Movie Guru: In-person and digital release of ‘Bill and Ted’ looks at future of video on demand
Video on Demand is a strangely perfect format for Bill and Ted.
The scrappy, blissfully dumb duo who first hit the big screen in 1989’s “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” were two slacker friends hailed as world-changing heroes by time travelers from the future. What they really were was scrappy, good-hearted idiots who made it through by the skin of their teeth, and that’s the reason we’re all so happy to see them back in this weekend’s “Bill and Ted Face the Music.” The movie opened this past weekend both in theaters and on demand, which means you can pay to see them on either the big or small screen.
Like our two favorite time-traveling idiots, combined video on demand and theatrical releases have a dazzling reputation that’s often at odds with their much scrappier reality. When “Trolls World Tour” first took that route this past April, adding VOD releases without telling the theaters or even half the movie’s cast, it was hailed as a bold move that would shake up the film industry. When industry experts estimated that the movie pulled in $150,000 from streaming rentals, added to the $15 million it picked up from a limited theatrical release, it felt like a miracle in the world of COVID-19 shutdowns.
All these months later, however, that miracle still hasn’t come to pass. Just as Bill and Ted have are still searching for their mythical future success in their newest movie, simultaneous video on demand and theatrical releases have remained more of an experiment than anything. After “Trolls World Tour,” only two other movies went that route – “The High Note” and “The King of Staten Island.”
All three movies were produced by Universal Studios, the same studio that was so happy to advertise the streaming success of the “Trolls” sequel. They’ve been suspiciously silent on the VOD success of the two later films, and VOD rental earnings aren’t released the way box office numbers are. Both films enjoyed high rankings on various streaming top 10 lists, but unless Universal is willing to share the actual numbers there’s no way of knowing whether or not they were popular enough to actually make any money.
Since “The High Note” only made $1.6 million in theaters, and “The King of Staten Island” made only $300,000, that money is even more precious. The latter film didn’t even get a theatrical release in America, reportedly at the request of the movie’s producers, which means almost all its initial income came from VOD. With AMC theaters getting a portion of that money – Universal made an agreement with them as part of an apology for springing the “Trolls” VOD release on them – the pressure is even higher.
But just like Bill and Ted would tell you, even grim prospects doesn’t mean that all hope is lost. “The High Note” was made for $20 million, and “The King of Staten Island” for even less than that. “Bill and Ted Face the Music” came in just above that at $25 million, which means that all of them have a better chance to make their money back than a big budget blockbuster. And with Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” sliding into theaters on Thursday, Sept. 3, VOD can give “Bill and Ted” a desperately needed boost to help it survive against a much larger competitor.
Even if you can’t save an entire industry, sometimes you can save a smaller movie from getting crushed to death. As Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan might say, “excellent.”
Jenniffer Wardell is an award-winning movie critic and member of the Denver Film Critics Society. Find her on Twitter at @wardellwriter or drop her a line at email@example.com.