What Mulan moving to Disney+ means for Hollywood blockbusters
Voices of doom for movie theaters appeared to gain some substantial ammunition in the past week. On the heels of AMC and Universal's historic deal allowing movies to head to VOD after just three weeks, Disney announced on Tuesday that it would forgo a wide theatrical release for its live-action Mulan remake. Instead, the movie will debut in the U.S. on the streaming service Disney+, where viewers can purchase the film for $29.99 starting Sept. 4. It's the first major tentpole film to pivot to what's essentially a VOD release.
This news comes as movie theaters across the country remain shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has pushed already-struggling exhibitors to the brink of ruin. Some view Mulan's move as a sign that even would-be blockbusters are no longer bound to the theatrical experience. After all, Disney repeatedly postponed the film in vain hopes that a theatrical run might be possible sometime in 2020. Just over a month ago, Walt Disney Studios co-chairmen Alan Horn and Alan Bergman declared that Mulan "belongs… on the world stage and the big screen for audiences around the globe to enjoy together."
Now, the studio has apparently surrendered. Mid-budget films have already largely transitioned to VOD releases; Judd Apatow and Pete Davidson's The King of Staten Island led the charge in June, and other high-profile titles, such as Bill & Ted Face the Music, are following suit. With the proverbial first domino toppled in Mulan, how long before the backlog of delayed tentpoles start dropping onto VOD as well?
Disney's move isn't quite a referendum on movie theaters, however. The COVID-19 crisis has walloped Disney hard, with the company's theatrical releases all in limbo and its theme park business battered. The same day as the Mulan announcement, Disney reported a quarterly loss — its first since 2001 — well north of $4 billion. Disney+, however, has remained a boon to the studio, recently passing 60 million paid subscribers just nine months after its launch. (By contrast, Hulu, also under the Disney umbrella, has 35.5 million subscribers, and has been around for more than a decade.) If half of those subscribers were to purchase Mulan, the film would take in $900 million, with all that money going directly to Disney. And that's not to mention the new subscribers the film might bring to the platform. (Also, this is no 48-hour rental deal: Once viewers pay their $30, they'll have access to Mulan as long as they subscribe.)
With this in mind, the studio's strategy looks less like a paradigm-shifter and more like an attempt to make up some much-needed revenue amid the pandemic. On the Tuesday earnings call announcing the move, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the company is "looking at Mulan as a one-off as opposed to trying to say there's some new business-windowing model," though he added, "That said, we find it very interesting to take a new offering to consumers at a $29.99 price point and learn from it."
Indeed, other Disney tentpoles could well follow Mulan to the streamer before the year is out. With no end to the pandemic in sight, it's not implausible that other early-fall films like The King's Man, The New Mutants, and even Black Widow could receive a similar treatment if the $29.99 strategy proves successful. (Disney cited Chapek's remarks when asked for further comment.)
No other studio is playing quite the same game as Disney. VOD and digital platforms retain a portion of rental and purchase revenue, and other studios' streamers don't have nearly the same level of reach as Disney+. It's certainly possible Wonder Woman 1984 could lure new subscribers to HBO Max, but would Warner Bros. really want to gamble a guaranteed box office smash on a platform that still isn't available on two of the biggest streaming devices?
Of course, filmmakers have a say in these matters as well. Christopher Nolan has remained steadfast in his commitment to having Tenet play on the big screen (the film is now slated for an international rollout starting Aug. 26 and a limited U.S. release Sept. 3). Other creatives, including Apatow and An American Pickle's Seth Rogen, accepted the new reality without much hesitation. ("Pretty early on in the process, we realized that a traditional Sony release — which is how we initially made it — was not going to be the best route for it," Rogen told EW of American Pickle. "So then as soon as coronavirus stuff happened, it was pretty easy to reconcile.")
That said, it's noteworthy that director Niki Caro, or anyone else from the Mulan creative team, has yet to publicly comment on the film bypassing theaters. As filmmaker Nia DaCosta, who helmed the upcoming Candyman sequel, noted:
Ultimately, while studios wield a good deal of power in this exchange, so do moviegoers, who will truly decide theaters' fate if and when they reopen. And it won't be easy to tear that theatrical model down. "You've got a business doing $42 billion," Cinemark CEO Mark Zoradi told EW back in June. "I don't think it's going away."
Additional reporting by Clark Collis.