It’s hard for any decision made in the entertainment industry to register as shocking in 2020, not when a global pandemic has halted productions, shut down theater chains, and shifted countless theatrical releases. But even for the very high bar of holy shit entertainment news, Disney announced a potential game-changer on Tuesday during an earnings call: Mulan is going to forgo theaters entirely in countries that have access to Disney+, arriving to the streaming service on September 4. (The movie will be released in theaters the same day in countries without Disney+, like China.)
For those living in the States, then, the only way to check out Mulan next month is through Disney+, and it comes at a cost: $30, not including the price of subscribing to the service itself. (That amounts to $6.99 per month.) During the earnings call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek—who replaced another Bob, Iger, earlier this year—stressed that the Mulan situation is not a harbinger of things to come. “We’re looking at Mulan as a one-off as opposed to saying there’s some new business windowing model,” he said.
That’s all well and good, but Disney may change its tune depending on how Mulan performs for a largely VOD market. Thirty bucks isn’t exactly chump change—most VOD releases are in the $10-$20 range—but especially for parents who desperately need to keep their kids entertained in quarantine, the price might still be low enough to pull in a critical mass of viewers. (To quote Ringer parent Jason Gallagher: “The Gallaghers are paying for that shit as soon as it drops. We paid 20 bucks for Scoob.”) After all, when Universal released Trolls World Tour on VOD in April—also for 20 bucks—the film made nearly $100 million in rentals. That’s pretty impressive, even if Trolls World Tour wasn’t able to turn a profit because of its production budget, which was reportedly between $90 million and $100 million.
But for Disney’s Mulan gambit to be deemed a success, the studio would need an even better return. The live-action adaptation cost a whopping $200 million—a price tag that wouldn’t be so eye-popping if the film were able to have a traditional theatrical release and, most likely, make bank. (For context: Jon Favreau’s remake of The Lion King, made over $1.6 billion at the box office in 2019.)
Mulan would need a sizable VOD return for Disney to consider releasing other films on its new streaming service—though the fact that Black Widow was trending Tuesday on Twitter suggests some Marvel fans would gladly fork over a similar amount of money to see that movie in their living rooms. (Also, for anyone wondering why poor, perpetually delayed New Mutants isn’t being dumped on a streamer, director Josh Boone said the film is contractually guaranteed a theatrical release.) I would also like to take a moment to let Universal know that it could probably charge $60 for Fast 9 and I’d still pay up in a heartbeat. I rewatch the trailer every day with a single tear rolling down my cheek as I utter the word “family” to my cat.
Anyway, 2020 has been a strange and possibly paradigm-shifting year in entertainment. Movies like Trolls World Tour, Tenet, and now Mulan are presenting potential pathways for big-budget films to exist in a world without theaters. It’s far from ideal, and in a non-pandemic timeline, anxiety about the future of the movie industry wouldn’t be so accelerated—we’d have already seen Mulan, Tenet, and Fast 9, and chances are they’d have all done good business at the box office.
But we’re living in a world where entitled Americans refuse to wear masks, people in the Hamptons are willing to risk their lives to go to a Chainsmokers concert, and one of the biggest entertainment companies on the planet has decided to throw a $200 million blockbuster on its streaming service and see what happens. Nothing about 2020 is normal. Putting Mulan in a digital library next to Forky Asks a Question is just par for the course.