From halted productions to the closure of cinemas worldwide, coronavirus has been devastating the film industry since March – and while some light has been glimpsed at the end of the tunnel, the disappointments keep on coming.
COVID-19’s latest casualty is Mulan, Disney’s live action remake of the 1998 animated classic. Earlier this week, it was revealed that the highly anticipated release will skip a theatrical run in the US and instead premiere on Disney+ in September, where subscribers will have to pay a hefty $29.99 in addition to their $6.99 per month subscription fee. Disney UK has yet to confirm if they’ll follow suit, but the announcement stated that countries without the streaming service – such as China – would be able to watch the movie in select cinemas from the same date.
Disney’s decision is understandable. The House of Mouse is still reeling from a $4.7 billion quarterly loss – and Mulan had all but blown through its marketing budget before the pandemic turned the world upside down. There were multiple trailers, clips, and posters unveiled in the lead up to its original March 27 global release date, and the last major screening of the film was the UK premiere on March 12.
For another thing, Mulan is the biggest family film on Disney’s slate, and that alone may convince more people to pay the additional money required. If just 10% of Disney+’s 60.5 million subscribers take the plunge, the resulting profits might be enough to recoup Mulan’s $200 million budget. Depending on the size of the family, it could even end up being much cheaper than the price of a cinema ticket, not to mention saving funds on snacks.
But it’s hard not to view this as a disappointment rather than a win. Firstly, there’s the impact it could have on cinemas. Theatres are slowly reopening in some countries like the UK – and Mulan, along with Christopher Nolan’s Tenet was billed as a tentpole movie that could draw people back to the big screen. Foregoing the traditional release model makes it that much harder for cinemas to survive this crisis.
Secondly, the trailers have shown Mulan to be a visual feast, ideally suited to the IMAX experience. Home cinema has come a long way in recent years, but it still cannot replicate the feeling of watching that must-see new movie in a packed house of film buffs.
And then there’s the impact this will have on the discourse. For some movie fans, Mulan is just another summer blockbuster, albeit a highly awaited one. For Mulan’s target market, however, this was poised to be a Black Panther-esque behemoth. A wide-release property with a majority Asian cast and a woman in the director’s chair is extremely rare, and given the likely strong box office and critical success that (based on early reactions) was surely coming its way, Mulan could have been a game changer. Instead, once Mulan comes out, the conversation about its merits and foibles will be competing with the circumstances surrounding its release. A film as rare as this should never be hampered with that burden.
Of course, the question that looms over all of this is what it means for similar ready-for-the-cinema titles that have been stuck in COVID-19 purgatory. Disney CEO Bob Chavek said: “We’re looking at Mulan as a one-off as opposed to saying there’s some new business windowing model”, but if it proves successful, what’s stopping Black Widow or other blockbusters popping up on Disney+? With the pandemic showing no signs of slowing down in the US, who’s to say how tantalising this could become for the studios behind No Time To Die, Wonder Woman 1984, and others? In the days, weeks, and months ahead, the industry could soon discover the painful answer to that question.