The world is changing rapidly. With each day bringing more news related to the global coronavirus pandemic, folks from continent to continent are adjusting to a new normal that includes phrases like “social distancing” and “flattening the curve.” That also applies to the entertainment industry, which has been reeling from the menace of COVID-19. And among movie studios, few have made bolder moves than Disney, which last week indefinitely delayed its releases of Mulan, The New Mutants, and Antlers.
In the time since that development, Disney has released the animated hit Frozen 2 on Disney+ two months early as a gift to families in self-isolation. Meanwhile movie theaters nationwide are closing their doors, with the United States’ largest chains, AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas, shutting down indefinitely, as has boutique cinephile chain Alamo Drafthouse. Couple this with Universal Pictures breaking the theatrical window and making history by putting their three biggest movies currently in theaters on video on demand, many are speculating… will Disney do something similar with one of their most anticipated movies of 2020—will they put Mulan on Disney+?
We of course have no firm answer, as Disney has only confirmed that they are delaying the film while watching the current global crisis develop. However, if we were to make an educated guess, Mulan is one of the few films to almost certainly not jump to a VOD platform, much less straight to a streaming service like Disney+. At least not yet.
While the exact budget of Mulan remains unclear, the film is estimated to be one of Disney’s costlier live-action remakes with its international production, lavish war scenes, and on-location photography. Indeed, while hardly official, Mulan star Gong Li told Weibo last year that the film’s budget is north of $300 million. This is not unheard of for Disney blockbusters, as last year’s Avengers: Endgame set records with its $350 million price tag. Even if this were a misstatement or an exaggeration, the movie definitely cost more than $200 million, and Disney made that investment specifically on the grounds of appealing to not just a North American audience, but a Chinese one as well.
Perhaps more than any American blockbuster to date, 2020’s Mulan was constructed with a Chinese audience in mind, hence choices to specifically eschew the western anachronisms (and musical numbers) of the 1998 animated classic in favor of the Chinese legend of Mulan, as well as modern Chinese audiences’ tastes. Note that the word “Hun” is nowhere to be found in the marketing and apparently in the finished film. Rather China is attacked in the new movie by “northern invaders.”
So for Disney to earn the most off its investment, Mulan needs to play to a Chinese audience. And at the moment, China’s movie theaters are on nationwide lockdown, which appears to be the direction American movie theaters are headed. As for Disney+, China does not have that streaming service and is unlikely to get it anytime soon. When it comes to media content, the Chinese government is notoriously wary of foreign product, a fact Netflix learned the hard way when it tried to enter the market in 2017.
For the time being, Disney+ appears to be a nonstarter for a Mulan premiere, not least of all because even in our hemisphere, the film’s target American demographics have already largely embraced the streaming service. While putting a new blockbuster on Disney+ would certainly drive up subscriptions, it is questionable whether it would be financially comparable to a box office bow at a time when Americans and Europeans like going to the movies.
Of course there is the other rub: what if the coronavirus pandemic lasts long enough to permanently alter westerners’ relationship with moviegoing? At the moment, this is all theoretical, but a good comparison for Disney’s predicament would be one of its chief competitors at Universal Pictures. While Universal announced this week that they are putting The Invisible Man, The Hunt, and Emma. on VOD, and opening Trolls: World Tour there in April, they also delayed their next Fast & Furious movie, F9, a full 11 months to April 2021.
Like Disney, Universal has high hopes for F9 to become a billion-dollar grosser, and in no small part because that franchise plays very well in China and Asia overall. Smaller spring 2020 films that have already exhausted marketing expenses might save more money by being dropped on VOD right now, but Universal will take the short-term hit on F9 in hopes of still making $1 billion-plus in a theatrical release next year.
Disney’s logic is likely similar regarding Mulan. While I could see The New Mutants and Antlers winding up on VOD very soon—which would again be more likely for at least a few months than Disney+ or Hulu, as it allows Disney to double dip the markets for viewers willing to pay individually for these films—Mulan is going to sit on a shelf. However, if this crisis looks to drag on not just into summer but next year, and audiences appear to be breaking the habit of moviegoing as we know it, plans can change…