And so it begins ... One of the immutable facts of pre-Covid-19 Hollywood was that a big studio allowing a film to debut on home video before it had a theatrical release happened as often as a Donald Trump mea culpa. Mid-pandemic, with cinemas struggling to open at anything like full capacity, if at all, everything suddenly looks very different.
Not only are mid-profile movies that were meant to have a substantial cinema release suddenly available to view on demand – The Invisible Man, Trolls World Tour – but there are now increasing suggestions that Hollywood is planning to put tentpole offerings on streaming platforms to try to gobble up some of the dollars they are losing out on owing to so many cinemas being closed. The Hollywood Reporter says Disney’s long-delayed live action remake of Mulan will be available to view on Disney+ from 4 September in the US, Canada and western European territories – but for the princely price of $29.99 (£22.50). Prices for other countries haven’t yet been announced, but should be comparable. Disney is calling this Premium Video on Demand or PVOD, as opposed to VOD, which costs considerably less.
At first glance, this sounds like an awful lot of money to pay for a stream. But take a second look and … that’s still an awful lot of money for a one-off stream. (The Hollywood Reporter’s piece doesn’t make it clear whether the film will be available for repeat viewings after the first 24 hours, but we’re guessing probably not.)
Leaving aside the fact that many Disney+ purchasers expected their monthly subscription to include new content on the platform, the first question here is whether $29.99 (about £23) is simply too much to pay for a home experience. US cinemagoers paid an average of $9.16 per ticket in 2019, which is considerably lower than prices in western Europe. Are they really going to pay three times that to see the latest Disney live-action remake from a sofa?
Without wishing to cast aspersions on the mouse house’s live-action remake, Disney must be confident it has a hit on its hands
The second question is whether Mulan is the right movie to be using for this kind of high-risk experiment – for experiment it is, as Disney’s own CEO Bob Chapek made clear in comments to the Hollywood Reporter. “We’re very pleased to be able to bring Mulan to our consumer base that has been waiting for it for a long, long time as we’ve had to move our theatrical date several times,” he said. “We are looking at Mulan as a one-off as opposed to saying there is some new business windowing model that we are looking at.
“We find it very interesting to be able to take a new offering to consumers at that $29.99 price and see what happens not only in terms of the uptick of the number of subscribers, but also the number of transactions on that PVOD offering.”
From Chapek’s comments, it appears that to view Mulan you will have to purchase both a subscription to Disney+, at $6.99 a month (£5.99 in the UK), and shell out the $29.99 to watch the infamous, swashbuckling eldest daughter of Hua Zhou help the Chinese imperial army to victory. Without wishing to cast aspersions on the mouse house’s latest live-action remake, for which no reviews yet exist, Disney must be confident it has a hit on its hands.
The concern here is that the studio might not be factoring in the way that visits (especially family visits) to the cinema work. A film such as Mulan is the kind of movie that benefits from name recognition for both the picture itself and Disney – it is a safe bet, the plain vanilla offering that nobody hates, but not likely to be everyone’s passionate first choice.
But is it the film that everyone is so desperate to see that they will shell out $29.99 (and a Disney+ subscription) for it? Or will most wait until it’s available more cheaply? There is also the issue of piracy: the minute Mulan is available to screen online it will, no doubt, be viewable for free via dodgy websites.
If Disney had chosen Frozen 2, or Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, or the latest Marvel mega-smash – movies that people are desperate to see – as its first PVOD offering, you could understand it. Instead, it’s yet another live-action Disney remake, when these have been hit and miss in the last couple of years. (I’m looking at you, Lion King and Dumbo!)
Surely the marketers know their onions, however? Surely they’ve tested this decision to within an inch of its life?
Let’s hope so, for Disney’s sake. If not, this looks like the kind of high stakes gamble of which Hua Mulan herself would have been proud when she slipped into men’s clothing and struck out for the battlefield so many centuries ago.