Opinion: Disney’s Plan for Mulan May Become the New Model for Pandemic Movie Releases

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

When I first found out about Disney’s decision to push its live-action remake of Mulan to Disney Plus, I was promptly baffled. Rather than releasing the surefire hit on Premium Video On Demand or in theaters later this year or the next, Disney has slated the blockbuster for a Sept. 4 release on its streaming service, where subscribers will have to pay a fee of $30 to access it. No other streaming service has ever charged their subscribers an additional fee for exclusive content, making this move the first of its kind. In that regard, the release of Mulan on Disney Plus not only seems to be unnecessarily forfeiting money but also appears to be a needless risk due to its novelty.

However, upon closer look, the decision from Disney appears to be both a smart business move and one with potentially revolutionary consequences for the movie industry.

Although a post-pandemic release in theaters would have likely led Mulan to massive ticket sales, the film’s potential profit is nonetheless higher on Disney Plus. This is because domestic cinemas may keep as much as 50% of a movie’s ticket sales; overseas, this number goes up to 80%. On Disney Plus, however, Disney will retain nearly 100% of the revenue from Mulan. As a result, the film will only need to generate half as much of Disney’s previous live-action remakes — which would require just — to reach its pre-pandemic business potential. Mulan’s selling price may be a turn-off for the individual consumer, but for families with children — Disney’s target demographic — $30 is far less than what trips to the theater are likely to incur. There is thus sufficient reason to believe that the film will be able to cross the threshold needed to meet its potential.

Mulan’s move to streaming also holds appeal for Disney in that it will considerably boost Disney Plus’s subscriber base. Although the subscription streaming service lacks in volume of original content when compared to streamers such as Netflix and Prime Video, Disney Plus has managed to stay competitive in the industry with the few marquee exclusives it has offered so far. When the service launched in November of 2019, its flagship series The Mandalorian quickly became one of the most in-demand series in the world and propelled Disney Plus past 10 million subscribers in a single day. Eight months later, when the filmed-version of the hit musical Hamilton premiered on Disney Plus, it boosted app downloads of the service by 72% and was later reported as the most-watched digital content of July 2020. Given Mulan’s high-profile status, Disney executives should expect the film to at least match the impact of Disney Plus’s prior hits and further accelerate the service’s rise. While Mulan’s move to Disney Plus will likely satisfy families and Disney alike, it’s a crushing blow for movie theaters relying on the film to prop them up post-pandemic after months of measly attendance. A theater owner in France went viral for smashing a Mulan promotional poster; he later said that the loss of Mulan was “hard and devastating.” But Disney’s decision may impact theaters long after the pandemic. Now that four of the “Big Five” studios have affiliated streaming platforms, if the release of Mulan on Disney Plus registers as a success, it could prompt Disney and other studios to take a similar approach with future family-oriented offerings. And should such a thing come to fruition, it will force movie theaters to adapt or slowly die down.