Disney opts for a digital release for Mulan, a move that has stunned theatres the world over and sent seismic shockwaves too through the film industry. Is this a sign of the beginnings an irreversible shift in the industry…?
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the old Hollywood maxim, “the show must go on” has never been more apt, as Disney brazenly elects to take Mulanout of the expectant reach of exhibitors and straight into its digital streaming channel Disney+ for a hefty price tag.
Taking the much-anticipated blockbuster straight to “a screen near you” instead – a premier set for September 4 – represents another punishing blow to theatres across the United States, Canada, Australia… and a number of other countries. All of which are still acutely feeling the brunt of the on-going coronavirus pandemic – with no clear ending in sight. (In countries where Disney+ isn’t available and theatres are open, Disney is going ahead with theatre releases.)
If theatre owners weren’t already seriously worried about their own futures, they are now as chains continue to struggle to recover from the coronavirus pandemic that’s wreaked havoc everywhere. The remake of the animated classic Mulan was expected to be a massive draw at the box office and, in turn, boosting its profile as a betting favorite on the 2021 Oscars in several noteworthy categories.
Mulan, originally scheduled to open on March 27, was meant to be one of Disney’s chief theatrical releases for the year and a huge box office hit with a projected draw upwards of $1bn. Instead, three days after hosting a red carpet event in Los Angeles on March 9, in preparation for the film’s release to the wider public, virus-mandated edits put a halt to proceedings. Six months on and faith in theatres reopening safely is waning.
What moving Mulan to Disney+ amounts to in layman terms is taking 100% of movie sales revenue and, even, a potential surge in subscriptions. Cha-ching!
Disney CEO Bob Chapek, speaking about the bombshell decision, suggested as much. Saying that bringing a high-profile release like “Mulan” directly to captive audiences at home “will act as a fairly large stimulus to sign up for Disney Plus.”
Separately, by setting up a video-on-demand portal within its own streaming service, Disney effectively has cut out the middle-man. Thus, not only does Disney gain full control of distribution but it also gains information on how people watch the movie (i.e. choice platform) and other user data – all of which is information about today’s technologically-inclined society that commands remarkable currency with big business.
And yet it’s more than just exhibitors being cut out of the revenue-grab so abruptly – even though it’s set to be the most immediate fallout and, admittedly, they’d been banking on the action epic to bail them out of these unprecedented times.
It goes much deeper than that.
It’s about putting a dent into the long-established business model that underpins Hollywood blockbusters, of which Disney, among its fellow studio brethren, was the staunchest supporter. Moreover, its long-term implications, the extent of which hasn’t been yet felt and is sure to be far-reaching and, even, industry-defining.
Chapek said about the release: “We’re pleased to bring Mulan to a consumer base that’s been waiting for it as we’ve had to move our (release) dates several times.”
As a token of assurance to theatre owners Chapek said, “We’re looking at Mulan as a one-off as opposed trying to say that there’s a new business windowing model.”
Clearly, Chapek was at pains to discourage any interpretation that would suggest Mulan’s move to digital is indicative of a new business model but it is to some extent exactly that.
Inasmuch Disney might insist the arrangement that gives theatres exclusive access to studio productions is protected and unchanged, new practices such as this move to bypass theatres for digital-first release – if ever so brief in intent – can bring about change. Irreversible change after which nothing is the same ever again.
Global box office revenues hit an all-time record $42bn last year and Disney, undeniably Hollywood’s biggest movie studio, made a record 13.2 bn in ticket sales the same year. Indeed, Chapek himself brought up the fact that the Disney team was keen to “see what happens” both in terms of the impact on subscriptions and film purchase.
Whatever the industry targets and Disney’s expectations of 2020 may have been, it’s safe to say the coronavirus pandemic put paid on those and like everyone Disney is adapting on the fly.
The shuttering of industries across the country saw Disney close a major share of its businesses – from theme parks and cruises to retail stores and movie production – and left it largely reliant on Disney+.
That Disney would test its digital streaming service meaningfully at some point this year, if only to temper its market potential, was surely inevitable It makes sense when revenue is down across the board to turn to the one fully functioning business branch to gage the extent of its capacity to carry a greater load.
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