The Covid-19 pandemic has trashed the entertainment industry, and one of its highest-profile targets has been Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan. Originally slated to come out on March 27, the film’s theatrical debut was delayed until July 24, then August 21, before it was taken off the release calendar entirely.
But then, during an August 4 earnings call with investors, Disney executives announced that Mulan would be released on Disney+, the company’s streaming service. The film will begin streaming on Friday, September 4, and it will come with a fee attached: Subscribers who want to see it will pay an additional $29.99 to watch Mulan as a “premium” offering, three months before it becomes available to all Disney+ subscribers in December. In countries without access to Disney+ — including China, the country in which Mulan’s story is set — the film will arrive in theaters that same day.
This is a big deal for Disney, which initially delayed Mulan’s release to ensure it could maximize the film’s profits with a theatrical release. But then theaters around the world closed down in March out of concerns for public health and safety, and they remain closed in many countries. With US theaters in a state of limbo heading into the fall, Disney’s new release plans are a kind of trial balloon that will indicate whether at-home audiences are willing to pay $29.99 for a short window of “premier access” to a movie they won’t even own.
That sounds like a lot of money, even if it’s still less than the cost of two or three movie tickets in many American cities. (The average price of a movie ticket nationwide in 2019 hovered around $9.) Without paying for marked-up concessions like popcorn and soda, Disney+ subscribers may even come out ahead, albeit without the theatrical experience. For some people, that may be enough; for others, the plethora of other at-home entertainment available on streaming platforms may suffice until the film is no longer a premium add-on.
Back when Disney announced its new release plan for Mulan in early August, CEO Bob Chapek said the company’s decision was driven by the Covid-19 pandemic and doesn’t represent a shift in Disney’s business model. But it’s easy to imagine that if Mulan is very successful on Disney+, the company will begin to ponder more permanent changes.
Regardless, the Mulan rollout is just one of several recent developments indicating that the pandemic has hastened seismic changes that industry insiders have long believed would eventually arrive.
On August 26, the summer’s other extensively delayed, high-profile release — Christopher Nolan’s thriller Tenet — opened in 70 international territories, ahead of a limited release in US theaters on September 3. The film was initially pushed back in the US to guarantee a simultaneous release worldwide. But as other countries reopened after lockdown, so did their movie theaters. Meanwhile, the majority of US theaters (with the exception of drive-ins) remain closed as multiple states suffer from spiking infection rates and few signs of the virus slowing.
Previously, at the end of July, the theater chain AMC and Universal, one of Hollywood’s six major studios, announced they’d struck a deal to shorten the window of time that must pass between a movie’s theatrical and digital releases. Traditionally, a movie wouldn’t become available to watch on demand (on platforms such as iTunes and Amazon Prime) until months after it opened in theaters; but now, Universal’s movies can go digital a mere 17 days after debuting in AMC’s multiplexes. (AMC will share a cut of the profits.)
As the summer of 2020 winds down, it seems foolhardy to speculate about what these changes truly mean for the future of movies. Theaters and theater chains are in danger of going out of business completely. Even when they do reopen, it will be a long time before they can open at full capacity. And the fact that concessions are a big part of the theatrical business in the US — but you can’t wear a mask and munch popcorn at the same time — is another giant wrinkle. Movie studios hold the cards for now, but they’re not immune to financial turmoil. With the expensive, large-scale productions that keep the lights on experiencing not only delayed theatrical releases but production challenges, it’s not clear how many studios will survive, either. Shortened release windows and higher digital-rental fees, if audiences become accustomed to them, may start to seem inevitable.
There are currently more questions than answers about what will happen next, and anyone who acts as if they know the future of movies is either a fool or trying to sell something. Changes in Hollywood have almost always been propelled by new technologies and social norms, from the addition of sound to the evolution of self-censorship models. The advent of streaming is yet another chapter in that book. But one thing is clear: The decision by one of the entertainment industry’s biggest businesses to deliver a tentpole release like Mulan to its digital streaming service signals that the Covid-19 pandemic, and the US’s failure to contain it, is what’s shifting tectonic plates this time around.
Mulan will debut September 4 on Disney+, where it will be available to Disney+ subscribers for an additional one-time fee of $29.99.