Will Disney Plus Become the Go-To Platform For New Disney Films?

2020 will forever be the year that changed the face of cinema.

Disney's MULAN..Mulan (Yifei Liu) ..Photo: Jasin Boland..© 2019 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In a surprising turn of events, Disney has decided to release Mulan on Disney Plus at an additional cost of US$29.99, which is on top of the base subscription users have to pay for the streaming platform (US$69.99 per year).

A Disney representative has been quick to reassure everyone that the almost thirty dollars they have to fork out for the movie would mean they get to keep the movie forever. In Disney terms, this means they will be able to stream the movie for as long as they remain subscribers to the platform. Mulan was initially supposed to be released in March this year, but had to be delayed due to the pandemic. It was given a new date of July 24, 2020, but as the date drew near, it was evident that cinemas were still mostly closed around the world, and so Disney pulled it from the calendar altogether. Now, it will be released on Disney Plus on September 4, 2020.

This marks a different strategy from Disney. So far, they have rescheduled and postponed most of their films, with only a handful making its debut on Disney Plus. Hamilton, which was supposed to get a cinematic debut in 2021, was released on Disney Plus instead, as a show of goodwill and a way to celebrate the US’ Independence Day. It brought new subscribers to the platform, with reports that it resulted in over 752,451 mobile app downloads and potentially many more subscriptions via online and smart TV sign-ups. So yes, it was hailed as a success, but this is the short-term perspective of the situation.

Disney spent US$75 million on purchasing the rights to Hamilton, and could have made so much more if the musical had been released in cinemas. If we consider its musical counterparts, like Mamma Mia and Les Miserables, the film adaptations of these musicals were hugely successful, earning US$610 million and US$442 million respectively. In comparison, Hamilton is considered to be more appealing and has a bigger fanbase, so it would have surely surpassed these amounts, earning Disney loads of money.

Artemis Fowl was also released on Disney Plus with no theatrical debut, but considering how dismal the film’s performance was, it wouldn’t have had much success with a theatrical outing anyway. Disney’s decisions with regard to Artemis Fowl and Hamilton was a way for them to generate content for Disney Plus, as a means to keep their subscribers. Their streaming rivals, which are digital platforms like Netflix, Hulu or Amazon, have new films and TV shows premiering nearly every week. Initially, Disney didn’t really need to depend on Disney Plus because it had other means of generating revenue, but now with the coronavirus still wreaking havoc, Disney is turning to Disney Plus as a way to get some quick influx of cash.

However, with Mulan, they realised they couldn’t do what they did with Hamilton and Artemis Fowl, and just simply release it on the platform. While Hamilton might encourage new subscribers, Mulan doesn’t exactly have the same allure. This is why subscribers will have to pay an additional amount to watch the film. With a price like that, it is clear that Disney is targeting families, since some might view it as pretty cost effective as bringing a family to the cinema would cost more. Disney is definitely banking on the same success of Trolls World Tour for Mulan, since the former performed well over expectations after being released on VOD (Video on-demand), so much so that Universal adjusted their cinema to VOD window and made a historic deal with AMC Theatres.

Mulan will still get a theatrical debut in countries that have reopened their cinemas. Unfortunately, the US hasn’t quite gotten a handle on the pandemic, so most US cinemas are still closed, and Disney Plus will thus be the go-to platform for most. Disney also spent quite a lot on its marketing for the film. Mulan’s teaser trailer was shown during the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final and it also had a TV spot during the 2020 Super Bowl. If Disney decided to hold the film until next year, they would need to once again spend money to promote it, and with films like Black Widow still queued up, that wouldn’t be the best financial decision.

Disney has done well with its remakes so far, which explains the gamble they are willing to take with Mulan. Even Dumbo, which wasn’t as well received as the likes of Aladdin or Beauty and the Beast, still grossed over US$353 million worldwide, on a budget of US$170 million. Mulan is perhaps the most transformed remake, not retaining the musical structure of its predecessor, choosing to be a gritty war epic instead. There was quite the uproar when Mulan fans learned that Mushu wouldn’t be making an appearance in this remake, as well as the changes made to the characters (like the lack of Shang pftt!). But if history has taught us anything, it’s that audiences still veer towards these Disney properties because of the nostalgia attached to these remakes. Despite The Lion King basically being the same frame-by-frame movie as the original, and described as a soulless chimera, audiences still flocked to see it.

Disney is insistent that Mulan’s release strategy is a one-off and says it has no plans to send its other remaining 2020 films directly to Disney Plus. Disney is of course referring to Marvel’s Black Widow and Pixar’s Soul, which are both slated to release in November of this year. However, a Disney Plus insider told Verge’s Julia Alexander that this isn’t the case, saying “We’ve put in enough work that it’s not a one-off.”

Whatever the real story is, we can’t ignore the fact that Disney could certainly backtrack on these claims of Mulan being a one-off if their strategy is met with success. Depending on how long the pandemic lasts, Disney might be forced to consider this strategy for their other films as well. As per Alexander’s tweet, whatever Disney makes via Disney Plus is solely revenue that belongs to them, as opposed to the shared profits with cinema chains.

So yeah, I don’t think Mulan will be the last film Disney attempts this with; nobody works this hard for a one-off, especially a company like Disney.

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