As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, there’s little question that its effects will continue to be felt well into the future. While individuals have altered their lives in ways both big and small, many businesses and industries deemed “non-essential” are also trying to fumble their way forward, tasked with finding a way to adapt in this uncertain and ever-changing landscape. And Hollywood is no exception.
Movie theaters around the globe are closed indefinitely, and many questions remain about what these current circumstances will mean for movie-going culture from here on out.
In late March, when it was announced that a small number of cinemas in earlier-hit countries including China were beginning to reopen, it appeared as though the light at the end of the tunnel was closer than many had feared. But within days those theaters had once again closed their doors, and all signs continue to suggest that theaters will be closed for some time still.
Without movie theaters, many studios have pivoted to the transactional video-on-demand (TVOD) model, the method by which customers pay for each individual piece of video content (in this case, movies) they wish to access. So far, this has been the preferred method for films that were already in theaters and had their runs cut short by the implementation of coronavirus-related safety measures.
This acceleration to the home release timeline typically involves making these films available for purchase digitally or for premium rental, with an average price point of $20. Though the cost is less than it would take for an entire family to hit the multiplex to see a new release, some have balked at the idea of forking over the 20 bucks to watch something in their own homes. Even if it means 90 minutes of distraction for their kids.
Then this past Friday came the release of “Trolls World Tour,” the first major studio movie originally intended for theatrical release that will now bypass theaters entirely to go directly to digital video. Suddenly it feels like the fate of the entire industry is in the hands of the sequel to a children’s jukebox-musical inspired by a line of wildly popular, poofy-haired plastic dolls.
The Universal Studios and DreamWorks Animation film has become the canary in the coal mine, its fate helping determine how studios may proceed with their forthcoming slate of films. A recent article in The Guardian went so far as to call “Trolls World Tour” the “most important movie of 2020” and, you know, it’s kind of hard to argue against that.
It certainly makes for an interesting test case. The first film was a huge success in 2016, grossing $347 million worldwide. And while it remains to be seen whether there’s any chance of making even a portion of that kind of money through TVOD alone, the studio already had a lot invested in the sequel and its various marketing campaigns. Plus, with a holiday weekend following its Friday release and a population starved for entertainment, there was certainly potential for massive success.
There’s no question people are craving entertainment they can enjoy at home and for many, movies have fit the bill — specifically family-friendly movies like “Trolls World Tour” may stand to gain the most. If the film does well, it could completely alter the way we consume movies.
A global social networking site for film lovers, Letterboxd allows users to log their movie-viewing habits, write and share reviews, curate watchlists, and basically immerse themselves in the culture of watching movies. Letterboxd’s Editor-in-Chief Gemma Gracewood told CITY that as physical distancing and shelter-at-home measures have rolled out across the world, they’ve seen a dramatic, across-the-board increase in traffic on the site.
“In the first weeks of the pandemic taking hold, many in the community were making watchlists for themselves with words like ‘quarantine,’ ‘coronavirus,’ ‘pandemic,’ ‘lockdown,’ and ‘social distancing’ in the title,” Gracewood said. “As time has gone on, we’ve noticed less of that, with a shift more toward comfort viewing.”
She clarified that site members aren’t necessarily choosing light or uplifting movies, but they’re watching films they know well, and which won’t give them any “nasty surprises.” Site statistics show that many are catching up on classics they haven’t gotten around to seeing before, or trawling through directors’ back catalogs. Many members are tackling Letterboxd’s must-see lists, “but we can also see that familiar films of all genres are being rewatched in large numbers.”
Gracewood also noted that many Letterboxd members are attempting to recapture the social aspects of communal movie-watching by viewing these films together, whether via Netflix Parties, video-messaging, or other types of watch-alongs. The rise in popularity of virtual viewing-parties happening right now is proof that digital film events can work. “And that’s an argument for more ‘online event cinema’ in the future,” Gracewood said.
And film distributors are increasingly stepping in to provide viewers with new movies they can watch together.
Wendy Lidell is Senior Vice President of Theatrical Distribution and Acquisitions for Kino Lorber, the independent film distributor behind the Brazilian thriller “Bacurau.” That film was to be the distributor’s big release for the season, she told CITY. “We had just invested a fair amount of money, and were getting great reviews. We had 60 theaters lined up to show it, and suddenly they were all shutting down. So a film that we'd invested so much in building a profile for, was just going to get squandered.”
Rather than let that happen, Kino Lorber became one of the first distributors to adopt the “virtual theater” model with Kino Marquee, splitting the revenue from each digital rental of a film with a local brick-and-mortar theater. Their films have always been dependent on partnerships with the art houses like The Little Theatre in Rochester, which act as the conduits to their respective local audiences. So the decision to make a shift was an easy one, Lidell said.
“We could advertise a film in Rochester or we could just show it at The Little, which has a big reach in the cinephile community,” she said, adding that those audiences have a built-in trust in the theater, and it in turn knows how to get the word out about their movies.
