“[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.
Trolls take Tinseltown
The original “Trolls” film was a modest success.
But its sequel, “Trolls World Tour,” may be remembered for changing the trajectory of the movie business forever.
“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.”
“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.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”