With the pandemic continuing, movie studios have finally given up on trying to wait for the United States to fully reopen. After multiple postponements, Christopher Nolan’s Tenet will be released in other countries before it’s released in the U.S.; and on August 4, Disney announced that its 2020 tentpole Mulan will head to video on demand, available to purchase for $30 on Disney+ the same day it’s released internationally. The latter move raises plenty of short-term questions: How much is too much to pay to stream something from home? Does anyone care that much about a live-action Disney remake? But it also carries long-term implications that could change the movie industry forever, even after movie theaters open again. Could the circumstantial switch to VOD in 2020 be a precursor to a new status quo in years to come? And is that future a desirable one?
To check the temperature of the room, we asked Ringer staffers how they feel about Mulan’s release strategy, and the impending future of never leaving their houses.
1. Will you be paying for Mulan on Sept. 4?
im only paying $30 for Mulan if she stabs me with her blade through the screen— Sean Yoo (@SeanYoo) August 4, 2020
Jomi Adeniran: Short answer: No.
Long answer: HEEEEEEELLLLLLLLL NO.
Besides the fact I’m already paying $70 so I can watch the original one at home, I’ve never paid $30 for a movie and I won’t start now.
Ben Lindbergh: I won’t be paying for Mulan, mostly because I just don’t want to see Mulan that much. My Disney+ subscription includes unlimited access to the animated Mulan, and the history of Disney live-action remakes suggests that the new version probably won’t improve upon the original. (I still haven’t seen last year’s Dumbo, Aladdin, or The Lion King remakes, and I’m OK with that.) Even if the Mulan remake bucks the trend, I can wait until whenever it won’t cost me more money than Disney+ already does. In possibly related news, I don’t have kids, so no one will be mad at me for not obtaining Mulan immediately.
Kate Halliwell: Were I still living alone and watching movies on my ancient laptop, I would say absolutely not. But I’m temporarily staying with family and using a shared Disney+ account, so my parents will be paying, and I will be watching.
Miles Surrey: The real factor is, if we’re being honest, “Do I have to write about this movie for our website?” Otherwise I have no qualms about waiting somewhere between six to 12 months for Mulan to become available on Disney+ for free.
Andrew Gruttadaro: I don’t know, $30 is a pretty fair price to pay to feel something new for the first time in months ...
2. What movie originally slated for 2020 would you pay $30 for?
Gruttadaro: I’d probably spend three times as much as that to see Tenet, just so I could stop wondering when the hell I was gonna be able to see Tenet.
Halliwell: I would pay for Tenet merely to avoid spoilers, and for Wonder Woman 1984 merely to avoid missing out on any Chris Pine discourse.
Adeniran: Black Widow, but that’s only because I’m an MCU junkie and if somebody spoils Black Widow potentially being alive post-Endgame before I get to see the movie, I will absolutely freak.
Lindbergh: Top Gun: Maverick and maybe A Quiet Place Part II (if it got good reviews).
Yoo: In theory, I would want to watch Tenet but since Christopher Nolan is so desperate for that movie to be seen on a big screen, I will hypothetically honor his wishes. Instead, I would legitimately pay $30 to watch David Lowery’s The Green Knight. DROP THE MOVIE, A24!
Surrey: Movies, plural: FAST 9, TOP GUN: MAVERICK, AND VENOM: LET THERE BE CARNAGE. I WOULD ACTUALLY PAY DOUBLE FOR THE LAST ONE.
3. What is the most you would spend to stream a movie? And what would that movie need to be?
Yoo: I would pay $100 for a Fast & Furious–John Wick crossover movie where they have to team up to take down some sort of enemy in space. I would actually pay more than that. Imagine Wick and Torretto dapping each other up in space suits telling each other, “This is the final fight.” I would drop a full paycheck if that movie was on VOD.
Surrey: Sixty bucks. It would need to be a movie in which Dominic Toretto has to go up against his secret evil brother John Cena, Charlize Theron has a magnet plane, and Han comes back from the dead. It would need to be called Fast 9.
I would also pay that amount for a film where Tom Cruise is grinning from ear to ear in a fighter jet, or an erotic superhero comedy that pits a really sweaty Tom Hardy against Woody Harrelson in a clown wig.
Adeniran: Twenty dollars max, and it would have to be the greatest film ever made. I’m talking Parasite, The Departed, The Dark Knight–type good. All of that goes out the window if the Community movie ever gets made, however. I would pay $75 and not blink. #SixSeasonsAndAMovie
Gruttadaro: My cap is probably around $40. Going a little higher than that technically makes sense—a date-night movie in New York City will inevitably cost that much—but for some reason I feel physically incapable of spending $50-plus with a click of a button from my couch.
