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“Mulan” is Going to Disney+ For a Hefty Price, But Will People Buy it?

COVID-19 has thrown the Hollywood film industry into absolute turmoil to say the least. While the rest of the world is easing back into normalcy, the rising cases of COVID in the United States has left the Hollywood movie studios in an incredibly difficult position. With a build-up of 2020 releases ready to go, how do you distribute these movies when your biggest market doesn’t have theaters open?

Back in April, I wrote an article analyzing what ripple effects COVID-19 may have on movie theaters and the Hollywood film industry. In it, I discussed how the movie theaters being closed for an extended period of time would lead to many theaters shutting down permanently, if not entire chains going out of business. This will fundamentally change the way studios make and distribute movies.

Since then, we’ve seen a few things happen. Universal went behind the movie theaters’ backs and released Trolls: World Tour on streaming without any communication with NATO, the North American Theater Organization. An abundance of smaller 2020 releases such as The King of Staten Island and Bill & Ted Face the Music are going straight to home video for premium prices. Netflix acquired The Lovebirds, as other streaming services have also picked up films previously planned for theatrical distribution. Disney sent Artemis Fowl straight to Disney+, which was unfortunate for both those who worked on it and those who had to watch it.

For smaller films (excluding Artemis Fowl because somehow they spent over $125 million on that), these distribution plans serve as an adequate temporary system. While they would have made more with a full theatrical release, this allows the studios to recoup some of the expenses and have some income during the pandemic. However, what do you do for the blockbusters? Mulan, Black Widow, Tenet, Wonder Woman 1984these are movies that cost too much to simply put on a streaming service; they need a full theatrical release.

Tenet has been going through its own drama, with writer/director/producer Christopher Nolan’s insistence that it be released in theaters. The other films I mentioned have had numerous fall release dates but, now that we are in August, it doesn’t seem likely at all that movie theaters in the United States will open on a grand scale by the end of the year. With no tangible end in sight for COVID-19, and so much uncertainty regarding the survival of the movie theater chains, how do you release these blockbusters?

Disney has taken a major step by announcing that Mulan will debut on Disney+ on September 4, with a $29.99 rental fee. That’s right, even though you are already paying $6.99 a month to have Disney+, you will still need to pay an additional $30 to watch Mulan. Disney CEO Bob Chapek has said that this will be a “one-off,” and not a new distribution plan going forward.

There are a few questions to ask in light of this news: 1) Will people actually pay $30 on top of the $7 a month they already pay in order to watch Mulan in the midst of a global pandemic where a lot of people are unemployed and strapped for cash? 2) What is the window of success for Disney with this distribution plan? 3) If this becomes profitable, will it truly be a one-off or will Disney try this with some of their other releases, such as Black Widow? 4) If this is successful, what does it mean for the other studios sitting on 2020 releases, and what does it mean for the movie theater industry?

Will people pay for it? I really don’t know. There are so many people that are trying to figure out how to pay their rent or provide food for their families during this global crisis; I don’t think there are a ton of people out there clamoring to drop all of this money on Mulan. There are certainly people who will pay it, but will it be on the scale that Disney needs to turn a profit? Mulan has a $200 million production budget, and they’ve probably spent at least an additional $100 million on marketing, if not more.

The plus side to the film going directly to Disney+ is that Disney doesn’t have to share any of the earnings with the movie theaters. Countries that don’t currently have Disney+ will have a theatrical release (if their theaters are open), but that number will be considerably smaller than if Disney had done a full theatrical release. So Disney will be saving some money there, but the fact remains that this is still a $300+ million investment. Will enough people buy it to cover that cost? That remains to be seen.

What is the window of success? Putting aside the monthly Disney+ cost, Disney is counting on ten million people paying for Mulan to recoup the $300 million investment. Will that actually happen? I have no idea. While it’s certainly a small sample size, most of the people who I have talked to who have Disney+ think the rental cost is ridiculous and have said they won’t pay for it. This is a plan that may look good on paper, but it very easily could backfire for Disney.

What happens if this succeeds? Let’s say that fifteen million people pay the $30 to rent Mulan. What does this mean for other Disney films, such as Black Widow? Looking at the box office success of previous Marvel movies, Black Widow could have been an $800 million to $1 billion movie. If Disney follows a similar path as Mulan with Black Widow, there is no way they can make that much with a Disney+ release. They could perhaps break even, but they won’t have that level of profit.

The question has to be asked — in a post-COVID world — can Black Widow still make that $800 million to $1 billion? That may have been the case in 2019, but can they make that much after COVID? They would have to wait until after a majority of the world’s movie theaters are open to reach that number, and there’s no certainty that a majority of the world’s movie theaters will survive this. Even if the theaters do open, will enough people want to go that Black Widow could make close to a billion dollars?

Disney is in a very precarious position. They could sit on Black Widow with the hopes that they can release it in theaters and make more money, but they have no clue if or when that would be. They could release it on Disney+ with a $30 price tag like they’re doing with Mulan, but even if it’s successful they won’t make anywhere near what a pre-COVID Black Widow could have made in theaters. I am sure they’re waiting to see how well Mulan does before making any concrete decisions on Black Widow’s distribution.

If Mulan comes out and 15–20 million people buy it and Disney makes a decent profit, and if they decide to release Black Widow the same way and it does even better… what does that mean for the rest of the industry? I’ll be clear, I don’t think that’s going to happen, but in that hypothetical scenario, I think that may mean the end of the movie theaters.

If Disney sees that they can make a profit with this distribution plan, they’re going to go for it. They know they can’t sit around and wait for things to go back to normal, because we’re not going to go back to exactly how things were before COVID-19. The world will be fundamentally changed by this, and there’s no telling yet where the movie theaters will land. Disney as a company is also losing a lot of money right now. They just reported a 42% loss in revenue with their theme parks. Disney is currently bleeding, and if they find a system that brings in some money they’re going to pounce on it.

They may view it as a temporary measure to keep them afloat. However, if Disney goes down this route, other studios will go down this route as well, and pretty soon the movie studios won’t be waiting around for the theaters anymore. The movie theaters’ only hope right now is that the movie studios still need them, but the second that they don’t need them anymore the theaters are finished. Going for this short-term solution could render it a long-term reality. However, this is only if this distribution plan is a success; I’m not convinced it will be.

I’m as disappointed as anyone that we won’t get to see Mulan on the big screen. I thought the trailers looked fantastic, and we were getting an all Asian cast in a giant Hollywood blockbuster film. That is a huge step forward for representation and a monumental thing that not enough people are discussing. However, the reality is that we are nowhere near a resolution to the COVID-19 crisis. There is no telling when a big blockbuster film can be distributed to movie theaters across the world, or if that will happen again.

I understand why Disney is trying this out, and it makes sense why it would cost $30. They spent a ridiculous amount of money on this film, expecting it to have a full theatrical release. If they are going to put it out on streaming it needs to cost enough that they don’t lose money on their investment. The problem is, with the price being that high on top of the monthly Disney+ cost, I’m not sure enough people will be willing to buy it.

This could easily blow up in Disney’s face. They could find that only five million people pay for it, and they lose out on a lot of money. What that means for Disney moving forward, I have no idea. They certainly wouldn’t do the same for Black Widow in that case, but there wouldn’t be any sense in holding out for a theatrical release. I guess all we — and Disney — can do at this point is wait and see how many people pay to watch Mulan.

Mulan will be available to purchase on Disney+ on September 4.

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Nathanael Molnár

I’ve been writing about movies since 2014. I studied film at Fitchburg State University, and I’ve written and directed some short films. @nathanaelmolnar