Summer is usually the season when studios unveil what they hope will be their latest family-friendly blockbusters and animated hits. However, the coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered not just the entertainment industry’s schedule, but that of families’ and especially kids’ daily lives. Though they’re still doing work on iPads and Chromebooks, school has been effectively out for two months. This summer won’t follow a traditional pattern, and Hollywood has responded accordingly. Kids movies like Sonic, Trolls World Tour and Scoob were or will be released digitally, straight to their homes. If consumers respond well to the experiment of PVOD (premium video-on-demand) or subscription-based access, digital premieres or early PVOD for kids’ content could (and maybe should) become the norm.
First, it’s important to make a distinction between a true kids movie and a movie that’s acceptable for children to watch. There are plenty of PG and even PG-13 releases, of which people under the age of 18 make up a significant share of the audience. Avengers: Endgame and Jurassic World are the kinds of movies that millions of adults wanted to see, and they were happy to bring their equally eager, old-enough children along. Tentpole franchises are definitively the least likely genre of movies to experiment with PVOD. They cost many times more than the average movie to make and depend on individual ticket sales as well as international box office. Similarly, movies that are ostensibly for children but have extremely broad appeal and lofty creative ambition, like Pixar’s Soul, will probably never resort to PVOD or streaming access either. There’s a certain prestige that only the cinema can provide, and some filmmakers aren’t ready to abandon it.
That leaves movies that are made explicitly for the sensibilities of kids, of which Trolls and Scoob are perfect examples. These are movies that kids want to see, that parents begrudgingly have to see, too. Releasing such films through VOD, or making them simultaneously available through PVOD, could be a net benefit for every party involved.
It’s not always the case, but movies like this tend to have a few things in common. Recognizable intellectual property is one, or lacking that, talking animals or anthropomorphized vehicles that studios hope will become intellectual property. Though there are Star Wars and Avengers toys aplenty, true kids movies tend to generate a lot of branded merchandise of their own, aimed at a younger target audience. In a sense, the movies themselves are long-form commercials for entry into fandom. The bright colors, fast pace and low brow comedy keep the attention of that toddler-to-tween target audience, but they often feel disposable to the adults in the room.
Financially, PVOD could work out well for both studios and parents. Movies like these rarely break box office records even if they outperform expectations. Since theaters keep about 50 percent of revenue, compared to PVOD’s 20, there’s an incentive for studios to play around with the on-demand model. Parents, meanwhile, can wind up paying much less for the family to see a movie at home than they would in a theater. The industry seems to have settled upon a PVOD price of $19.99 for a 24-48 hour rental. Not only is that less than the price of three tickets, but they can also consume cheaper snacks and drinks from the comfort of their own living rooms.
There’s no packing the whole family into the car, no bargaining with the children to behave or hoping the baby makes it through. Plus, parents can press pause, rewind, or fast forward as needed, depending upon the mood and attention span of possibly crying, sleeping, or distracted kids. Families can also rewatch the movie several times within that window, as children are known to do with their favorites. And best of all, the grown-ups can check in and out as they please. At home, these often mediocre and formulaic titles can serve their real purpose: babysitting.
VOD kids movies could even be a boon for the theater industry, which will be looking to redefine itself, post-coronavirus. With fewer kids in attendance, theaters might become communal spaces that are primarily focused on adults’ experiences again. Chains like Alamo Drafthouse are already cornering this share of the market. It could also mean more screens for small and mid-level adult movies, which have largely been forced out of the mainstream moviegoing experience.
Disney is the one big elephant in the room, though. By far the king of kids movies, Disney will probably stick to theatrical releases and Disney+. Twenty years ago, Frozen II might’ve gone straight to VHS or DVD, but in 2019, despite lukewarm reviews, it became the highest-grossing animated movie of all time. Since Disney movies (especially animated features and Pixar films) are the standard by which most films made for children are judged, what’s considered theater-worthy and what’s considered VOD quality will likely be decided, in part, based on whatever course Disney charts. Still, once the youngest consumers get a taste of instant home access to the latest adventures of their favorite characters this summer, it might be hard to go back.
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In addition to providing a financial benefit for studios and families, kids' movies could finally serve their true purpose by babysitting.