DreamWorks Animation’s Trolls World Tour was set to hit screens in April, but the music-focused sequel had to change its tune when theaters around the world shuttered in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The change meant licensing partners like Random House and Just Play had to switch up their strategies without missing a beat.
In March, NBCUniversal announced Universal Pictures would make select movies available on-demand on the same day they were scheduled for theatrical release. These films are available for a 48-hour rental period from NBCUniversal sister companies Comcast and Sky, as well as from a range of on-demand partners. Trolls World Tour was the first of Universal Pictures’ day-and-date releases, available simultaneously in theaters and in homes across the US on April 10.
Universal Brand Development
Once the decision was made to go digital, Universal’s brand development team had just weeks to redesign its marketing program, connecting with fans on social media to encourage at-home viewing and engaging with influencer families to share posts featuring cross-category products.
“Our focus pivoted to support at-home-viewing parties for families,” says Emmanuel Doessant, SVP of consumer products for North America.
On the retail front, Universal Brand Development worked with Walmart to move away from in-store activations and launch virtual events. This included a Twitter watch party, downloadable party kits and YouTube tutorials. The company also collaborated with Amazon to launch a ‘Shop the Store’ capability, which allowed fans to shop for products within the movie rental using QR code integration within the FireTV platform.
For its part, Just Play launched plush tied to the sequel (pictured), as well as roleplay items and a hair-focused playset. The consumer products program bowed with major retailers globally.
Rather than focus on the theatrical release, the toyco made the decision to tie its initial offerings to Easter. Just Play’s colorful products made them a good fit for the holiday shopping season, says co-president Geoffrey Greenberg, and the company’s smaller plush items were marketed as basket stuffers.
“The timing of the launch worked out as audiences were eagerly anticipating new content [due to lockdowns],” Greenberg says. “As we began to see the rise in content consumption [generally]—including increasing network ratings and Disney+ reaching 50 million subscribers in five months—we believed that there was an opportunity for the movie to do well despite theaters remaining closed.”
Hasbro, meanwhile, returned as global master toy partner for the IP, launching its first Trolls-related offerings in January with movie-accurate dolls, fashion dolls and feature dolls. Additional items from the toymaker included accessories and figure sets (which launched this spring).
In Hasbro’s Q1 2020 earnings conference call, CEO Brian Goldner said the fact that the movie will have a home entertainment window following its VOD premiere will likely boost sales for Trolls-related toys and offer up new—and longer-term—marketing opportunities.
“That’s where kids and families get to watch the movie over and over again, [whereas] the PVOD window was for a very limited time,” Goldner said. “We think [the home entertainment window] will be incredibly effective in continuing to market the Trolls property.”
Random House’s consumer products program for the movie included novelizations, coloring books, activity books and leveled readers. Once the publisher was made aware of Universal’s VOD pivot, it shifted its marketing strategy and launched the “Turn Screen Time Into Story Time” campaign. Random House worked to target families through programmatic advertising, social media and newsletter outreach, offering downloadable coloring and activity pages related to Trolls World Tour.
“Book sales for the sequel were lower than originally anticipated, but we’re not sure how much of that is from the pandemic [and how much is from] not having a theatrical release,” says Chris Angelilli, VP, editor-in-chief and executive director of licensed publishing for Random House Children’s Books. “Keep in mind that major book retailers were shut down, and families were being more careful about making purchases. So there are a lot of variables to consider.”
One benefit of Universal making the decision to premiere Trolls World Tour as a digital download early enough before its intended theatrical release, Angelilli says, is that Random House had time to review its shipping to retailers and manage returns.
Looking forward to future VOD premieres, Angelilli says he hopes IP owners and licensing partners can work closely to formulate a new strategy together. “Time will tell what the full impact will be.”