NBCUniversal chief Jeff Shell is not backing down from Universal’s flap with top exhibitors over the studio’s premium VOD release of “Trolls World Tour.” The NBCU CEO told investors Thursday during Comcast’s quarterly earnings call that premium VOD releases for some titles will be a “complementary element” to traditional theatrical distribution for the studio.
Shell emphasized that he sees theatrical distribution as rebounding from the COVID-19 shutdowns. But he also stressed that the reality for many consumers is that movies are watched in the home, and studios would be foolish to ignore that fact.
“The question is, when we come out of this, what is going to be the model? I would expect that consumers will return to theaters and we will be part of that,” Shell said. “I also would expect PVOD is going be part of that offering in some way. It’s not going to be a replacement, but it will be a complimentary element and we’re just going to have to see how long that takes and where it takes us.”
Universal has been in a war of words this week with AMC Theatres, the nation’s largest exhibition chain, and the National Association of Theatre Owners after AMC vowed to not play Universal movies in the wake of the decision to release “Trolls World Tour” as a premium VOD offering.
“Trolls World Tour” was set for a theatrical release on April 10, but the studio shifted to a $19.99 premium VOD release plan after the coronavirus outbreak shuttered theaters around the world. Earlier this week, Shell was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying that the experiment had generated nearly $100 million in revenue so far since the movie’s March 11 debut and that the studio would pursue more such PVOD releases.
Shell’s comments sparked AMC to announce it would no longer book Universal titles in its theaters in protest of the studio’s move. Exhibitors typically demand a 90-day window of exclusivity for theatrical titles in theaters before a title is released as a home entertainment offering. NATO also weighed in with a lengthy statement questioning whether the unusual circumstances of social distancing and the fact that Universal had spent heavily on traditional film marketing influenced their decision.
On the earnings call, Shell said Universal cannot ignore the reality of how many people watch movies these days, even as he stressed that traditional theatrical releases will remain the core of the studio’s focus.
“There’s no question that theatrical is some day again going to be the central element to our business,” Shell said. “It’s how people make their movies and how they expect movies to be seen. 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 we’re not going to change, that this part of this business isn’t going to change like all parts of the business are going to change.”
Shell said the premium VOD offering for “Trolls World Tour” was developed as a response to unprecedented times. Universal leaders saw it as a way of trying to “preserve the premium nature of movies” with a special offering at a $20 price point. Other Universal titles that had been set for theatrical rollouts this year, including the ninth installment of the “Fast and Furious” franchise and the animated “Minions: The Rise of Gru,” have been moved to 2021.
Comcast chief financial officer Mike Cavanagh also addressed the friction for Universal in the theatrical marketplace. “The particular circumstances of each film are unique and we will determine our future distribution approach on a title-by-title basis,” he said.
Comcast’s first-quarter earnings reflected the jolt of coronavirus shutdowns across the parent company of Comcast Cable, NBCUniversal and Sky. The most immediate impact was felt at the company’s theme parks division, which has been rocked by the shutdown of its park in Japan in late February and of the Universal Studios parks in Hollywood and Orlando, Fla., as of mid-March.
Not surprisingly, theme parks revenue plummeted 32% for the quarter to $869 million, while earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization fell 85% to $76 million. Assuming the U.S. parks are shuttered for the entire second quarter, NBCUniversal would see a $500 million hit in EBITDA, Cavanagh told analysts.
NBCUniversal’s film unit was already facing tough year-over-year comparisons to the 2019 frame buoyed by “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” and other titles. Revenue fell 22.5% to $1.4 billion while adjusted EBITDA sank 71% to $106 million, a drop that was “aggravated” by theater closures at the end of the quarter, Cavanagh said.
Broadcast TV was a bright spot for the quarter with 9% revenue gains to $2.7 billion and adjusted EBITDA of $501 million. That was fueled in large part by content licensing revenue and retransmission consent gains. Advertising revenue for the quarter was basically flat, driven by political ads and higher pricing. Revenue for the cable networks wing was flat at $2.9 billion; adjusted EBITDA fell 1.2% to $1.2 billion.
NBCUniversal and Sky’s advertising-based businesses are feeling the crunch of advertiser pullback amid the global crisis. At the same time, programming expenditures are dropping because sports leagues around the world have been temporarily shuttered. Cavanagh warned analysts that advertising sales “will materially weaken” from Q1.
Comcast chairman-CEO Brian Roberts emphasized that Comcast is “well positioned” overall to serve consumers in a fast-changing landscape with its broadband service and content assets.
The stay-at-home orders and huge increases in broadband usage have “shined a bright light on just how much video consumption is evolving,” Roberts said. The unprecedented economic environment has “sharpened our focus on taking advantage of the disruptions and where can we reexamine, whether it’s cost structures, revenue opportunities, innovation.”
Shell also said there would be renewed scrutiny on spending and priorities across NBCU.
“Over the next weeks and months, we’ll make pretty significant adjustments across our businesses,” he said.
Shell was also asked about the performance of Peacock, the ad-supported streaming platform that launched in Comcast homes earlier this month. The plan is to roll the service out nationally in July. Shell said the early data from Peacock usage to date has found that users are spending “a lot more time” on the platform than estimated.
“We’re very encouraged and even more optimistic about it long term,” Shell said.