NBCUniversal CEO: VOD Will Be 'Complementary Element,' Not 'Replacement' for Theatrical Releases Post-Pandemic

“It’s not realistic to assume that we’re not gonna change,” Jeff Shell says, following AMC and Cineworld backlash to “Trolls” streaming release

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Following backlash from theater owners regarding Universal’s decision to take “Trolls World Tour” directly to streaming earlier this month, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said Thursday that premium VOD debuts will not be a “replacement” for the company’s theatrical releases in a post-pandemic world — but they will be a “complementary element” in the model.

“I’ve spent a big chunk of the last decade in the film business and there is no question that theatrical is someday again gonna be the central element to our business and the film business itself and how people make their movies and how they expect their movies to be seen,” Shell said during NBCU parent Comcast’s earnings call Thursday. “But the flip side is the majority of movies, whether we like it or not, are being consumed at home and it’s not realistic to assume that we’re not gonna change, that this part of the business is not gonna change like all parts of the business are gonna change. As you mentioned, we’re in a current unprecedented environment. We had a number of films, including ‘Trolls World Tour,’ that were ready to go, that we had worked very hard on and invested a lot of money in. And we really had a choice: do we delay those movies to a time when we think theaters are gonna be back open again, we did that with ‘Fast’ and ‘Minions’; do we sell them or movie them to streaming, some of our other competitors have done that; or do we try something new to preserve the premium nature of movies, and that’s how we came up with the PVOD offering.”

This week, both Regal Entertainment owner Cineworld Group and AMC Entertainment announced they will no longer screen Universal Pictures films following an interview with Shell published by the Wall Street Journal Tuesday, in which he touted the impressive $95 million “Trolls World Tour” made in digital rentals in the 19 days since its release.

The film was initially planned for theatrical release but was moved to day-and-date with a digital release in March as thousands of theaters were forced to shut down during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I couldn’t be more pleased with the numbers,” Shell added during the call. “It provided consumers with a product that they desperately needed at home, particularly if you have a bunch of 7 year olds and 5 year olds running around. And it was good for our employees and kept them working on something and gave us an ability to make some money on something that we were proud of. The question is, when we come out of this, what is gonna be the model? And I would expect that consumers are gonna return to the theaters and we will be a part of that. And I also would expect that PVOD is gonna be part of that offering in some way. It’s not gonna be a replacement, but it’s gonna be a complementary element and we’re just gonna have to see how long that takes and where that takes us.”

Comcast reported its first-quarter 2020 earnings earlier Thursday. Readers can find the results here.

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