How Universal is upending the distribution game while selling its animated sequel.
In any other year, the release of Trolls World Tour would be (let’s be honest) only somewhat notable. The first movie was a solid hit, grossing $153 domestically and $346 million worldwide, and that insufferable song was everywhere, but if we were still living in the normal world it would largely be drowned out by Black Widow, Mulan and a few other releases.
This is not, of course, the normal world. Instead of releasing the movie in theaters among a host of others, Universal is sending the movie straight to video on demand while most all other releases have been pushed later in the year because all the theaters are closed.
That being said, the story of the movie is pretty standard fare for a sequel, seeking to create familiarity while at the same time expanding the world significantly. Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake return to voice Poppy and Branch, respectively, two music-loving trolls. They discover theirs is just one of many troll tribes, each one centered around a different style of music. Their world is threatened when Queen Barb (Rachel Bloom) seeks to assemble an instrument that would wipe out all other kinds of music, and it’s up to Poppy and Branch to stop her.
With such an unusual – and slightly controversial – release plan in place, you might think the marketing from Universal would have undergone a big shift. Quite the contrary, the campaign has remained largely the same, still selling a bright musical adventure with tunes meant to get stuck in your head for months.
The initial poster (by marketing agency BLT Communications) is very much a branded announcement one-sheet, showing Poppy wearing a tie dye shirt and sporting a concert badge showing the movie’s title treatment on a lanyard around her neck. It’s bright and colorful, meant to reestablish the brand for the audience.
A series of 21 posters showing hands of various colors raised in a familiar rock-centric configuration was released at about the same time the movie was announced on Universal’s schedule in June of last year.
In November what was more or less the theatrical poster (by marketing agency Leroy and Rose) came out, with many of the primary characters from the various tribes clutching a single guitar.
Another poster series were released in December (by Empire Design) showing the characters dancing and jumping in front of bright and sparkly backgrounds.
In January another singular one-sheet came out pitching this as “The happiest movie ever!” which is quite a claim to make.
A few other small sets of posters featuring some of the minor characters came out over the course of this year as well.
Poppy’s gentle rendition of “Sounds of Silence” is interrupted by blaring guitars as the first trailer (23 million views on YouTube) opens. It turns out there are other trolls, each with their own type of music. Uniting all six strings will destroy all except rock (of course) so it’s up to Poppy and the others to travel around and stop those who are trying to do just that.
In November the second trailer (11.7 million views on YouTube) came out, opening with a DJ dance party being rudely interrupted by the Hard Rock Trolls. Finding the queen of that clan is out to remove the music from all the other trolls, Poppy and Branch set out to stop her, discovering what makes all the other kinds of music the various troll factions represent special.
The third trailer (41 million views on YouTube) from March sells the same basic idea, showing off a few more of the musical sequences and other gags, most of which are based around songs.
Online and Social
The official website for the movie is fairly standard, with basic information and content available. Notable, though, is that instead of a prompt to buy tickets as would be found on most sites this one features a “Where To Watch” button offering the various VOD stores it’s available on.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
Early footage from the movie was included in Universal’s CineEurope pitch to exhibitors in mid-June of last year, acting as the official announcement the movie was in production.
Just like with the original, music once again played a major role in the marketing of the movie. Timberlake released “The Other Side” with SZA in late February, with a lyric video for the song showing footage from the film coming out shortly after that. In early March a lyric video for “Don’t Slack,” Timberlake’s collaboration with Anderson.Paak, was released. An official video for the song starring Kendrick along with Paak and Timberlake came out in early April, just before the movie was released.
A Giphy-powered sticker pack was available for Instagram users to add to their Stories.
When the Covic-19 pandemic caused most every theater to close, Universal pivoted by announcing it would release the new movie directly to VOD on the day it was scheduled to hit theaters. That caused a number of tidal waves to emerge in the industry, with exhibitors – through NATO – essentially saying this is a grudge they intend to hold on to tightly, especially since every other movie from Universal and other studios had simply been delayed, not pulled from theaters completely.
For some reason, a 10-hour looping video of Smooth Jazz Chazz (Kenny G) was released, maybe to calm everyone’s nerves. That was followed by a video of the cast performing “Just Sing” from the soundtrack.
Because everyone who was newly working from home was using Zoom to participate in video meetings, Universal put out some movie-themed backgrounds that could be uploaded as custom backgrounds for those Zoom calls.
The K-Pop and Reggaeton clans engaged in a dance battle in a clip given exclusively to Fandango’s MovieClips.
Last week a new clip of the Trolls singing a medley of pop hits from the last ~20 years came out, with the stars talking about their characters and the story at the end. Kendrick and Bloom were also joined by a couple young fans to engage in a whisper challenge.
Sponsorships on Pandora and Spotify gave users access to character-themed channels and playlists, each with appropriate musical genre for that character.
Promotional partners for the movie included:
China Glaze, which introduced a line of movie-themed nail polish that were available on their own or in various packages.
General Mills, which put movie-branding on a selection of of cereals, yogurts and more, prompting consumers to scan a QR code on those packages to unlock an exclusive movie clip.
Oreo, which put characters from the movie on packages and gave people early access to the “Just Sing” video. There was also an AR experience that could be unlocked.
Lays, which put out movie-branded bags of Poppables and also ran a sweepstakes whose prize is unclear.
Punky Color, which put out a line of movie-inspired hair color products.
McDonald’s, which is putting movie toys in Happy Meal boxes this week.
Media and Publicity
There has been, oddly, no discernable press activity for the film, save for one video interview of Timberlake by “SNL” buddy Jimmy Fallon. That may be from some combination of the following real or hypothetical factors:
- Concern that active promotion by talent would further irritate NATO and its members, souring relations between them and the studios even further.
- The almost complete stoppage of the late night talk shows in recent weeks, though other celebrities have been able to make it work.
- No ability to run large-scale events like premieres and other parties.
My guess is it’s a little bit of everything. There’s nothing substantive stopping stars from doing phone or video interviews with the media, so between logistics and business considerations the reality is there’s been almost nothing on this front.
What I can’t really get over is how NATO’s full-on meltdown over Universal’s plans for the movie are so out of proportion for what it is. There wasn’t time to get tracking information on the movie before society crumbled, but it would have been unlikely given the competition it was meant to face that it would have been a massive box office smash.
So I’m left believing that NATO et al simply wanted to use this release as an opportunity to place a stake in the ground, registering their opinion on a VOD strategy they’ve been trying to fend off for a decade. Universal moving first in this direction allowed the group to take a hard stance on the matter without honking off a more powerful studio, a theory bolstered by the stunning absence of confrontational “we won’t forget this!” statement directed at Disney following the news it will bring Artemis Fowl direct to Disney+ later this year.
All of that aside, the campaign here is alright. It’s a big, bright, annoying movie being sold in exactly that manner. The most interesting part of the push is the release strategy, but with no apparent pivot because of that change, it’s not even something that changes the way it’s received or who it’s targeted at.