In a normal timeline, media journalists would analyze the box office figures for a movie like Mulan. The live-action wuxia remake of the hit 1998 cartoon musical, tailored to appeal to Chinese moviegoers seemed destined to be a huge win for Disney. Clever headlines would read something to the effect of, "Disney Gets Down to Business with Record-Breaking Mulan."
But it has not been a normal year. The Covid-19 pandemic forced Disney to rethink its theatrical releases on top of other stresses (like operating theme parks amid the spread of an airborne disease). That's how Mulan ended up on the streaming service Disney+ for a $30 fee on top of a paid subscription. Disney invented a term for it, too: "Premier Access."
But will "Premier Access" stick around after Mulan? Is the highly-anticipated Marvel superhero movie Black Widow, due to open in theaters on November 6, also destined for Premier Access? One box office analyst tells Inverse the Hollywood industry is in such uncharted territory, no one can predict what or how studios like Disney will proceed with its biggest (and most expensive) theatrical releases.
"You can't make a long-term assessment right now," says Paul Dergarabedian, Senior Media Analyst for Comscore. "Any sweeping pronouncements of the future of the industry right now are, I think, misguided."
A counter to Dergarabedian's point would be to cite the windfall Disney saw in releasing Mulan for thirty bucks, in addition to existing paid memberships to Disney+. Certainly, the big profits made from Mulan would guarantee that the new era of theatrical distribution is here — one that bypasses theaters entirely to deliver epic productions straight to consumers in their living rooms. (Or worse/better, their phones.)
Except there is no way of knowing. Unlike box office figures, Disney is keeping all its Disney+ data to itself, and the studio has not disclosed how much Mulan made (or didn't make). There hasn't even been PR-friendly touting of Mulan being the "number one movie" on the platform. It is a strange year indeed when there are no TV ads from a studio touting the "number one movie in the world." For a movie as thunderous as Mulan, the studio's silence over its "performance" on a streaming platform that has been deafening.
"We at Comscore are looking at this," Dergarabedian says, citing his company's ethos to bring "transparency to media and marketing" through data. "But right now it's a challenge because a lot of streamers choose to opt-out."
Here's what we do know about Mulan. The movie has opened in theaters in select markets overseas, like the Czech Republic and Taiwan, and in its first weekend grossed $6 million. The movie will open in China on Friday, where it will greet the second-largest movie market in the world. On a Wednesday investor conference the studio's Chief Financial Officer, Christine McCarthy, said the studio is "very pleased" with the tracking of Mulan in the Middle Kingdom.
As for Disney+, the film was likely responsible for the 68% spike in downloads of the Disney+ app that took place when Mulan was made available, along with a 193% rise in consumer spending within the app. A similar jump occurred when the release of Hamilton saw a 79% increase in Disney+ downloads. On the week of its release, Mulan was the third most popular selection on Disney+ after The Simpsons and the live-action Cinderella.
With regards to streaming data, there are striking similarities between Disney and Netflix, the streaming giant notorious for keeping data to itself. (The aforementioned Disney+ figures come from Sensor Tower, an independent analytics firm.)
In 2018, Netflix touted that over 45 million Netflix accounts streamed the horror movie Bird Box. Earlier in 2020, at the beginning of widespread lockdown, Netflix claimed a whopping 64 million accounts watched the sensational docuseries Tiger King. Not everything Netflix produces receives that kind of good PR, and the exact metrics Netflix uses remain unclear.
Dergarabedian remembers being skeptical about Netflix's boasting of Bird Box. "Everyone looked askance, like, 'How do you prove that?' Who's the arbiter of that? Who's verifying the numbers? It's difficult to gauge."
It's not that Mulan wasn't a hit or didn't make money for Disney. It's that we don't know if it was, and we have no way of knowing anything about it. This, Dergarabedian says, makes it hard to guess what Disney will do with other releases like Black Widow. The tepid box office for Tenet, the science fiction blockbuster from rival studio Warner Bros. that actually did open in some theaters, also signals a nebulous near future as other movies like Wonder Woman 1984 (October 2) and Dune (December 18) draw near. No Time to Die, the next James Bond movie and another major fall release, is slated for November 20.
All these movies are still expected to open in theaters, "which are at the mercy of the pandemic," says Dergarabedian. A recent story from Deadline reports Wonder Woman 1984 and Black Widow may see even further delays.
Regarding Black Widow, Dergarabedian thinks it's "a bridge too far" to expect it on Disney+. More than Mulan, the female-led Marvel superhero movie would make a bigger statement about Disney's faith (or lack thereof) in Premier Access. "Mulan was the one that made people go, 'That's a huge deal.' Any Marvel movie would ratchet that up higher." During the August Q3 call to Disney's investors, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said Mulan was a "one-off" and not indicative of "some new business windowing model."
Perhaps Black Widow, given its November release, could be dangled as an incentive for Disney+ subscribers to stick around. The service launched in November 2019, with the Emmy-nominated Star Wars series The Mandalorian as its biggest exclusive attraction. As the first wave of subscribers see their accounts up for renewal in November, Black Widow could be the movie to convince subscribers to pay for another year. (The return of The Mandalorian Season 2 on October 30 won't hurt either, though.)
Or maybe not.
"It changes things," Dergarabedian says. "A theatrical release is still more prestigious than a hybrid or straight-to-small screen model."
While debates about the cinematic evolution of TV and the serializing of movies has raged for years, Dergarabedian says "perception quality" and "event status" of a movie still rules audiences who decide whether to buy a ticket or pay $30 for digital access.
"If something was going to be theatrical and it doesn't go theatrical, it changes the way people view that content," Dergarabedian says. "These are unusual measures in unusual times that could have lasting impact depending on the results."
Mulan is streaming now on Disney+ Premier Access. Black Widow is expected to premiere in theaters on November 6.