVID-19 was deemed a concern in the US. Before social distancing recommendations and mandates shuttered movie theaters. Before even one film (the first being No Time to Die) had moved its American theatrical release date because of the novel coronavirus. The Trolls sequel was still to open wide on April 17th, and the expected first-weekend gross was to be somewhere in the range of $17-27 million.

That might seem low, especially since the first Trolls debuted in the fall of 2016 to the tune of $46.6 million domestically, and that was with no built-in audience. Since then, following its grossing more than $300 million worldwide, the DreamWorks Animation property spawned a holiday special and animated series in addition to a ton of toys and other franchise merchandising. But despite the love and familiarity of the Trolls property, the feature follow-up was tracking to bow with about half of what the original did in its own opening weekend. Then everything changed.

Almost one month after the long-range forecast was reported, Universal Pictures announced Trolls World Tour would head to VOD on the same day as its theatrical release. At the time, movies were being delayed left and right because of theatrical attendance dwindling as a result of COVID-19 being labeled a pandemic. And three days prior, the country’s largest movie theater chains, AMC and Regal, decided to cease operations for the foreseeable future. Trolls World Tour could have been postponed until the fall with a date similar to its predecessor, but Universal made the right decision to go big by going home.

Last Friday, the animated feature, about colorful trolls representing various music genres and a villainous plot to have hard rock dominate the lands, touched down on the internet as a premium digital rental ($19.99 for a 48-hour viewing window). The release was heavily promoted as an event. Trolls World Tour was making history as a major Hollywood production arriving online day-and-date with its theatrical release (the movie also opened on some drive-in screens across the US). And unsurprisingly, the media helped spur the promotion, particularly after a few days when it was sold as a huge success.

On Monday, Fandango revealed the Trolls sequel, released by the company’s parent company, had broken records for a digital debut — best-selling first day, best-selling three-day, best pre-order sales — in addition to marking the best weekend performance for their VOD service, FandangoNOW. Soon, Universal itself announced the movie had marked the best digital opening weekend of all time across all VOD platforms, including iTunes, Amazon, and Google. And it was hardly close. Reportedly, Trolls World Tour made ten times as much on its drop date as the studio’s next biggest digital release.

How much is that? According to Deadline, Universal’s previous best was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, which did somewhere between $2-3 million on its first day as a digital release. That means Trolls World Tour was in the range of $20-30 million just on Friday. Deadline also noted Avengers: Endgame had a huge first week of digital rentals amounting to $30 million and that the Trolls sequel was outpacing it. Total weekend figures are unknown, but even if a majority of its rentals happened on Friday, the movie still made more in one day on VOD than it would have in theaters over three days.

Even at the premium price point, the number of rentals for Trolls World Tour is above the amount for previous VOD releases for bigger titles. Divide that one day estimate and you’ve got about 1 million to 1.5 million rentals on Friday. If Deadline’s figure for the Jurassic World sequel is for digital download purchase, that’s only about 100,000 to 150,000, but if we’re talking VOD rentals, the number is between 300,000 and 500,000. Avengers: Endgame is labeled as a rental, meaning about 5 million people (or families) paid for that over the course of its first week on VOD, not including physical disc rentals.

If Box Office Pro’s tracking held steady through its opening (box office forecasts often fall by the week of release), that would have amounted to somewhere between 1.8 million and 2.9 million people buy tickets for the Trolls sequel in its first three days. Of course, that’s with an average individual cost of $9.37 and doesn’t take into account that most of those tickets would have been children’s prices. Still, the VOD numbers are per rental, so in many cases, it’s per family rather than per viewer. Presuming there are at least two viewers per rental, that’s an audience of 500,000 to 750,000 on day one.

There’s a chance that Trolls World Tour was seen by fewer people in its first three days than would have gone to the movies. Because rentals last 48 hours with unlimited repeat streams during that time period, Universal also lost a lot of repeat moviegoers that a theatrical run would have allowed for (though some families possibly rented the movie more than once). And there’s also the potential losses in the erasure of tier viewing, meaning that most movies have theatrical gross and then also the VOD sales and rentals. This record-breaking digital release combines those two revenue opportunities into one.

