Why 'Mulan' Heading Straight to Disney+ is a Good Thing (Even If It's Bad for Theaters)
Last week, the Walt Disney Company made a move that could inspire a massive shift in the entire film industry…or make the studio fall flat on its face. Their multi-million-dollar blockbuster remake of Mulan, once slated to arrive in theaters on March 27, will now arrive on Disney+ on September 4 in the United States and other markets where movie theaters remain largely closed due to the seemingly never-ending COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike a number of other films skipping theaters, though, you’ll have to pay to see Mulan, and you’ll have to be a Disney+ subscriber to gain access to the film.
When this announcement broke during Disney’s quarterly earnings call, there was a swift debate among the vast reaches of Film Twitter. Depending on how you look at it, this is either one of the biggest moves that a studio could make, or one of the most insulting things to ask of a cinephile – to pay $29.99 to see a presumably epic, large-scale blockbuster from the confines of your HDTV, your computer, or, shudder, your mobile device. While I can see the arguments from both sides, I approach the debate less as a cinephile and more as an exhausted parent and husband doing his best to muddle on a day-to-day basis five months into quarantining. And from that viewpoint?
Well, from that viewpoint, this is a great idea.
To be clear: when Disney announced that Mulan would be available on VOD, under any terms or circumstances, it was shocking. Only last month, I commented that a sure sign of the death of movie theaters would be Disney or Warner Bros. kicking Mulan or Tenet to VOD. It’s one thing for a major studio to send films like Trolls World Tour or Scoob! to VOD. Universal was able to crow about the $100 million that Trolls World Tour made back in the spring, just as AMC was able to act all loud and mad, threatening to never release a Universal Pictures title in its theaters ever again. (Considering that such threats curdled into AMC making a deal with Universal to forego the usual window of time between a film’s theatrical release and its arrival on VOD down to a mere 17 days, I’d say Universal got the better end of the deal.)
But movies like Mulan cost an exorbitant amount of money. And for Disney, Mulan isn’t presumed to be an epic disaster – if it was, frankly, we’d have already seen it for ourselves. (Remember how Disney kicked Artemis Fowl to Disney+ just two months ago? Remember Artemis Fowl? Of course you don’t. Why would you?) The reason why it took so long for a major company to send one of its biggest releases straight to VOD is because they wanted to hold out a shred of hope for a large-scale success in theaters. Considering how many states still have theaters closed, or barely open, it’s obvious that Disney would be waiting a good while longer. (I’m writing these words from Arizona, one of a number of states where movie theaters are still fully shut down, excluding drive-ins.) And sure, as of right now, they’re slated to send The New Mutants to theaters on August 28, but that’s more because of the byzantine deals made with Fox and Marvel than for any sense of quality or box-office success.
Leaving aside the financial reasons – which arguably matter not a whit to me or most anyone reading this, unless you’re a shareholder in the Walt Disney Company – the choice to send Mulan to VOD is a boon to most people. I say “most people”, because some of the folks who reacted negatively to this news, or scoffed at the idea that anyone would pay 30 dollars to access a movie early, are either single people or people who don’t have kids. I’m a father of two kids, and even with one of them being an infant, I can tell you this: being told that for 30 bucks, I can get access to a new movie to watch whenever I want – not just a one-time rental – for the cost of two adult tickets, one child ticket, and some concessions…well, that’s a pretty attractive option.
“Yes, but movies are meant to be seen in theaters!” I hear this argument, and I get it. While I think you could probably debate if all movies are meant to be seen in theaters to be best experienced, there’s little doubt that a big action spectacle like Mulan was indeed intended to be seen on the biggest screen possible. And I’m not going to sit here and tell you that my home-theater system (which isn’t even that) is equivalent to a booming sound system and wide screen I can find at the local AMC. Watching Mulan on my HDTV at home is not going to be a replacement for seeing it in theaters. I get it.
And I’m perfectly okay with that. I do want to go back to a movie theater, but spending so long away from an indoor option has not made my heart grow fonder. Part of the problem is a simple issue of location – I’m not fortunate to live in a place like Chicago or Los Angeles or New York, which boast arthouse theaters like the Music Box Theatre or Film Forum or the Metrograph. These are theaters that, at least purportedly, go out of their way to ensure high-quality presentation, unique offerings, and an experience as thrilling as the best movie. What I have in the greater Phoenix area are two very large chains: AMC and the regional chain Harkins Theatres. Harkins, at least as I write these words, hasn’t attempted to announce any kind of reopening. Even before the idiot governor of Arizona decided to close all movie theaters – not like many were open before he made that firm edict – Harkins had only said they would reopen roughly two weeks before major films were released. Even with Tenet opening on September 3, the governor’s ruling ensures Harkins won’t be open for a while.
