Mulan, cutting losses, and playing fair with Disney+

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Disney has announced that its $200m Mulan blockbuster is now heading to premium video on demand – but there are questions as to the way it’s doing it.

In his relatively recently published marriage of memoir and business advice book The Ride Of A Lifetime, retiring Disney CEO Bob Iger chats about the decision to launch the Disney+ streaming service. He uses the word ‘disruption’, so if you’re averse to buzzword bingo, you may want to look away. But he writes, and it’s an interesting read, about disrupting your own business, about damaging profits in the short term, and about taking risks. Basically, about launching Disney+ in the full knowledge that it was going to affect television and home entertainment revenues in the short to medium term in an adverse way.

Well, as per the news that came through last night, Disney arguably ‘disrupted’ its own streaming platform to a tiny degree, less than a year after it launched.

The news story in question is the decision the studio has made regarding its $200m live action take on Mulan. Had all gone to plan, the film would have been in cinemas last Easter. Coronavirus then spiked, cinemas closed, Mulan was delayed to July, and Disney started planning a second big promotional campaign for the movie (having spent a fair few quid building up to its original release, including a premiere).

But as American cinemas in particular have struggled to reopen, and with the prediction now that Covid-19 will be impacting cinema until Christmas and probably beyond, Disney has to a degree cashed out. It delayed the cinema release date of the film three times in all, but no more: it will be releasing Mulan on September 4th. It’ll be showing in cinemas where they’re able to show it, but hand in hand with that will come a streaming release on the same day.

It makes Mulan by distance the most expensive film to follow this path. But also, there’s a bit more to the story. For Disney won’t be putting the film out on existing premium video on demand platforms, as Universal did with the release of Trolls World Tour back in April. The Trolls sequel was available to rent for 48 hours, at a price of £15.99 in the UK, $19.99 in the States. You got the film for 48 hours in return for your investment, and that was your lot.

With Mulan, the proposition is a little different. That you will be able to watch the film in your home – although this has only been confirmed for the US and Canada at the moment – but you’ll have to pay $29.99 for the privilege (around £22 on current exchange rates). That’s a fair amount of cash – more than a physical disc release for a start – but on the flip side, it’s not a rental. You’ll get to ‘keep’ the digital version of the film from what I can tell.

But here’s the twist: you’ll also need a Disney+ account. Mulan will be, effectively, a Disney + Plus purchase (it looks like ‘premiere access’ is how it’s being described), that you’ll need to already be paying the subscription fee to get access to buy the film. Now granted, the price of Disney+ is quite modest given the amount of material you get, and many people in the UK took advantage of the opening offer that brought the price to under £50 for the year. Still, there’s something of a sour taste here. Where was it part of the deal that you’d need to pay a premium to access certain titles on the service?

Granted, this is a one-off. Nobody, this time last year, saw what we’ve lived with through the last 12 months coming, and Disney is insisting that this is very much one release going this way, not a trend. That it has no plans for further releases in this manner. But conversely, the sands have shifted somewhat. Is cinema really going to go back to normal in the next year or so? And if Disney can take this approach with a $200m blockbuster movie – after holding out so long for a cinema release – what’s stopping it doing it with a Marvel movie in the future if the clouds around cinema don’t lift (Disney has already ruled out the next Marvel movie, Black Widow, getting a premium video on demand release)?

Thus, those assertions made that Disney wasn’t planning to make a habit of this are hard to 100% believe. Sure, the intent is clearly that Mulan is an exceptional circumstance, but who knows where we’ll be in a year?

And then there’s the asking Disney+ subscribers to dig into their pockets again. The initial reaction I saw to the announcement was that the price was, er, ‘not cheap’, but also I saw questions asked about why people are being asked to effectively pay twice to access the movie. Just a thought, wouldn’t it have been a little bit fairer if Disney put the film out at one price for non-Disney+ subscribers at least, and discounted it for those already sending their monthly fee to the studio? Something doesn’t quite feel right here as it stands.

Also, if you pay the premiere access price, do you keep access to the film even if your Disney+ subscription lapses?

Disney’s new CEO Bob Chapek has said that “we’re looking at Mulan as a one-off as opposed to saying there’s some new business windowing model that we’re looking at”, but added the company would be studying transaction and subscriber numbers generated by the decision it’s taken with the movie. If those numbers suggest audience support for such a move, then it’s hard to believe it’s an option to be taken off the table in the future.

Disney isn’t abandoning all cinema releases (although it also this week sold The Woman In The Window to Netflix). Still on the schedules and increasingly looking like a test case for the studio is X-Men: The New Mutants, that it looks like we’re finally going to get to see this month. But that’s a more modest bet for the studio, a project it picked up when it purchased 20th Century Fox, and presumably that’s already been written off to some degree as part of the corporate acquisition accounting.

Mulan is different.

It was intended as one of the studio’s biggest blockbusters of the year, with a full merchandising collection and assorted goodies around it. As with Warner Bros and Tenet, the studio had been desperately trying to find a window to get the film into cinemas, and the circumstances in which it’s now taken its decision are beyond extraordinary for cinema.

Bob Iger, in his aforementioned book, constantly reiterates embracing technology, not being scared of change, and being willing to act fast. Disney has ticked those boxes with this release. In doing so, it’s slightly rewritten its Disney+ model, slightly ‘disrupted’ (yeah, I can’t stand the word either) its ‘disruptive’ streaming platform, and has legions of people on stand-by waiting to see and analyse how it all turns out.

There’s $200m and a lot of change riding on this one for a start, but the ramifications beyond that are not without significance too.


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