COVID-19 has been hard on all industries, including Hollywood. The production delays on films and TV shows that we saw early on during the pandemic, not to mention the shuffling of release dates, have exposed cracks in Hollywood’s foundation and shown just how much the rise of streaming services has impacted the traditional theater experience.
Among the hardest-hit companies has been Disney. Many of the company’s lines of business—amusement parks, cruises, resorts, and entertainment—have all been radically disrupted by the pandemic, sending their stock into a downward spiral for the first half of the year. As the future open date for movie theater chains continues to tumble down the calendar due to increased corona cases, studios like Disney are looking to unconventional solutions to release their movies. However, news from a recent earnings call could signify a new paradigm shift for how Disney plans to release their films for the foreseeable future.
After many delays, Disney announced the live-action remake of Mulan would release on September 4—but there’s a wrinkle. In addition to hitting select theaters in the US, Mulan will simultaneously debut on Disney+ for $29.99. This price is not a limited-time rental and will allow users to rewatch the movie as many times as they want so long as they’re a paid Disney+ subscriber. Disney CEO Bob Chapek referred to the decision as providing “premiere access” and “a one-off” decision.
How much have premium video on-demand (PVOD) releases normally cost during the quarantine?
Mulan’s price is $10 higher than other 'rona-related PVOD offerings like Trolls World Tour or The King of Staten Island, while also requiring a $6.99 monthly subscription to Disney+ itself. Frankly, the $37 total is a steal if you’re the head of a family where theater-going costs can balloon significantly; but it’s less compelling if you’re an individual who is inclined to watch Mulan once or twice. Tying the release to Disney+, specifically, allows Disney to curb potential piracy problems by having it sit in a streaming environment that they can fully control. Disney will oversee and manage the entire distribution pipeline. There will be no profit splits with Amazon or iTunes like normal VOD releases, as every dollar spent from Disney+’s 60.5 million subscribers goes right into their own pocket. Sure, not every user will rent Mulan, but even if half of them do, the result will be pretty damn good business for Disney during a time where they’re desperate for a win. PVOD offerings have typically been films that are cheaper to produce like comedies, Blumhouse’s cost-effective horror movies, and small dramas. Mulan isn’t in one of those three genres—it’s a massive summer blockbuster. Disney bringing it to streaming for home viewers feels like a critical shift, almost signaling that they’re the new home box office.
So everyone is cool with the Mulan price?
The response to Disney’s announcement has been divisive, to say the least. Part of the resistance comes from people who legitimately enjoy seeing movies in a theatrical setting. Unruly guests and various levels of cleanliness aside, seeing a new film in a theater remains one of the best ways to see a movie [Ed note: You sound like Frazier]; the largeness of the screens and enveloping sound can draw viewers in like no other, letting the whole movie wash over them. To some, this might be an overly romantic portrayal of sitting in an air-conditioned room for a few hours. For others, going to the movies is akin to a religious experience.
This latter group has a right to be concerned about the future of moviegoing, as the Mulan news comes on the heels of another significant shift. On July 28, AMC and Universal squashed their Trolls World Tour beef—and set a new precedent. Windowing, a term referring to the period in which theaters have exclusive rights to show a film before it moves to a home release, has typically been either a 70 or 90 day period. Under the new deal between AMC and Universal, the windowing period shrinks to a staggering 17 days. It’s a seemingly arbitrary number that could allow Universal to cut bait on films that weren’t performing well and drop them quickly to PVOD or a streaming service like NBCUniversal’s Peacock. Universal’s deal currently just applies to AMC, and other agreements would need to be worked out on a chain-by-chain basis. There’s already some resistance, as Cinemark (owner of Regal Cinemas) CEO Mark Zoradi has pushed back on the deal, saying the policy could have an “adverse impact” on the theatrical experience.
What does Disney's Mulan decision mean for the future of movie theaters?
The rise of streaming has long signaled the beginning of the end of movie theaters as we currently know them, but COVID-19 has accelerated the process considerably. Disney’s Mulan decision isn’t the death knell of movie theaters—but taken together with Universal and AMC, it certainly feels seismic in a way we haven’t seen before. There will still be indie movie theaters (whose operating costs aren’t as extensive), but it feels like theater chains are in real danger of being obsolete outside of major tentpoles like Fast 9 or the next Avengers movie. While Disney swears up and down Mulan is an outlier, I’m not convinced you’d go to these lengths to do this style of release once—an idea that some sources seem to confirm. Regardless, history will have its eyes on Disney as this experiment unfolds. It’s not too far-fetched to think the result of this audacious move is likely to send shockwaves through an already shaky foundation.