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As 'Trolls World Tour' Streams, Movie Theaters Face Uncertain Time

Friday is opening day for a big release from a major film studio. But, “Trolls World Tour,” the sequel to the 2016 hit “Trolls," debuts on streaming video due to all the pandemic-darkened movie screens.

As head of marketing for the six-theater Cleveland Cinemas chain, Dave Huffman admitted he has a fondness for those little doll characters with big hair.

“First off, let me just say I am a huge fan of the original movie,” he said. “You know, part of my job is I watch every kind of every movie. I love movies. I love all different types of movies.”

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Movie fan and Cleveland Cinemas Marketing Director Dave Huffman sports a shirt bedecked of 3-D glasses. [Dave Huffman]

Due to COVID-19 closures, Cleveland Cinemas has been hosting a very different type of movie – for them.

“We are getting some generous partnerships with some of the smaller distributors, allowing us to show theatrical video-on-demand movies in what we're calling our virtual screening room,” he said.

For instance, the French thriller “The Perfect Nanny” is part of a weekly series of streaming movies that Cleveland Cinemas is pitching to film fans. In return, Cleveland Cinemas will get at least half the cost of each ticket sold.

That bargain is even attractive to one of Northeast Ohio’s biggest proponents of big screen movies. Cleveland Cinematheque director John Ewing said he’s partnering with several video-on-demand services.

“I was very hesitant to participate in it initially because I felt it was like, kind of everything that the Cinematheque didn't believe in,” he said. “You know, we try to get people to come out of their houses and see movies in a theatrical setting, but I don't know. This is an unprecedented time, as everybody knows."

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Cleveland Cinematheque director John Ewing's car dispalys his love for film. [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Ewing said, for many years, there had been an agreement in the movie distribution world that a film would debut in theaters and then be released to video 90 days later. But, the new “Trolls” film indicates that model may be changing. And the pandemic is exacerbating the situation. What happens when the theaters reopen?

“It's going to be a different world completely,” said John Knepp. As president of Cooperative Theaters Incorporated in Independence, Knepp buys and books films for about 450 screens across the country. Right now, he only has three screens operating - all drive-ins. He’s not sure everyone’s going to stay in business, but he thinks many will.

“The studios need theaters to be there for them to succeed at DVD and even for streaming, it has to be big at the theaters,” he said. “It has to be a big movie that people know about, for them to buy it on DVD or streaming, for the most part.”

Dave Huffman agreed. At $20 per rental for a title like “Trolls,” he said the mathematics are against a film making anywhere near the money it would in theaters. But, he said it’s hard to tell just how profitable a streaming film is. Box office numbers for traditional films are published in trade journals every week. That’s not true for video on demand.

“That is something that people are much more in control of,” Huffman said. “And those numbers don't get put out.”

The major studios do seem to be holding out some upcoming theatrical releases. The new James Bond film, “No Time To Die,” was rescheduled from spring to the fall. The live-action version of “Mulan,” originally due in March, has a planned opening in July. And the sequel to "Wonder Woman" is due in August.

If theaters can hold out a little longer, Dave Huffman predicts a strong return of movie fans sick of being cooped-up by themselves.

“It's great that we can Skype with our friends and have virtual movie watching parties with our friends,” he said. “But, it's just not the same, you know? It really isn't.”

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