Disney and Warner Bros. both recently attempted to discover new routes to blockbuster success in a time of pandemic. Both have showcased how the path forward remains troublingly unclear. Hence the less-than-rosy numbers facing both Disney’s Mulan and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet after the second weekend of domestic release for each.
In Mulan’s case, the film that was made specifically to appeal to a wider Chinese audience flopped at China’s box office this weekend. Grossing only $23.2 million over the past three days, Mulan fell well below the Chinese debut of other American blockbusters. By contrast Avengers: Endgame grossed an astounding $175.9 million over its first weekend in China and over $300 million over its first five days; Frozen II grossed $52.9 million its opening weekend; Aquaman earned $93.4 million. Conversely, while Mulan was the biggest movie at the Chinese box office this past weekend, by Sunday it had lost that perch on the daily scale to local blockbuster The Eighth Hundred.
This is a remarkable disappointment for Mulan because, unlike the animated 1998 movie, the Niki Caro-directed remake was made with a Chinese audience in mind. Thus the removal of musical numbers, talking dragon sidekicks, and even the deletion of the word “Hun.” But despite featuring Chinese stars like Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, and Jet Li, the film failed to capture the local imagination. This is likely due to a confluence of factors.
In addition to the pandemic, the film is opening in a Chinese marketplace that now has many homemade blockbusters with sufficient spectacle and understanding of native history and culture, including the use of Mandarin Chinese. Additionally, China has produced their own movies about the Mulan legend for a century, including the relatively recent hit Mulan: Rise of the Warrior (2009). It seems Disney’s English language version failed to excite large Chinese interest despite a greater fidelity to the legend. It likely also could not help that by becoming available on Disney+ in North American and European markets, Mulan was almost instantly available for online pirating, including in China.
Altogether, it makes for one more slight suffered by what once appeared to be a global box office juggernaut for Disney. Originally slated to open at the end of March 2020, Mulan was among the first major blockbusters to be delayed by the coronavirus pandemic, first to late July and then to Disney+ on Sept. 4. Yet while the actual numbers from Disney’s PVOD release of Mulan via the company’s streaming service remain a mystery, the $30 priced purchase, like the belated theatrical release of the film in China where COVID-19 is still affecting moviegoing, has apparently failed to generate the kind of grosses and pop culture penetration Disney normally expects. Indeed, the studio frequently dubs their big tentpoles to be “events,” and not mere movie openings, yet Mulan’s entire rollout seems muted.
When coupled with the recent fact a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers have sent a letter to Disney CEO Bob Chapek demanding to know just what exactly are Disney’s ties to the local government of the Chinese Xinjiang province—an area of the country where the Chinese government has been detaining Uighurs and other Muslims in what is recognized by the international community as human rights crimes, including the U.S.—it creates a cloud of disappointment and increasing controversy around the movie.
While Warners’ Tenet didn’t suffer quite as grim a development as U.S. senators suggesting one of their film productions was cozying up to a government committing human rights atrocities, Tenet has still failed to jumpstart theatrical moviegoing in the U.S. in the way director Christopher Nolan intended. During its second weekend at the North American box office, Tenet grossed only an estimated $6.7 million. This makes for a whopping 66.8 percent drop from its already soft $20.2 million reported gross during Labor Day weekend.
Ironically, Warners may have worsened the perception by allegedly inflating the opening weekend numbers during its Labor Day rollout. While the official studio number is $20.2 million over the course of four days, in truth that North American total included previews throughout that week in the U.S., as well as more than a week of box office grosses in Canada. When those numbers are removed, Tenet likely grossed somewhere between $10 million and $12 million during its first real opening weekend in the U.S. While that’s an even more anemic number than $20.2 million, it suggests the film really dropped less than 50 percent, and possibly as low as under 40 percent.
Granted with such small grosses, a much healthier drop is still disappointing news, and yet it still suggests the film’s word-of-mouth from those comfortable enough with returning to movie theaters is not nearly so poor as the 67 percent drop implies.
The takeaway from both of Disney and WB’s experiments, however, is one of disappointment and likely increased wariness from studios when it comes to releasing blockbusters via the theatrical moviegoing market and the VOD alternative. Mulan’s PVOD rollout, whether due to a cost-inhibiting price point or not, is not generating the kind of money the movie likely would’ve grossed in a healthy global box office. Yet Tenet proves the box office marketplace remains far from healthy and will likely stay so until the pandemic is under better control in the U.S. It is perhaps not surprising then, though disappointing, nearby studio fare like Wonder Woman 1984 and Candyman have already evacuated October.
Perhaps an even more uncomfortable question is also rising in the whispered margins. If until the pandemic is under control there is no smart way to release a $200 million blockbuster, in theaters or online, then is the entire current tentpole studio system on which Hollywood is built in the 21st century in danger of going bust?