Liu Yifei in Mulan, directed by New Zealander Niki Caro

Mulan’s Disney+ premiere is an ominous portent for struggling theatres

Theatre owners are up in arms that potential blockbuster Mulan – filmed in New Zealand and directed by hometown hero Niki Caro – is to be premiered not in cinemas, but on Disney’s streaming platform, Disney+.

On an office wall somewhere hangs a picture of Disney CEO Bob Chapek – target on his head, and a dart smack dab in the bullseye. The Mouse House have just pulled one of the biggest, most audacious shake-ups in movie-going history, and exhibitors worldwide are enraged.

On September 4, Disney will be premiering Mulan – one of the year’s key blockbuster movies – on their streaming platform Disney+ at a premium price of NZ$39.99. This means instead of popping into your local Event or Hoyts cinema, you can watch Niki Caro’s lavish live-action telling of the ancient Chinese folk legend from the cosy confines of your bedroom. The decision has been greeted with overwhelming ire by theatre owners. It’s been called cruel, short-sighted, shocking.

The collective fury was perhaps no more vividly illustrated than in the viral video of French cinema owner Gerard Lemoine demolishing a pop-up poster of Mulan with a baseball bat. “I have devoted my life to showing movies and I don’t want to die,” Lemoine told Deadline. In the UK, one distributor declared Disney’s move a “fuck you to exhibitors”.

It’s the latest grim blow for theatres who’ve been struggling to stay afloat during the pandemic. For them, Mulan was an essential lifeline.

The outcome, in some respects, was inevitable. It follows through months of major studios experimenting and tinkering with their existing business models. Universal dropped Trolls World Tour on digital rental. Sony Pictures sold the Tom Hanks WWII flick Greyhound to AppleTV+. Paramount sold The Lovebirds to Netflix. Disney’s big-budget fantasy Artemis Fowl debuted on Disney+. In a surprisingly measured agreement, the world’s largest theatre chain AMC and Universal shook hands, coming to a 17-day short-theatrical window deal where AMC would also take a cut from Universal’s premium-video-on-demand window.

Liu Yifei in Mulan (2020)

Mulan changes the game dramatically because of its premium, A++ packaging. Basically, this will be the first digital-first blockbuster of its kind: made for theatres, but debuting on a streamer as a premium title you pay extra for on top of your subscription plan.

If you’re a theatre desperate for some of that sweet Mulan money, the savagery of this flex cannot be understated. Dropping Mulan onto Disney+ simply prevents exhibitors from taking a clip off the ticket, but this model hurts even more due to the absence of day-and-date parity. If Disney+ is available in your region, as it is here in New Zealand, there isn’t a scenario where theatres – even if operationally corona-proofed – can play the film at the same time as its digital premiere. China, and other Asian territories like Singapore and Malaysia that do not have Disney+, will receive a theatrical showing.

Let’s assume Disney has an insurmountable task with rolling out Mulan in a manner that will please everyone:

  • They need to make money ASAP. Their parks are closed, they’ve just posted a $5 billion loss (a first since 2001), and Disney+ is the only thing that’s working right now (with a 60.5 million base, they’ve already hit their five-year subscriber goal).
  • They need to preserve their long-standing relationships with the cinemas, who’ve been a cash-cow until now. A cursory glance at their 2019 profits will make your jaw drop.
  • They need to do right by the film’s cast and crew, who’ve worked their guts out to create an experience that arguably deserves to be seen on the big screen with an enormous crowd.
  • They need to ensure audiences who want to see this film can do so without worrying about catching a lethal virus.
  • They need to seize this massive opportunity to promote Asian representation in cinema on a global scale.

Once you weigh up those variables, the pitiless bottom line will ultimately rise to the top. As with any other outsized corporate entity in this period of uncertainty, those high-ranking bean-counters will be prioritising only one thing. Disney needs to generate revenue, safely and cost-effectively. Removing theatres out of the equation and opening up a direct-to-consumer pipeline achieves this in one fell swoop. Huge base. Low cost. Growth opportunity. On paper, it’s a potential short-term win for Disney.

Chapek has clarified that this is just a temporary “one-off” model, and the theatrical window will not be replaced. And there are strong arguments to support this, particularly given how much revenue theatres have proven to bring in. However, if Mulan is a success on Disney+, there’s a good chance things will change drastically, and quickly. Who’s to say the next blockbuster waiting in the wings, such as Marvel’s Black Widow, won’t follow in Mulan’s footsteps?

Other studios will be watching closely and taking notes. It’s plausible to imagine that if 2020’s other highly touted theatre-saviour, Tenet – scheduled to screen in New Zealand cinemas from August 27 – didn’t have a director of such powerhouse, theatre-advocating clout in Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros. might have considered similar options.

It’s trickier to gauge the consumer response to this. Catching Mulan at home for $40 will be an ideal night’s entertainment for many families. There’s no need to hire a babysitter, nor spend on transport, parking, and concessions. If you remain a Disney+ subscriber, you can rewatch Mulan as many times as you want—another boon for families. On the flip side, parents itching to get away from their kids after weeks of lockdown are deprived of another opportunity. Other movie-goers, weaned on peanut-priced monthly subscription models, will see the move as an example of obscene price-gouging from a raging capitalist monster.

The Mulan controversy also raises the evergreen question – perhaps myth – of the cinema being the “best possible environment to watch a movie”, an oft-repeated argument from its champions. There’s no question Mulan would be epic and sensational in a theatre. However, with much of the world’s population in the unsettling grip of Covid-19, movie-going has become more of a privilege to those who can afford it – afford to pay $20 per ticket, and afford to leave the house and risk health/safety for a quick hit of escapism. Additionally, a best-possible environment assumes the audience around you are equally well-behaved, optimal projection standards are met and you’re not sitting on popcorn crumbs and sticky chewing gum.

Exhibitors have every reason to be afraid and anxious. The mass, flick-of-a-switch availability of Mulan may push the industry further into a digital-first headspace – the endgame that Netflix has been paving the way for. Though cinema has proven to be resilient in times of crises – after all, it survived World War II – it may not pull through as robustly in an era where Disney’s monopolistic might and our reliance on multi-device connectivity and desire for convenience are thriving.

It’s unlikely that Disney will surrender the lucrative pull of the cinema (the recent end of the Paramount Consent Decrees – an ancient piece of legislation that prohibited studios from owning their own theatres – is another gloomy development to ponder). But Mulan may not be a temporary pandemic band-aid for the studio. There’s a momentum behind it that’s beyond Disney. It’s the coming of a seismic new kind of norm, and we don’t need to wait until September 4 to see that.




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