Mulan and Tenet Show Competing Visions for Future of Movies

With Tenet and Mulan set to open in the U.S. on the same weekend, the two potentially biggest blockbusters of the year offer competing visions for the future of cinema.

Liu Yifei in Mulan and John David Washington in Tenet
Photo: Disney / Warner Bros.

Historically, Labor Day is seen as one of the slowest weekends on the moviegoing calendar. Often considered the endpoint of summer in American culture, the three-day holiday before kids go back to school is usually reserved for abandoned films that never quite worked as intended for Hollywood studios. It’s the time of cinematic dregs. At least that was the conventional wisdom before 2020, and before Tenet and Mulan.

Indeed, history has changed and changed again with Warner Brothers’ Tenet and Disney’s Mulan now set to open during the same Labor Day timeframe, but in markedly different rollouts. While WB announced Christopher Nolan’s Tenet would open in select U.S. theaters on Sept. 3, one day before the holiday and a week after its international rollout on Aug. 26, Disney revealed Tuesday evening that Mulan is skipping theaters altogether, at least in the U.S. Instead the highly anticipated live-action remake is now set to premiere as premium content on Disney+ on Friday, Sept. 4. And as a $29.99 purchase, at that.

Disney CEO Bob Chapek attempted to downplay concerns that moving Mulan to its streaming service, and at a hefty premium, was any kind of new business model being rolled out.

“We’re looking at Mulan as a one-off as opposed to say there’s some new business windowing model that we’re looking at,” Chapek told Disney investors during an earnings call (via Deadline). He even added that it was just a way for Disney to “recapture some of our original investment” on a blockbuster estimated to cost more than $200 million.

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Still, one would have to be fairly naïve to not see the implications in the biggest movie studio in the world moving one of its major 2020 releases straight to digital in the U.S. and at least some European markets, and on a personalized PVOD model via their own streaming service, no less. It would also be naïve to ignore the seismic precedent this sets for movie exhibition.

For as much as the industry has breathlessly followed Tenet’s sliding release dates in wonder and apprehension, Mulan has proven just as crucial a film for desperate movie theater owners. Originally slated to open at the end of March before the coronavirus pandemic effectively shut moviegoing down around the world, the film eventually moved to July 24, one week after Tenet’s original July 17 release date, and then stayed there until Tenet moved twice, first to July 31 and then Aug. 12. All the while, exhibitors were betting on both movies coming out in 2020 in order to stave off what’s been described as an existential threat to moviegoing.

When the largest movie theater chain in North America, AMC Theatres, announced just two weeks ago they were delaying their reopenings from the end of July to the end of August, the company said in a statement, “This new timing reflects currently expected release dates for much anticipated blockbusters like Warner Bros.’ Tenet and Disney’s Mulan, as well as release dates for several other new movies coming to AMC’s big screens.” While those other movies might include the Disney-distributed The New Mutants, which is still slated to be out on Aug. 28, obviously Mulan was part of a one-two punch exhibitors were placing their hopes on for the remainder of the year.

But rather than offering salvation, Mulan is now opening in direct competition to Tenet, which will have been out in European cinemas for only a week, and in U.S. theaters for about a day, when Mulan drops. Considering Tenet’s theatrical release was reportedly pushed by Nolan expressly to aid movie theaters during a time of economic upheaval, another major blockbuster (and one based on a familiar intellectual property) being made available to people in the safety of their own homes amounts to nothing less than a competing vision about the future of blockbuster cinema.

As a lifelong cinephile and advocate for analogue cinema, Nolan attempting to protect the theatrical experience is hardly surprising. After all, he is the filmmaker who pioneered using IMAX cameras on a blockbuster movie with The Dark Knight (2008), creating a big screen premium far more enduring and lucrative in the long-term than the 3D phenomenon spawned by Avatar a year later. However, Nolan’s enthusiasm for framing moviegoing as “a vital part of our social life” is leading the filmmaker and his preferred studio to take a bullish stance about the risk of releasing a major blockbuster in the midst of a pandemic. Obviously, Nolan and WB are hoping a successful rollout for Tenet will encourage other studios to do the same. It’s also worth noting that WB still hasn’t moved Wonder Woman 1984 or Dune off their fall 2020 release dates either.

But now with the release of Mulan to Disney+, and on a hybrid PVOD model at that, the Mouse House seems to be presenting an alternative future for moviegoing, in spite of whatever protestations they may have to the contrary about this being a “one-off.” Since Disney+ was first announced, there has been much speculation about what a direct-to-consumer platform could mean for the studio responsible for most of the big movie franchises in the marketplace. Last year ahead of CinemaCon, John Fithian, CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners, told THR that some of his members were already dreading scenarios like the one just announced for Mulan, but at that time NATO was not worried about Disney abandoning the theatrical window.

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“Disney is about to launch a gigantic streaming service,” Fithian said in April 2019. “Its most senior execs have reassured us that Disney firmly believes in the theatrical model. Will they make content directly for the streaming service? Of course. They will make non-blockbuster, lower-budget content for Disney+. They used to make straight-to-video movies as well, and this is no different.”

However, the release of Mulan straight to Disney+ is obviously quite different, and the type of paradigm-shifting scenario theater owners have quietly worried about, even before there was a coronavirus pandemic. While Disney calls this situation unique—and it’s certainly prohibitively expensive for many at $30—keep in mind that even if fewer consumers are willing to pay the steep price for Mulan, the Mouse keeps a larger share of the profits. One of the reasons Universal Pictures first extolled the virtue in releasing Trolls World Tour to PVOD (much to AMC Theatres’ chagrin) was the studio kept 80 percent of the revenue on VOD, as opposed to 40 to 65 percent of the revenue from a theatrical release. On Disney+ though, Disney could conceivably keep 100 percent of the revenue generated by each of those costly rentals.

Hence Chapek also telling Disney investors yesterday, “Rather than simply rolling [the movie] into a free offering, we thought we can test anything when you have your own platform. We’re trying to establish a new premiere access window to capture the investment we got [in the film]. We’ll have a chance to learn from this.”

By enjoying their own popular and increasingly ubiquitous streaming service, Disney is the studio best equipped to leave the theatrical window behind and tinker with price points somewhere between a prohibitively costly $30 and a model closer to Netflix. The latter company releases almost all of its original content exclusively online, with only the obligatory nod to movie theaters on the occasion that streamer thinks they have an Oscar contender on their hands. Thus it might be more prudent to view Mulan as less a one-off and more a trial balloon. By releasing Mulan on a model many, including myself, speculated would be Disney+’s endgame in about a decade’s time, Mulan’s debut appears not nearly so isolated—especially when Disney picked the same weekend as Tenet with the full knowledge that U.S. exhibitors were counting on both films to survive the fall.

There is still much left unknown, including whether Disney talked to its exhibition partners about shifting Mulan toward Disney+ prior to it becoming public knowledge. NATO representatives declined to comment on these developments for this article. Still the recent rollout changes around both Mulan and Tenet in the past few weeks offer contrasting visions of what cinema can be in the future: a vital part of our social life, or a vital part of a content provider’s streaming service platform. And just as Tenet’s release could encourage more studios to take a similar gambit during the pandemic, so could Mulan’s platform shift pave the way for Black Widow, Soul, or a variety of other delayed Disney blockbusters to redefine what a “big screen event” looks like.