Delaying a Fast & Furious movie is no easy feat.
For starters, it involves finding a new release date for a film with a $250 million production budget. And in the case of Fast & Furious, one of Universal Picture’s most valuable franchises, there’s also the risk of letting down legions of ardent fans who live and die by the high-octane exploits of Dominic Toretto and his “family” of racers.
But as soon as the coronavirus pandemic began to upend life worldwide, Universal wasted no time pushing the May 2020 release of “F9” — the ninth installment in the series — to 2021. For Donna Langley, chairwoman of Universal’s filmed entertainment group, the decision was unpopular — even within her own studio.
“[Theaters] were quite upset with us because they thought that we were overreacting. Even people inside the company thought that we were a little crazy for doing it,” Langley told CNN Business earlier this month. “But we just felt that it was better to sort of plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
“Of course, now 2020 — pardon the pun — being hindsight,” Langley added, “it was the best decision we could have made.”
And it wouldn’t be Langley’s only bold decision this year.
Hollywood changed in 2020. The coronavirus pandemic delayed major films, shuttered theaters worldwide, stalled productions and ushered in streaming as the dominant entertainment platform. To say that this year was a turbulent one for the film industry would be an understatement. It was transformational.
However, all along the way, Universal was ahead of the curve. Under Langley, the studio’s gambles in 2020 — from releasing the animated film “Trolls World Tour” on digital to negotiating a new deal with AMC Theatres — created a road map for all of Hollywood at a time when the road was shifting by the day.
Trolls take Tinseltown
The original “Trolls” film was a modest success.
The 2016 animated movie brought in nearly $350 million worldwide and garnered lukewarm reviews. The Hollywood Reporter called it a “vibrant-looking but awfully recognizable animated musical comedy concoction.” It was released, made some money, and then was mostly forgotten about.
But its sequel, “Trolls World Tour,” may be remembered for changing the trajectory of the movie business forever.
As Covid-19 cases spiked in March, Universal made the audacious decision to make some of its films which were already in theaters available on-demand immediately. The list included “The Invisible Man,” “The Hunt” and “Emma,” but the movie that made the biggest splash was “Trolls World Tour.”
The Comcast (CMCSA)-owned studio announced that the DreamWorks Animation production would be available in living rooms on April 10, the same day it was set to open in theaters — an unprecedented move that foreshadowed much of what would happen over the rest of the year in Hollywood.
“We had a big consumer product program on the film, and there was just no way that we could move it out of the year,” Langley said. “We really wanted to get it out there to our audience. So, yes, we made the bold decision to put it into the home and use the digital marketplace to be able to do that.”
The rise of streaming and video-on-demand has led studios to grapple with theaters for years over what is known as the “theatrical window,” the length of time a movie plays in theaters before it is offered on other platforms. Studios are eager to bring in revenue from all sources, but box office returns can still be massive, so shortening that window has been a contested point of discussion in Hollywood. Theater operators, meanwhile, are keen to preserve exclusivity to entice customers to go out, fill seats and buy popcorn.
“Trolls World Tour” upended that longstanding precedent.
“It was the first experiment during the pandemic of sending a film made for theaters directly to the home. That, in itself, is very significant,” Shawn Robbins, chief analyst of Boxoffice.com, told CNN Business. “It set the tone for how movies would be released during the pandemic.”
As the health crisis dragged on, other studios followed Universal’s lead. Warner Bros. released “Scoob!,” a Scooby Doo animated film,” on digital, and Disney (DIS) launched its much anticipated big budget live-action remake of “Mulan” on Disney (DIS)+, albeit for an extra fee.
“We’re all trying to figure out what the new normal is as these trends that we were seeing in the industry before the pandemic have now really come home to roost,” Langley said.
After the “Trolls World Tour” digital release, everything remained copacetic between Universal and theaters. The film found an audience on-demand, and theaters had larger problems just keeping their marquees lit.
It was your standard Hollywood happy ending — until the “Trolls’” numbers came out.
A new model
If you said last year that the world’s biggest theater chain would ban one of Hollywood’s biggest studios, no one would have believed you. If you said that the spat was over “Trolls World Tour,” industry insiders would have recommended seeking professional help.
But that’s exactly what happened.
In April, CEO Adam Aron announced that AMC (AMC) Theatres would no longer be showing Universal’s films. In a letter to Langley, he said that the decision was triggered by a quote in the Wall Street Journal from NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell revealing that based on the success of “Trolls World Tour” his studio expected to “release movies on both formats.” The sequel earned nearly $100 million in rental fees domestically in its first three weeks.
AMC’s threat wasn’t likely to hold, given the symbiotic relationship between the companies: AMC is the top movie theater company and Universal is the home of global blockbusters such as “Furious 7,” “Jurassic World” and “Minions.”
But the momentary rift led to a landmark deal that potentially created a new theatrical model for all of Hollywood.
“I think the biggest risk that we took in 2020 was putting ‘Troll’s World Tour’ into the home… It was a bold move. It was a necessary move, and it was a move that ultimately yielded this historic deal,” Langley said. “At the time, we had no line of sight into what the outcome might be. And there was a period of time where we were called to the mat by exhibition, in the press and our competitors thought that we were crazy.”
Under the new arrangement, Universal’s films will have three weekends — or 17 days — of in-theater exclusivity, rather than the typical 70 to 90 days. After that, Universal and its sister studio, Focus Features, has the option to release films on video-on-demand platforms. Universal has since made similar deals with other chains.
“Every time we launch a movie, it’s like launching a small business,” Langley said. “We have to love it, of course, but we have to have a business model and a business rationale that enables it to work. We need to keep our distribution ecosystem healthy. And this really helps us do it.”
According to Robbins, Langley had “proven to be a captain” of the industry before 2020. Still, this year further showcased her insight and ability to adapt to a business whose future felt anything but certain.
“I think the future can be very bright for the industry if cooler heads prevail and leaders like Langley remain at the table to help figure out what that future looks like,” he said.
Hollywood finds a way
Hollywood is changing. Langley knows that.
“It’s now a 100-year-old business mixed with a ten-year-old tech business,” she said. “I think we’re learning whether or not we can all get along.”
For Langley, the risks she took in 2020 were not just about surviving one of the industry’s wildest years, it was also about finding a path to a future that arrived faster than anyone expected.
If anything, the pandemic accelerated a decade-long shift to streaming and gave studios an excuse to catch up to Netflix: WarnerMedia, CNN’s parent company, announced earlier this month that it would release all of Warner Bros.’ 2021 films in theaters and HBO Max on the same day, collapsing the theatrical window to zero days. This choice caused shock waves that are still being felt throughout Tinseltown. Disney announced dozens of new Star Wars and Marvel series going direct to Disney+, two brands that helped it earn a staggering $11 billion box office haul in 2019. And NBCUniversal — Universal’s parent company — launched Peacock, its own streaming platform, earlier this year.
Never before has the future of moviegoing been in so much doubt. Yet, Langley doesn’t think that it has to be a winner take all battle.
“I believe that there is enough to go around for everybody,” she said. “And I think all boats rise when we’re successful. I don’t think it’s binary.”
For Langley, the theatrical experience hasn’t reached its final act yet.
“In tough times, people look to the movies to take them out of their reality, to inspire them,” she said. “And I think that that is going to be true more than ever on the other side of the pandemic.”