As for what the movie would need to be? Honestly, it would need to be something that everyone else in the world would be talking about. FOMO is a powerful marketing tool.
Lindbergh: I live within walking distance of three cineplexes and, again, don’t have kids, so I’m not in the “pay a premium for video on demand” demographic (although I am accustomed to exorbitant New York City ticket prices). Here’s the other thing: They’ve been making movies for a really long time, and I haven’t seen the vast majority of them. The streaming services I subscribe to contain tens of thousands of movies, and I don’t enjoy good new movies significantly more than good old movies. Thus, every new movie that comes out is competing against every old movie I could choose instead—on top of every tantalizing TV show, video game, book, album, or baseball game. If you’re willing to wait a while, almost everything is free or dramatically discounted, and there aren’t that many movies I need to see immediately. Don’t get me wrong, I’d shell out $100 if you told me it was the only way to watch Taika Waititi save Star Wars. But I also think I could convincingly claim that as a work expense.
Halliwell: I will pay $1,000 for Dune, but only if Timothée Chalamet, Oscar Isaac, and Zendaya come to my house to act it out for me in person. Sand is optional.
4. Taking health concerns out of the equation, is video on demand a viable substitute for going to the movie theater?
Gruttadaro: 100 percent no.
Surrey: It’s a decent compromise for the rest of 2020, and for some films it’s better to make some return through VOD sales than nothing at all. But I still don’t think it’s a sensible move for most big-budget blockbusters; there’s a reason something like Fast 9 was pushed back a year. And if given the option of seeing something in a theater—safely, with no risk of a virus!—versus on my couch, I’m going to the theater every time. Nothing beats the theatrical experience.
Adeniran: You just can’t replicate the ambiance of a movie theater at home. The smell of buttered popcorn, the anticipation of getting settled in your seat, and Maria Menounos doing pre-movie trivia is unmatched.
Yoo: It works for movies that don’t require a theater experience. I’ll always prefer to watch big action or comedy movies in a theater setting because I genuinely believe it enhances the experience. Certain indie movies also lend themselves to a theater setting—watching Portrait of a Lady on Fire in theaters was a totally different experience than watching it at home. But I really enjoyed a movie like First Cow from my couch, given its peaceful and intimate vibe.
Halliwell: Yes. I love to stay home and lay on my couch, and VOD is all about that.
Lindbergh: Not only is it a viable substitute, but if you have a half-decent home-theater setup, it may be the better option. Sorry to trample on the sensibilities of cinema traditionalists, but the belief that movies must be experienced in the theater is mostly nostalgia speaking. I have fond memories of childhood trips to the theater too, but back then the alternative was a VHS from Blockbuster on a crappy, tiny TV. If movies were invented in the era of affordable 50-inch flat screens and home surround sound, would anyone suggest that we watch them only in bedbug-infested caverns full of people slurping soda?
Sure, there’s something to be said for seeing a blockbuster as part of a packed crowd on opening night, but with most movies, the communal experience is window dressing or easily replicated by having a few friends over. Think of it this way: The quality of prestige TV is virtually indistinguishable from the quality of well-made movies, and nobody’s suggesting that TV must be experienced outside the home. Are you telling me that TV is so substantially different from movies that it’s perfectly fine to watch one in our living rooms, but we can’t watch the other on the same screen without trampling on the way it was meant to be seen? You’ve been brainwashed by Big Multiplex.
5. When streaming VOD, do you do anything to replicate the theater experience?
Adeniran: The same thing I did for Game of Thrones and Succession: I turn off my phone. That’s the biggest difference between being at the theater and watching at home.
Yoo: Turn off the lights, turn off the phone, and then make sure there are socially-distant L.A. film bros within earshot discussing the themes of the movie and explaining how “I just don’t get it.”
Halliwell: No—the beauty of VOD is that you can talk, text, or tweet your way right through it.
Surrey: Before pressing play on the feature presentation, I pretend to do movie previews on my laptop by replaying the trailers for Fast 9 and Top Gun: Maverick. (The feature presentation is, most likely, a Fast & Furious entry, Aquaman, or something directed by David Lynch.)
Lindbergh: I turn off all the lights and silently stew when anyone else in the room makes distracting sounds. I also have a reclining couch, a countertop popcorn popper, and a massive supply of gourmet popcorn—not so much to replicate the theater experience as to satisfy my wife’s cravings for her favorite food.
Gruttadaro: Forty-eight hours before I know I’m gonna stream VOD, I dump a 64 oz. soda on my apartment floor. Then I never clean it up.