I’ve made no secret here on the website that I consider Disney’s live-action remakes of some of its classics to be very much lesser versions of those films. That’s for a variety of reasons, and I’m sure is at least partially influenced by the nostalgic feelings I have for some titles. 1998’s Mulan is an interesting film in many ways, but it’s always felt like a second-tier member of the Disney Renaissance, not quite reaching the same heights as The Lion King, Aladdin, or even Pocahontas. So its remake, which had been scheduled to premiere earlier this year, is a project I’ve been anticipating with muted excitement at best.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted everything. After abortive attempts to release the film in cinemas in March, then July, then finally August, Disney decided to try something they haven’t done before: bring a major release directly to their streaming service, Disney+. But Mulan won’t arrive on Disney+ ready to watch like any other title, instead it’s going to be paywalled with customers being asked to stump up an extra $30 on top of their regular Disney+ subscription fee in order to access it when it releases next month.
On a purely mathematical level, I can understand the charge. Films are expensive to make, and Disney wants to recoup as much of that money as possible. $30 is around the price you might pay for 3-4 cinema tickets, so if you think that it’s the same money as a family going to see the film at the cinema, Disney obviously feels that it’s a fair price. But of course watching a film on streaming isn’t the same as going to the cinema, and I have to confess I was taken aback by how steep the cost of seeing Mulan is. As a single person, $30 (or whatever its equivalent in GBP will be) is excessive for seeing one film! That’s the equivalent of more than four months’ subscription to the streaming platform, and I have no doubt many will be as put off as I was.
My big question is this: why can’t Disney just be patient? It isn’t just film releases that have been disrupted, film production has been massively affected too. Disney has already postponed the release dates of many other titles that are currently in production as a result of the pandemic, and surely Mulan could have taken any one of those release slots once the disruption finally ends. Sitting on the film costs Disney very little – releasing it too soon could backfire and cost them massively.
Ever since broadband internet made it possible to stream and download large files, piracy has been a problem for big entertainment companies. Streaming services like Disney+ are able to survive in part because most people like to follow the rules, but also at least in part because they make it easy and affordable to do so. Who would even notice £4.99 a month – that’s how much Disney+ costs in the UK. Hardly anyone would, of course, and that’s how the service survives. But a sudden turnaround to charge more than $30 for a single film and suddenly a lot of people will be looking for other options.
Piracy is incredibly easy. A simple online search leads to dozens of websites that allow users to stream up-to-date films, and within hours of a film or television series going live, it’s been recorded and reuploaded countless times. When Mulan releases behind a paywall, it will very quickly be uploaded to pirate websites where people will be able to watch it or download it for free.
While Mulan’s release on streaming will almost certainly be lacklustre, it could have the unintended side-effect of harming Disney+ as a brand. Disney+ already is worse than its competitors in that the most recent seasons of its television series aren’t uploaded until months or even years after they debut on television, but if the service gets a reputation for paywalling content, many people will wonder what the point of paying for it is and will unsubscribe. Partly that’s on principle, and partly it’s because the cost of accessing Mulan is incredibly high.
Disney has also harmed its relationship with cinemas and distributors. The cinema industry is suffering greatly from months of closure, and here in the UK, while cinemas have been allowed to reopen since early July, many haven’t. Regular readers will know that disability precludes me going to the cinema these days, but in the past when I was able to, I favoured an independently-owned cinema in a nearby town – one of the few left in the UK. Its fortunes hang in the balance right now, and one thing that could have helped is a big release like Mulan to tempt people back. By cutting cinemas out of the equation and going direct to streaming, Disney has upset the apple cart. Why should cinemas go out of their way to show other Disney films in future?
At least one cinema chain – Odeon, which is owned by AMC – has stated that they will no longer show any films by Universal Pictures as a result of that company making a similar decision. Universal chose to release Trolls World Tour digitally as a result of the pandemic, and AMC and Odeon reacted swiftly, banning Universal films in their cinemas, of which there are many in the UK; Odeon is a big chain. Disney could end up in a similar situation, and if several big chains were to band together, they could effectively prevent Disney films being released almost anywhere. Any company, even a giant like Disney, needs to tread very carefully.
Disney has chosen to prioritise making as much money as possible as soon as possible ahead of all other concerns. And with the company losing money – Disney lost $4.7 billion in just three months this year – perhaps the higher-ups decided they needed to do as much as possible to offset that. Indeed, the decision to reopen as many of the company’s theme parks as they’re allowed to is also part of that – the losses made by having the parks open are clearly less than the losses made by keeping them shut. Evidently Disney has made the calculation that the short-term harm of releasing Mulan digitally is less than the harm of sitting on it for an unknown length of time.
The coronavirus pandemic has been hard to predict, but many medical experts and analysts are anticipating a renewed increase in cases as we move into the autumn and winter here in the northern hemisphere. Disney may have interpreted such statements to mean that regional lockdowns may not be going away any time soon, and even if the rules are relaxed, the general nervousness of the public about the disease – and the looming recession it’s triggered – may put people off going to the cinema anyway. With the USA, which is Disney’s biggest market, being much more seriously affected than the rest of the world, even if everywhere else were to get back to some degree of normality, it may take a lot longer before American cinemas will all be able to reopen.
All of these issues and more have fed into the decision, and I can understand it on a corporate level. But I think one of the key problems is that many higher-ups don’t appreciate just how much they’re asking people to pay to see a single film in their living rooms – or even on a phone screen. $30 is a lot of money to a lot of people, and while it may not be to someone who’s making megabucks at the top of a huge company, out here in the real world it is. $30 could be the back-to-school supplies for a child, a big takeaway meal for a family, or as already mentioned, more than four months of Disney+. People could do a lot with that money, and while many are happy to pay extra for a treat like a visit to the cinema, far fewer will be willing to cough up cinema-ticket prices for a film they’re watching in their living room or on their phone. Disney+ has been inoffensively priced until now, and that has won it many supporters and subscribers. Mulan is not inoffensively priced. In fact it’s priced in such a way as to be downright offensive to many people.
Speaking purely anecdotally, I haven’t found anyone willing to pay for Mulan. One person I asked suggested that if it were a better film, they might be willing to consider it, but definitely not for a remake of a B-tier film like Mulan. That was the closest I got to a “yes” out of everyone I spoke to. While there will be a market for it, as some people will desperately want to see this reimagining and others will be pestered into it by their kids, it won’t be enough for the film to break even and I have no doubt Mulan will have a seriously disappointing launch.
But even a serious disappointment may be good enough for Disney as they look for ways to slow their financial haemorrhaging. Mulan will undeniably bring in more money for the company than the precisely $0 it would if it remained unreleased. As long as it covers the costs of streaming it worldwide – which, given Disney+ already exists, it almost certainly will – it may be seen as a success. At the very least it will be something Disney can show to investors and shareholders to demonstrate that they’re trying new and creative ways to get through what could be many more difficult months that lie ahead.
Mulan and Disney+ are the copyright of the Walt Disney Company. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.