When Warner Bros announced a delay in the cinema-release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in July, all eyes were on Disney’s Mulan to fill the void.
The $200m (£152m) live-action remake was slated for release in cinemas this month. On Tuesday, however, Disney dashed any hope that it could revive the fortune of struggling picturehouses.
Mulan, which will tell the Chinese folktale of a young warrior woman who masquerades as a man, will now be released directly onto its streaming service Disney Plus. Patrons can expect to pay $29.99 (a UK price has yet to be announced) to stream the film from September 4.
Disney is not abandoning cinemas altogether - the film will also go to theaters where conditions allow. Bob Chapek attempted to downplay the momentous move by describing it as a “one-off,” and not an overall shift in strategy.
But the release decision by the Californian company marks an irreversible shift towards the streaming and shows just how much the theater industry’s grip on new films is giving way.
“It’s the direction of travel, if you do it for Mulan, why wouldn’t you do it for Avatar or the new Star Wars,” says Michael Hewson, an analyst at CMC Markets.
“Once you’ve set the precedent, it’s out there, it’s like breaking the dam.”
Streaming is the moneymaker for Disney. Shuttered theme parks, closed cinemas, and limited sports broadcasting brought the multinational giant to its knees during lockdown. On Tuesday, it posted a $4.7bn loss over the last three months.
Chapek will undoubtedly be aware of the potential impact big films can have when released through paid-for on-demand services. On April 10, Universal Pictures released its Trolls World Tour feature film through on-demand services, much to the frustration of cinema chain AMC Theatres. The film did well, taking in around $100m within its first three weeks of play in the US alone.
Lewis Grant, a portfolio manager at Federated Hermes, believes Universal’s move could have spurred Chapek to pull a similar lever.
“Video streaming offers an enticing opportunity for Disney to cut out the middleman and distribute pay-per-view movies directly to consumers,” he says.
“In the early days of the lockdown there was a clear reluctance to challenge the existing model, with film studios choosing to postpone most of the 2020 blockbusters – for example Disney’s Mulan, MGM’s new James Bond and Warner Bros’ Wonder Woman 1984. However Universal’s Trolls World Tour showed that a new direct-to-consumer model can work, albeit risking the wrath of the cinema operators.”
Disney’s decision to release Mulan online follows a deal announced last month between Comcast’s Universal Pictures and AMC Entertainment Holdings, the largest US cinema owner. Under that agreement, Universal can release films for home viewing as soon as 17 days after their release in cinemas.
Cinemark claims the "overly aggressive shortened theatrical window" could have damage the mid-to tail-end of a film's life.
But now more and more filmmakers are opting to push their release right into the homes of would-be viewers. In May, Apple swooped in for Sony’s Tom Hanks World War II submarine thriller Greyhound in a deal worth around $70m to bring it to its own streaming service.
Netflix is also reportedly nearing a deal to buy the worldwide rights to Amy Adams’ The Woman in the Window drama from 20th Century Fox.
The flurry of tie-ups will undoubtedly irk cinema owners who have been managed to retain relevance as streaming services scaled new heights over the past decade.
"Thanks Disney chums, we'll be here warm and waiting for you when you plan to return, having existed on thin air and love and cuddles and happy thoughts,” tweeted Kevin Markwick, who owns the independent Picture House cinema in Uckfield.
Cinema admissions topped 176 million in the UK last year, putting it on par with the 2018 tally of 177 million, which was the highest on record for 50 years, according to industry body Cinema First.
The box office boom was led by a series of high profile hits including Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Toy Story 4, Joker, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Knives Out.
Those numbers are expected to fall dramatically and holding onto these releases will be crucial for their survival, Hewson says.
“The main attraction for cinemas have been these big blockbusters,” he says. “But unless cinemas can keep the rights to these big hits then what’s the point of them.”
Hewson described moves by the likes of Disney and Apple as “land grabs” with the multinational giants carving out more market share of the entertainment industry.
However, he fears that Disney may have priced too high with its Mulan release.
“First and foremost you have to determine whether or not there’s a demand for a $30 pay-per-view movie,” he says.
“If you go to the cinema it will cost around £12 for a ticket. People are not going to pay $30 for that, why would they when we’re facing a recession?”
Should Mulan prove a hit for Disney’s streaming service, it could deal yet another hammer blow in what has been a devastating year for the cinema industry.
During the same period, streaming has continued to strengthen its hand. Disney is already more popular with children than BBC iPlayer despite only being released here in March, according to figures from Ofcom.
A total of 12 million Britons signed up to new streaming services during lockdown with people spending around an hour and 11 minutes per day watching streaming services in April.
Like cinema, broadcasters are also facing intense competition from the streaming giants with their scale posing immense problems. That scale could widen the gap a step too far for cinemas.
“With the successful launch of the Disney+ platform, and aided by the size of Disney’s footprint within the movie production industry, the cinema operators’ wrath is less of an issue for the company,” says Grant from Federated Hermes.
“Disney+ subscriber numbers have blown away all expectations and present the perfect opportunity to experiment with a direct-to-consumer pay-per-view offering. Mulan is the highest-profile straight-to-streaming offering from Disney yet and its success – or otherwise – will help to inform the company’s strategy for future releases.”
Cinemas have also been repurposed during the downturn as diversification could help to offset the immense revenue hit brought about by the coronavirus.
In Scotland, an Odeon complex was tested for use in jury trials where jurors could watch a trial unfold on a big screen while also social distancing. Such a model could reportedly help free up court rooms.
Any such incentive would likely pale in comparison to the needs the cinema industry will have as it battles to keep the streaming giants from taking away their box office hits.