What trolls teach us about our business


Yes, trolls.  Last month (62 months ago in COVID-19 time), the Trolls World Tour made about $95 million in video-on-demand revenue for Universal Studios.  NBC Universal CEO Jeff Shell said that going forward Universal would release movies in theatres and video-on-demand simultaneously.  AMC wrote Universal a letter saying that they would not distribute Universal’s movies on those terms.

A pause here.  Movie theatres were not doing great before COVID-19.  They are doing worse after.  Threatening to not distribute, say, the upcoming Fast and Furious movie (working title: Fastester and Most Furiouserest) is like a Titanic passenger refusing to be rescued unless shown the proper respect by rescuers.

The challenge for AMC is they thought they were in the movie theatre business when they are in the entertainment business.  When people have larger TVs, better sound systems, cheaper and tastier food, and greater control of the person making insightful commentary like “THEY ARE GOING IN THE BARN NOW!” and kicking the back of your seat, people are going to stay home more.  And if you happen not to act as a disease vector for a global pandemic, so much the better.

What Universal is doing is natural.  It costs about half as much get a movie out on a video-on-demand owned platform (e.g., Disney+) than it does to get it out and marketing it in theatres.  So you can make the same profit margin on half the investment.  They can make this now from a position of strength.

This teaches us a few things about our business:

You don’t choose the channel.  Some people love the theatre experience and would never want to switch totally to video-on-demand.  Others have made the jump already, investing in their home theatre.

Same for us.  Some people like to give one-time gifts and love getting their mail pieces.  Others want to give a monthly donation online and Ron Popeil set-it-and-forget-it.  You can work to influence it.  But you would rather be Universal who can make money from anyone who wants to be entertained (i.e., everyone) than AMC who can only make it from people who want to be entertained in a very specific way (unless you can differentiate that experience).

You are in the warm glow business for your donors.  I went on long enough last week about how there’s the potential for a warm glow to be generic if we can’t customize it to each and every donor.  All I’ll add here is that if crowdfunding sites and cause-related marketing initiatives can deliver the same impact to the donor as we can, then we nonprofits are doomed.

The impact is not the model.  This is only stating what a lot of organizations have already discovered during COVID-19.  For example, No Kid Hungry’s model was to get food to kids largely by supporting the places kids naturally come together: schools.

No schools, no food.

Fortunately, No Kid Hungry is pretty awesome and immediately went to work to rewire its efforts around the school, working to get food to kids to need it in a time of even greater need than before.

Some of these experiments will be successful and will likely continue when things go back to “normal.”  Others won’t be as effective as going through school and are best kept as a back-up plan.  Either way, just because the distribution mechanism wasn’t there didn’t mean they could throw up their hands and say, well, kids will go hungry.

This is hardly the only example.  So many are moving services online.  The Smithsonian Institution has always made much of its content available online and has stepped up this as a key method of outreach as patrons can’t go inside.  There’s a list of opera companies that are streaming opera free of charge right now.  Their model was to deliver it in person.  But when the model isn’t available, the impact couldn’t end.

I know it sometimes feels like we are keeping it together with duct tape and bailing wire right now.  We want to tell the world to stop moving our $@()&*$ing cheese.  And we ache to go back to normal.  And someday we mostly will

But as we work around, some of what we find will be better than what we had.  We’ll discover channels and tactics that work, whether for fundraising or operations or keeping us sane. 

So, as they say in that model-breaking movie Trolls World Tour, “Real harmony takes lots of voices. Different voices.”

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