“So when The Little tells people, ‘We're showing ‘Bacurau,’ people say, ‘Wow, you usually bring us great films, I’ll check it out!’” she said. “The other side of that is we want the theaters to survive, so it was a win-win. It was the best way for us to release it, and it was also a way to share the revenue with our important partners. Because if they go out of business, we don't have a business.”
Movie theaters are vital community-gathering spaces, Gracewood said. But they're also large spaces with a big overhead, so it will undoubtedly take time for them to make a comeback. And it will be especially tricky for independent and art house theaters. “But just as vinyl has had a resurgence, art and repertory houses will, too,” she said. “The innovations we’ve seen in programming mean that as soon as our community regains confidence about being around large groups of people, we’ll all be back.”
Until that happens, Letterboxd is supporting the indies by highlighting virtual screenings with proceeds going to benefit specific cinemas. “In the past few weeks we’ve noticed a healthy number of Letterboxd diary entries and reviews being logged for films that have limited-release windows at a higher rental price point, suggesting that this approach is working for some films,” Gracewood said, citing Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” as an example.
In response to the question of whether we might see renewed interest in the theatrical experience from audiences who might not have realized until now how much they craved watching movies in a theater setting, Lidell is hopeful but pragmatic. “That would be really great,” she said. “But frankly, I think that the reopening is not going to be an all-at-once sort of thing. It's going to be a slow roll out, and I think they'll open with reduced capacity. Some people will be afraid to go. So it’ll be a gradual relaunching.”
Lidell also admitted to a fear that people will have lost the movie-going habit and are getting used to streaming. “Obviously, I'm in the theatrical business, I sincerely hope not,” she said. “But there will need to be some special events in the theaters to get people to start coming back. And that will be a theater-by-theater undertaking, to celebrate in a way that makes sense in their community.”
Gracewood also expressed a belief that big theatrical chains in particular “will need to hold more real-life prestige events to claw back lost income.”
Both Lidell and Gracewood predict that some of the changes we’re seeing to film distribution may become permanent. Gracewood says viewers can expect to see high-priced day-and-date rentals become more common.
Lidell believes that some theaters may want to keep a virtual screen open to supplement their physical screens. There are always more films than there are cinema screens, and often, even movies doing decent business will get pushed out because theaters have another film coming in. “But if they also had a virtual screen, they could move us over to the virtual screen,” she said. “And their audiences who haven't had a chance to see it will know, ‘Well now it's on virtual, so it's now or never.’ But it's not our decision alone. We'll have to see how the theaters feel about it.”
The coronavirus pandemic has already decimated the upcoming summer movie season, and just about all of the scheduled blockbuster studio tentpoles have been postponed until very late in the season (which still seems overly optimistic), and in most cases are delayed until the fall.
Which brings us back to “Trolls World Tour.” While Universal Pictures hasn’t released specific numbers yet, following the film’s Easter weekend release, the studio reported that it had the biggest debut of any digital release so far. There’s little surprise the family-friendly film did well, and it now seems inevitable that other studios will follow a similar release strategy.
Directed by Walt Dohrn and David P. Smith, the film reunites audiences with the original film’s protagonists, Poppy and Branch (voiced by Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake). While the first film introduced the world of the trolls, in this follow-up we learn that the Trolls universe is even more expansive than it had originally appeared. It turns out there are six separate tribes of trolls, each based around a different kind of music: funk, country, techno, classical, pop, and rock.
The mostly inconsequential plot of the new film revolves around Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”) of the rock tribe wanting to destroy all other kinds of music by stealing the magical guitar strings that are the source of each tribe's power, so that rock can rule them all. To save their world, Poppy and Branch must set off to unify the other trolls in harmony against Barb. It’s pure nonsense, but it’s cute enough.
Without question, the best part of the “Trolls” series is its distinctive look, with its psychedelic production design, bizarre background creatures, and retina-searing rainbow color schemes. Every environment in the film is made to look as if it’s made of yarn, felt, glitter, tufts of cotton, and textured fabric; you can’t help but want to reach out and touch it.
On the storytelling front, it does feel a bit odd that the generally rebellious genre of rock music has been reassigned to the role of aggressive conformist, but the story is really just an excuse for catchy renditions of pop songs, from “Barracuda” to “Who Let the Dogs Out” (though nothing reaches the toe-tapping heights of the first film’s “Can’t Stop the Feeling!”).
In Poppy and Branch’s quest to bring all the troll tribes together, the film touches — ever so gently — on issues of cultural appropriation, diversity, and marginalization. But for the most part it’s light, fun, and good-naturedly silly. And Universal even got into the viewing-party trend by organizing a live tweet-along on the first day “Trolls World Tour” was made available.
For an audience of kids and parents desperate for more ways to keep those kids entertained (or just adults looking for something stimulating to watch while they get high at home), the bright and lively “Trolls World Tour” makes for convenient, family-friendly entertainment. Hyperactive and candy-colored, it’s a welcome diversion to distract from the troubles of the real world, which may be exactly what viewers are looking for right now.
Adam Lubitow is a freelance writer for CITY. Feedback on this article can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.