Mostly skipping a theatrical release (again, Trolls World Tour did open on 25 drive-in screens, grossing $60,000) means Universal didn’t have to worry about another animated feature sequel disappointing at the box office. Although they’d had consistent success with their How to Train Your Dragon franchise, the third installment of which debuted last year to similar opening-weekend attendance compared to the first two, recent sequels to animated hits, such as The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, The Secret Life of Pets 2, and The Angry Birds 2 saw drops of 50-75 percent compared to their originals.

There are a lot of variables that make the digital debut essentially incomparable to what would have been the theatrical release. Its date changed from the weekend it was forecast for. Its audience was surely made up of some people who wouldn’t have gone to the movies. Plus, its release occurred at a time when people couldn’t go out and do anything else and many parents needed something fresh to occupy kids’ time. Also, as a digital release, there was a greater possibility of early torrenting of the movie. Despite its relative cheapness for family viewing compared to added-up theatrical ticket costs, the price point was still above a single ticket buy for individuals, and so there were still plenty of complaints about the rental fee.

The what-ifs also extend to merch. Would the Trolls World Tour Original Motion Picture Soundtrack sell as well if the movie was playing in theaters versus digital? Might children be more interested in owning the music from the movie after repeat viewings of the digital rental with the songs more deeply stuck in their heads? Who knows, but the soundtrack is the top-selling album on iTunes this week, and it’s in the top 10 on Amazon’s digital music chart. And with all the attention on the movie’s own success, that influences more consumers to rent Trolls World Tour and then buy more soundtracks.

Those rankings are all that’s needed anyway. Why does the public care about how much a movie grosses anyway? Nobody pays attention to how much money a movie makes from its home video release or how much money an album makes in gross sales. Well, besides shareholders, anyway. And dollar grosses don’t matter anyway because inflation continually drives up the numbers anyway, so records are always broken. It’s all a game of optics, allowing for trivial interests to drive media coverage that gives free publicity for more ticket sales. Movie ads tout being number one more than they tout the grosses.

What matters more on a psychological level to regular folk is rankings on charts, regardless of dollar amounts. Netflix can rank its top-streaming movies and TV shows now and influence continual viewing of those items no matter the validity of their position. It’s just an exclusive promotional tool for them. But when every VOD outlet, not just Universal’s own sister brand of FandangoNOW, shows Trolls World Tour in first place on their best-seller charts, there’s no bias towards in-house products and so can be trusted to be the truth. And in normal times, that number one is all that’s important.

If more movies went straight to VOD or day-and-date with theatrical releases, given the option, many will still go to the movies, but also the number of newly available digital releases would level out the significance of any one title. Trolls World Tour is special, just as previous unique circumstance Hollywood day-and-date release The Interview brought about $15 million in VOD rentals for Sony in the first four days on top of their simultaneous $1.8 million opening weekend gross in a limited theatrical release. That was a rare event and garnered curiosity for being controversial.

Whatever was going to be the first big Hollywood studio movie to almost-exclusively hit VOD with all the variable circumstances of a world pandemic scare in place, that title would have broken digital release records. Trolls World Tour is hardly a case study. If every movie went the same route in a time of more freedom of options for activities and entertainment, we’d see diluted results. And Hollywood and the movie theater industry know that regular practice in regular times would bring less revenue overall, including decreased home video profits.

Interestingly enough, of all the studios’ parent companies, Universal’s would stand to lose the most in a very specific area since they own Fandango, the largest online seller of movie tickets. Sure, the current situation is elevating their VOD division, but not likely enough to replace the ticketing revenue. While many movie fans would love for the convenience of day-and-date VOD in their home, it’s just not beneficial enough for them or Hollywood on a universal level, especially if theater owners will never be okay with the practice on such a scale. Trolls World Tour will go down in history, but only as an exception.

Christopher began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called 'Read,' back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials.