Movie theater owners rushed to defend the future of big screen releases Tuesday after reports that "Trolls World Tour" grossed nearly $100 million on streaming platforms prompted dire warnings over the industry.
The children's film sequel was released by Universal Pictures directly to on-demand platforms like Apple TV, costing $19.99 to rent, after much of its theatrical release was scrapped due to the coronavirus.
Days after its Easter weekend release, Universal claimed "Trolls" had shattered streaming records, though it did not release any figures.
But the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday reported the film had earned a huge $95 million from nearly five million domestic customers in three weeks, citing "a person familiar with the matter."
According to the report, "its performance has convinced Universal executives that digital releases can be a winning strategy, and may diminish the role of theaters even after the pandemic passes."
"As soon as theaters reopen, we expect to release movies on both formats," NBCUniversal head Jeff Shell told the newspaper, adding the film had "exceeded our expectations and demonstrated the viability" of streaming.
Theater owners quickly downplayed the report, in a statement that insisted the film's performance was not "the new normal" but the result of hundreds of millions trapped at home.
"Universal does not have reason to use unusual circumstances in an unprecedented environment as a springboard to bypass true theatrical releases," said National Association of Theatre Owners head John Fithian.
Universal Pictures did not immediately respond to AFP request for further comment.
"Trolls World Tour" is one of many studio titles -- in particular, family films -- to either shorten or entirely skip the traditional "theatrical window" for movies playing only on the big screen due to coronavirus.
Warner Bros will release "Scoob!" direct to streaming next month, Disney has earmarked "Artemis Fowl" for its Disney+ platform, and Paramount title "Lovebirds" is headed straight to Netflix, in another industry first.
Major US movie theaters say they do not plan on reopening until the summer, despite Georgia authorizing cinemas to resume screenings on Monday, and Texas planning to follow suit.
Social distancing rules are being enforced in those two states.
But major theater chains such as AMC, Regal and Cinemark are not expected to reopen until shortly before the next scheduled Hollywood blockbusters including "Tenet" and "Mulan" -- both currently set for mid-July.