Read: Hollywood’s ‘Tenet’ experiment failed
As with Warner Bros.’ release of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which has had its own difficulties, Mulan’s mediocre release had many complicating factors. Disney took two parallel swings domestically and globally, each approach laden with risk. In America, the studio decided to offer the film only to Disney+ subscribers for an extra $30. Mulan was also put in theaters abroad, given the lower COVID-19 rates in other countries; Disney’s hope was that the film’s story (rooted in Chinese myth) and its array of Chinese stars (Liu Yifei, Donnie Yen, Gong Li, Jet Li, and others) would help make it a box-office success in China.
Neither bet really paid off. American viewers probably balked at the idea of paying $30 on top of a Disney+ subscription fee. The film may have also been affected by the revelation that parts were shot in Xinjiang, the region of China where Uighur Muslims have been imprisoned in internment camps, although Disney issued no official apology, which would have angered the Chinese government. Disney’s CFO, Christine McCarthy, nonetheless acknowledged that the controversy “generated a lot of issues for us.” Another possible reason for the film’s underwhelming performance in China? Lack of interest. China’s movie industry already makes plenty of splendid medieval epics along the same lines as Mulan, and Disney’s remake didn’t offer anything especially new.
Stateside, one could argue that Disney made the right gamble. Tenet is playing in mostly empty theaters and has grossed $36 million domestically; even the lower end of the estimates cited by Yahoo would suggest that Mulan made twice as much online. Because Disney released the film exclusively on its own platform, it gets to keep all of that money, as opposed to having to split it with cinemas or with companies such as Apple and Amazon. Even so, the film needs to make far more than $90 million to cover its budget, so the overseas release was crucial. But Mulan stumbled—its grosses dropped a disastrous 72 percent in its second weekend in China.
Read: The question that ‘Mulan’ doesn’t ask
Tenet has had the opposite problem. While its theatrical play in America hasn’t worked, its overseas numbers have been tremendous, making the film’s global total roughly $250 million in the past month. That number could plausibly tick up above $400 million as the fall wears on, which would be a huge win for Warner Bros., given the circumstances. Still, neither the Mulan nor the Tenet approach has been entirely successful, and existential concerns about the health of America’s cinemas persist as moviegoers remain skittish about returning to theaters in the middle of a public-health crisis.
The simple fact is that no major studio has been nimble enough to get around the pandemic’s biggest obstacles. This is partly due to Hollywood’s increasing reliance on blockbusters. In decades past, Hollywood churned out plenty of cheaper movies that relied on word of mouth and could play for months on end, slowly racking up profits. But modern tentpole releases such as Mulan and Tenet are designed to have spectacular global rollouts, packing theaters and securing massive opening-weekend grosses. Think hundreds of millions of dollars rather than merely tens of millions.