‘Mulan’ to Skip Theaters for Disney Plus Premium Debut

In another major blow to movie theaters, Disney announced “Mulan” will forgo its planned theatrical release. Instead, the live-action remake is premiering on Disney Plus on Sept. 4 for a premium rental price.

Unlike the rest of the content available on Disney Plus, “Mulan” won’t come with a subscription to the service. Consumers in the U.S. and other territories will have to pay $29.99 on top of the streaming service’s monthly subscription fee. In markets where Disney Plus isn’t available, “Mulan” will play in cinemas.

For now, Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek says “Mulan’s” big move was a necessary move during the pandemic and isn’t reflective of a new business model for the company.

“We’re looking at ‘Mulan’ as a one-off as opposed to say there’s some new business windowing model that we’re looking at,” Chapek said Tuesday on the company’s earnings call.

Disney has shelved a number of buzzy titles since the pandemic shuttered theaters. But that doesn’t mean they will all be siphoned off to Disney Plus before gracing the big screen. Chapek said that Disney wants to “learn from it and see the actual number of transactions.”

The move further emphasizes the studio’s increased reliance on Disney Plus at a time when most of their business — from theme parks and cruises to movie theaters and retail stores — have been crippled by the pandemic. Research, Disney execs say, suggests that bringing a high-profile release like “Mulan” “will act as a fairly large stimulus to sign up for Disney Plus.”

Chapek added that it gives them a chance to “recapture some of our original investment” on “Mulan.” The movie cost $200 million to produce and many millions more to market and promote on a global scale. 

Originally scheduled to open on March 27, “Mulan” was meant to be one of Disney’s major theatrical releases for the year. The studio mounted a lavish red carpet premiere at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles on March 9. But just three days later, the cascade of industry closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic forced Disney to postpone “Mulan’s” release. It was delayed multiple times before Disney indefinitely removed it from their release calendar last week.

It’s yet another stark indication of studios’ dwindling faith that movie theaters will be able to safely reopen in the near future, especially at the scale necessary to support mega-budgeted tentpole filmmaking. Days before “Mulan” was pulled from Disney’s schedule, Warner Bros. removed “Tenet” from its release calendar. The sci-fi epic from Christopher Nolan is now expected to launch internationally starting on Aug. 26 before making its way to select U.S. cities on Sept. 3.

The lack of a theatrical release for “Mulan” is a huge loss for exhibitors. While the target audience for “Tenet” skews older, “Mulan” was expected to draw patrons of all ages. Movie theater owners were relying on those titles to reignite moviegoing after prolonged shutdowns that began in march.

With sweeping battle scenes and lavishly appointed sets and costumes, Disney shelled out millions upon millions to make “Mulan” a must-see on the big screen. In fact, when Disney delayed “Mulan” for the third time in June, co-chairman and chief creative officer Alan Horn and co-chairman Alan Bergman highlighted the necessity to see the film in theaters.

“Director Niki Caro and our cast and crew have created a beautiful, epic, and moving film that is everything the cinematic experience should be, and that’s where we believe it belongs — on the world stage and the big screen for audiences around the globe to enjoy together,” Horn and Bergman in a statement at the time.

Based on the legend of the female Chinese warrior who disguises herself as a man to spare her infirm father from conscription into a war, “Mulan” features a breakout performance in the title role from Chinese actor Liu Yifei, and awards worthy performances from Tzi Ma (as Mulan’s father) and Gong Li (as a mysterious and complex villain). Along with “Crazy Rich Asians,” it is also one of the only large-scale releases from a major Hollywood studio to feature an entirely Asian cast.

“Mulan” was always meant to be a global theatrical player, especially in China. But even though Chinese officials announced on July 15 that a movie theaters in “low-risk regions” could reopen on July 20, the mandatory restrictions placed on those theaters — 30% maximum capacity, half the usual number of screenings per day, and a maximum runtime of two hours — are so severe that major releases risk not being able to recoup marketing costs, let alone the full production budget.

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