The Failure of Mulan Is More Bad News for Hollywood

The film’s disappointing release is further evidence that the pandemic is defeating blockbuster movies.

A woman sits alone in an empty movie theater
Jae C. Hong / AP

Data gathered this weekend appeared to hold seismic news for Hollywood—specifically Disney. A report from Yahoo suggested that a shocking 9 million Disney+ users had streamed the studio’s Mulan remake in its first 12 days of release, translating into a gross of $261 million. That’s a staggering number for an on-demand rental and for an industry that’s been struggling through pandemic-related cinema closures. If Disney can make that kind of money without American theaters, does it need American theaters at all?

The only problem is, Mulan didn’t actually make $261 million in 12 days. Yahoo had misinterpreted numbers from an analytics firm that estimated Mulan’s viewership, and the firm’s co-founder clarified that grosses were more likely $60 million to $90 million—well below the movie’s reported budget of $200 million. Not only does it seem that Mulan made modest sums in the United States (though Disney has yet to release official numbers), but the movie also had a disappointing theatrical rollout in China. Another grand experiment by Hollywood in the COVID-19 era, another flop. As the end of 2020 draws near, studios still haven’t figured out a sustainable way to bring their most expensive blockbusters to audiences.

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.

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.

Hollywood knows how to function in only one way anymore, and that has made the industry devastatingly vulnerable this year. Funnily enough, the best-case scenario is probably something along the lines of Tenet or Mulan, films that simply break even. Until the U.S. returns to normal (which might not be until late 2021), cinema will have to take many more swings and misses. In the meantime, audiences get the worst of both worlds: They’re being pressured by studios to return to theaters in droves and being charged big bucks to watch new movies at home, all while waiting for life to be good again.