Why Disney (and Disney+) Needs the Streaming-First Release of 'Mulan' to Succeed

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Why Disney (and Disney+) Needs the Streaming-First Release of ‘Mulan’ to Succeed

Last month’s success with “Hamilton” proved the need for Disney+ to provide fresh hits

Disney is just about ready to release its live-action reimagining of “Mulan” — just not in U.S. theaters. The studio is taking a bold risk putting the film on its streaming service for subscribers to purchase, but its previous success with shifting the musical phenomenon “Hamilton” to Disney+ from theaters paints a roadmap for “Mulan,” and gives the entertainment company a test case if it chooses to continue releasing films on streaming without a run through theaters.

The media giant has been clear that it sees “Mulan” as just an experiment, but the move represents a massive shift in thought on the entertainment giant’s content distribution strategy. The studio has shown a willingness to pull some of its smaller family films from theaters, moving “Artemis Fowl” and “The One and Only Ivan” to Disney+ earlier this year.

But last month’s release of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway hit “Hamilton” on Disney+ reaped big rewards: Downloads and signups both skyrocketed by 650%, according to the analytics firm Antenna, after slowing significantly during the first half of 2020.

Unlike “Hamilton,” which had been due in theaters next year, “Mulan” will be available to Disney+ subscribers for an additional $29.99 charge. That approach gives Disney an opportunity to see whether it can squeeze more revenue out of subscribers while hopefully attracting more new ones — though it’s likely that the majority of people who’d be interested in “Mulan” already subscribe to the family-friendly service.

“Mulan” is by far the biggest film to opt for a PVOD release, at least in some form. So far, the films that have been pulled from theatrical release in favor of PVOD have been family animated films like Universal’s “Trolls World Tour” and Warner Bros.’ “Scoob!” or smaller-budget comedies like “King of Staten Island.” And unlike those films, Disney won’t have to share a cut of its revenues with PVOD platforms (a cut that is already significantly less than the box office revenues shared with theaters).

“Mulan” will also help maintain momentum for Disney+ and its drive for new subscribers. During the first half of 2020, nothing on the service really drove significant signups, according to streaming analytics firm Antenna. The service saw a slight bump in mid-March when “Frozen 2” hit the platform, which also just so happened to be when the pandemic began to take its toll on the U.S.

Disney+ had launched last November with a library of content to rival anyone — especially for parents of young kids and millennials clinging to nostalgia. It became apparent quickly, however, the library wouldn’t be enough to sustain growth.

“The obvious implication was that Disney+ had already acquired the majority of interested subscribers based on its product offering,” analysts at Lightshed wrote in a note to clients. “The release of ‘Hamilton’ as a theatrical film was never expected to be a blockbuster. However, on Disney+ it not only gave existing subscribers fresh content to be excited about, it brought in an entirely new group of subscribers who would never have contemplated subscribing. ‘Hamilton’ shows the power of skipping theaters and releasing a new feature film directly on SVOD,” Lightshed analysts wrote.

Unlike “Hamilton,” which Disney acquired for $75 million, “Mulan” is a major tentpole release with a roughly $200 million production budget. Rough estimates suggest Disney would have to notch approximately 7 million sales to hit $200 million (seems likely), but that doesn’t take into account marketing expenses that were already spent since the film was initially set to hit theaters in March just weeks after the pandemic shut down cinemas worldwide.

Disney will still release “Mulan” theatrically in countries where there are no launch plans for Disney+. Ever the advocate for exhibition, Disney said it will release the film in theaters in the U.S. at a later date as they open.

“We’re looking at Mulan’ as a one-off. That said, we find it very interesting to take that $29.99 offering and learn from it,”Disney CEO Bob Chapek said earlier this month. “Disney blockbuster tentpoles can be fairly expensive to make and produce, so rather than roll it into the subscription we thought we’d give it a try to recapture some of that investment. Such an offering not only brings in revenue from PVOD, but also acts as a stimulus to sign up for Disney+.”

In the six months that Hollywood has gone all but dark, studios have found themselves looking for ways to both get finished and ready-to-go films off their shelves while also recovering some level of the investments they put into those projects. With cinemas dark, revenues for both theaters and their studio partners have been sparse. During its recent fiscal third quarter, Disney reported a loss of $4.7 billion.

“Disney+ skyrocketed to over 23 million subs in the U.S. at the end of 2019, fueled by a low price, deep catalog of content to entertain young children, an incredible marketing campaign and sizable demand for their first major original series, ‘The Mandalorian,’” Lightshed analysts wrote.

As far as Disney+ is concerned, the pandemic has been a relative boon for business. During its Q3 conference call Disney reported that Disney+ had 60.5 million subscribers, putting it well ahead of analyst projections for its first year. Disney’s own projections expect the service would have between 60 to 90 million subscribers by the end of 2024.

The problem for Disney+ to consider is, according to Antenna, the subscribers who joined the weekend “Hamilton” was released were 50% more likely to cancel Disney+ within the first month.

“Disney probably realizes that most ‘Mulan’ fans are already Disney+ subscribers and those that are not would churn far too quickly if the movie was simply included within Disney+,” Lightshed analysts wrote. “We continue to believe the ‘right’ strategy for Disney is to include all of Disney’s new movies direct-to-Disney+ (skipping theaters entirely)… Disney is clearly not ready to give up on movie theaters and so PVOD is their way of taking a partial step.”

Trey Williams