Variety’s Marc Malkin weighs in on Disney’s Mulan pivot

A woman fighting with a sword in a battle.

The LA-based Senior Culture and Events Editor shares his insights on Disney’s decision to skip the movie theatres and release the remake of Mulan on its new streaming platform

By Jess Kelham-Hohler  Images: stills from Mulan (courtesy of Disney)   Thursday 13 August, 2020    Short read

On Tuesday 4 August, Disney announced that instead of waiting for movie theatres to reopen, they would release their highly anticipated and oft-delayed blockbuster remake of Mulan on Disney+, the network’s streaming service that launched at the end of 2019. Available in select countries from 4 September at a premium price of $29.99 (on top of the platform’s subscription rate), Mulan’s bypassing of cinemas will have a significant impact on theatre owners and audiences alike. Here, Variety editor Marc Malkin shares his reaction. 

First off, were you surprised by Disney’s decision to release Mulan on Disney+?

‘No, I wasn’t. Once we saw that the majority of theatres in the US weren’t opening anytime soon, Disney had to pull the plug on a theatrical release. Its streaming platform really was the right way to go. Not only was Mulan one of the most anticipated films of the year, but audiences are also craving a big studio film. All of the smaller titles being distributed on VOD and streaming services have been great, but people are longing for a big $200m picture with all the bells and whistles.’

Can you briefly outline the issue this decision poses to movie theatres?

‘Theatre owners lose significant revenue when a movie like Mulan skips theatres for a digital release. On average, theatres take about 45% of ticket sales, with the remaining 55% going to the studios. Globally, experts predict that Mulan would have brought in around $750m in ticket sales, so that is a major loss.’

Taking a step back, what was your feeling about Disney+ prior to this decision? 

‘It has been a huge success. No one doubted that Disney would do this right. In fact, just last week, the company’s stock shares were up about 10%, mostly because Disney+ has attracted 60.5 million subscribers worldwide. Also, no one could have predicted that the pandemic would increase interest in the service – with a lot of kids not going to school, parents have been signing up in order to have plenty for them to watch.’

Do you think Disney’s decision was specific to Mulan, or more of a response to its view of big picture releases? Especially when you consider that Warner Bros is holding out to show its own blockbuster, Tenet, in theatres?

‘It’s really hard to say. I don’t think anyone in the business wants to see big movies skipping theatrical releases, and Disney is hoping it won’t have to do this much more in the future. But it also depends on how long the pandemic keeps theatres closed and, once they reopen, whether audiences return to them right away.’
A woman fighting with a hand with claw-like fingers.
A geisha in a dark room.

The decision also raises questions about what kind of premium audiences are willing to pay to see a new release. Do you think people will pay the extra fee to see Mulan?

‘There’s no doubt in my mind that they will pay the $29.99, especially a family that would spend more to see the film at a theatre. It’s going to be a lot less expensive – just popping your own popcorn and not paying exorbitant prices for concession items alone is a huge saving.’

Will this have any impact on Mulan’s ability to be nominated for major film awards?

‘It will still qualify for big awards, including the Oscars and Golden Globes. Most awards show rules have been amended this year to allow films to qualify, even if they are released on digital first. They just have to prove that they had a theatrical release planned for the film before theatres were closed due to the pandemic.’

What’s your prediction for the future of streaming services and big picture releases? Does this mark a big shift, or a one-off experiment?

‘It’s hard to say just yet. We won’t know until theatres reopen and see if movie-goers return. If they don’t, and choose to stay home, you can be sure that studios will pivot even more streaming services for distribution.’

Marc Malkin is the Senior Culture and Events Editor for Variety, and the host of the podcast ‘The Big Ticket’, available here.
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