Generally speaking, I prefer my Harkins to the AMC (both of which are reasonably close to my neighborhood). But even in the pre-pandemic time, I would often sympathize with the pimple-faced teenagers behind the concession counter or taking my ticket or cleaning up after a show, in part because I used to be that pimple-faced teenager, working at a local theater in Western New York. I now have a much deeper empathy for these teenagers and the college students who serve as their managers ( if you think that’s not the case at your local theater, I have bad news for you). I remember the distinct half-assed nature with which I cleaned up the bathrooms and theaters at the three-screen arthouse location where I worked; I cannot imagine how much harder it is on a normal day to do so at a multiplex. I remember how mad people got at the concession prices at the theater where I worked, or the ticket prices, or – most often – at the fact that the film they’d come to see was subtitled, and not in English. I remember how frustrated I felt working a low-paying job like that and having to handle such complaints with a smile.
I tell you this because I cannot imagine how on Earth the teenagers and college students who face this pandemic and have to enforce mask mandates and social distancing policies to people who already treated movie theaters like their living room. It doesn’t help the situation that a number of major chains are going out of their way to emphasize how little they care about employee or customer safety. AMC’s CEO has already implied that, sure, yes, they will enforce safety policies to combat the spread of COVID-19. But those policies cost money, and AMC is passing that cost onto…you the consumer. Alamo Drafthouse, meanwhile, is mired anew in serious allegations of abuse, unsafe kitchens, and fraudulent ticket sales. If theater chains don’t seem terribly invested in the safety of the people who work there or those who attend, why should I want to go?
While Disney has said that the shift for Mulan to be part of something called Disney+ “Premier Access” is a one-time deal, it’s hard to accept that as true. Either Disney’s Streaming Services unit and their IT team has built out a premium video-on-demand option for this one title, or they may employ it for future films depending on demand, the viability of movie theaters in 2021 (or in late 2020), and more. I don’t think this plan is perfect, of course; it’s already been made clear that Mulan will eventually be available for every Disney+ subscriber without an additional charge…just not when it’ll be available. The temporary solution can be palatable, but only so palatable. (I felt particularly annoyed about buying Scoob! on VOD for my son to watch when, not two weeks after its purchase, HBO Max premiered it for every subscriber to see.) But with a film like Mulan, there’s likely little chance of it arriving for all subscribers before the holidays – in part so Disney can rake in as much cash as possible from anyone, like me, willing to drop 30 bucks.
Why do it? The cost isn’t ideal, but then, the circumstances surrounding the entire pandemic aren’t ideal. As a parent, I can answer this as simply as possible: I am desperate to watch something, anything new. The dream of being able to watch anything is unattainable, no matter how many app subscriptions you maintain, when you have two kids at home and full-time jobs. So you go to the familiar, as I’ve done, and as my wife and older son have done. There’s only so many times I can watch The Nightmare Before Christmas (my son’s longtime obsession). Mulan may not be great, and it’s absolutely worth exploring the possibility that some films released during the pandemic are getting a boost from critics simply by being competent and different from everything else. But 30 bucks to watch a new movie whenever I want, and as much as I want? Sign me up.
Who’s to say if Mulan is going to be a game-changer through this release strategy? We don’t know yet, though I think it’s going to be a pretty safe hit. (If just 10 million of the roughly 60 million Disney+ subscribers buy the film, it’ll make $300 million, and unlike theatrical or regular VOD releases, Disney gets all of that money.) I know it’s easy to shake your head at Disney for demanding this money for extra access to one film, but it’s just as easy to see why Disney’s made this choice. (I would also pose a hypothetical: if Warner Bros. said they’d release Tenet on HBO Max for a premium of 30 dollars, would you be scoffing?) This is almost certainly going to be a win for Disney, and a loss for theaters. And as much as I’d like to say otherwise, with the rate at which theaters operate and the current state of the pandemic…this is a potential game-changer I’m ready for.
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