Collectible ‘90s Kitsch Dolls Set Fire to Ailing Cinema Industry

“I got this feeling… inside my bones. It goes electric-wavy when I turn it on.” Justin Timberlake’s iconic line from his earworm hit “Can’t Stop the Feeling” was about dancing trolls with happy feelings. In the wake of the overwhelming at home video-on-demand success of Trolls World Tour, the lyrics to the sequel’s anthem “Just Sing,” may have a darker meaning – a movie studio crowing about its final triumph over theaters.

Full disclosure, as a parent of three young children, I’ve seen both Trolls movies. And to be honest, they’re kind of a delight. The first, behinds it’s saccharinely sweet exterior is a black comedy that’s just as hilarious for adults as is it for kids. While the sequel doesn’t quite match the original’s subtext, there are enough classic ‘70s and ‘80s hard rock covers to bring a smile to most parents’ faces. (BARRACUDA!)

The first Trolls movie pulled in about $153.7 million in box office revenue, none of it from the Brunson household. It wasn’t until the movie hit Netflix that my kids discovered the nightmarish creatures from my childhood. Trolls 2, though, had been circled for months. When the pandemic shut down our local cinema, and I had to tell my daughters that we wouldn’t be going to see Trolls 2 in the theater, the Brunson girls were devastated. So, of course, when it hit Video-on-Demand (VOD), we all jumped on our couch and ordered Trolls 2.

And we weren’t the only ones. All told, Trolls World Tour racked up more in $100 million in rental fees its first few weeks on VOD, ultimately bringing Universal more in revenue than the first movie’s theater run.

The news shocked Hollywood. Could this finally be the tipping point? Is VOD finally a viable model?

Signs are hazy. Trying to draw any sort of conclusion during a global pandemic is impossible. Trolls 2 was undoubtedly going to be hit in theaters, so it’s no surprise that moving it to VOD proved successful. However, it remains to be seen whether the financial haul of Trolls 2 was a shift in consumer demand or a collective sigh of relief for parents all over the country willing to pay for anything as long as it wasn’t Frozen 2 (again).

AMC and Regal, the nation’s largest theater chains, fear the former. In response to Universal’s preening over the success of Trolls 2 (and the studio’s announcement that future releases may premier on VOD as well), both AMC and Regal announced the cinemas would no longer screen Universal movies. The pandemic has sent theaters reeling, and Universal’s actions in the wake of the success of Trolls World Tour may appear tone-deaf.

That said, studios and theater chains have plenty of time to come to some sort of agreement as dozens of major movies have been pushed back due to COVID-19. CNET has a fairly comprehensive list of the delays. While the next major movie release is Disney Pixar’s Soul, industry eyes are glued to July 17th and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet theatrical release. With most states at least partially opened by then, Nolan’s pedigree should prove an excellent test of whether there’s life-after-COVID for theater chains.

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