As the coronavirus pandemic quickly resulted in changes to the spring and summer movie season, it also saw one studio experiment with a new release in a way that seemed revolutionary but might actually cost them in the end. Universal Pictures had slated the animated Trolls World Tour to arrive in theaters in April. When that seemed impossible after shut downs happened across the country they instead decided to debut the film on video-on-demand platforms. Families could now access the movie from the comfort of their own home and for just $20, but that's when keeping it real went wrong.
The Hollywood Reporter brings word that the main cast members of the movie, including Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick, were not made aware of the studio's plans before it happened and are expecting a check. Typically when stars make their deals for animated movies a sizable chunk of their compensation will come from the "backend" meaning the more successful that a film is at the box office, the bigger check they can expect. With Trolls World Tour not playing in any theaters, and reportedly earning much less from VOD than its 2016 predecessor did at traditional theaters, it's unclear if the stars will see these payments happen.
The trade notes that representation for both parties is asking that they get paid, saying it's "no doubt to the tune of seven figures." Trolls World Tour has reportedly made $100 million domestically from its PVOD strategy, but THR's sources from "industry veterans" claim the movie may never be considered profitable and another claiming Universal thinks they can net $40 million in profit from the film.
To make things even more complicated for Universal, NBCUniversal exec Jeff Shell told investors due to the results of Trolls World Tour's success that they "expect to release movies on both formats" after theaters re-open. This has landed them in hot water with exhibitors as AMC Theatres announced that they will be refusing to screen Universal films when they reopen their doors later this year.
In an open letter they wrote: "Effectively immediately AMC will no longer play any Universal movies in any of our theatres in the United States, Europe or the Middle East. This policy affects any and all Universal movies per se, goes into effect today and as our theatres reopen, and is not some hollow or ill-considered threat. Incidentally, this policy is not aimed solely at Universal out of pique or to be punitive in any way, it also extends to any movie maker who unilaterally abandons current windowing practices absent good faith negotiations between us, so that they as distributor and we as exhibitor both benefit and neither are hurt from such changes."
It's unclear how all this will shake out for Universal in the end, whether they end up cutting some big checks to the talent involved or come to an agreement with AMC about their plans, but check back here for more updates as we learn them.