COVID-19: Is Mulan’s move to Disney+ a game-changer?

Mulan's shift to Disney+, 2020 be could be the latest seismic hit to to the studios/cinemas power paradigm...

In what could well be a genuine  game-changing move for the movie-industry, it has now been confirmed that Mulan – originally predicted to be one of 2020’s biggest box-office draws (outside franchise-titles) – will now mainly bypass a majority of multiplexes (at least in the short-term) and go straight to the online Disney+ platform.

In the last few months the film, a live-action version of the acclaimed 1998 Disney animated film (now directed by Niki Caro, starring Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Yoson An, Xana Tang, Jason Scott Le, and Ron Yuan) at first held its release-date ground in March and then shifted its debut several times until it was taken off the official release schedule. But at a time when Disney has confirmed the COVID situation has resulted in a $3 billion loss for the company, the amount of realistic options were running out. Essentially it was a choice between waiting and have no income to balance  the expensive production or to make as much as possible (but less) in a year that sorely needs some income. Now Disney+ is planning to release the film on 4th September on a ‘premium access basis’ (which is expected to cost $29.99) on what appears to be a VOD (video-on-demand) status in  America, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and many Western European countries. Exact ordering details are expected to follow soon, but CEO Bob Chapek has noted that the platform currently has 60 million paid users and Mulan itself could be a major draw for new customers.

Chapek confirmed the move in a call to investors but also stated his intent to release Mulan in select cinemas where possible (such as  international territories where multiplexes are starting to re-open) and it’s likely a wider release could follow after the pandemic. However even in the countries that are allowing the film-going experience to make a comeback, seating/health restrictions often leave multiplexes facing a mere fraction of their usual crowds and box-office.

Most of the studios are avoiding putting their biggest titles online, citing not just the basic book-keeping issues but also the real danger of piracy which would likely carve out a further massive slice of missed income. Studios have also faced a backlash from movie-theatre-chains who threatened to boycott future product if the studios bypassed them in search of immediate profits. But though Disney are stating this is a one-off instance and should not be taken as a green-light for any other of their titles, that could seem counter-intuitive. Most likely Mulan is being seen as a semi-deniable test-case, a simultaneous effort to claw back profits and also to see how popular the move to online could be. Certainly, if financially successful it could point to the likes of films such as Black Widow also being set-up for a Hail Mary/Natasha effort… even though getting a VOD treatment was unthinkable just a few short months ago.
This seems even more likely given that it comes just a week or so after Universal and AMC Theatres announced that, in another historical move, they had reached an agreement allowing films to get a release on VOD/home entertainment platforms a mere 17 days after theatrical release.