Following the story of a valiant young woman who impersonates a male army recruit to uphold her family dignity, Disney’s live-action adaptation of the 1998 animated smash Mulan was poised to arrive in China under the guise of a homegrown product: a Chinese-set and -starring period-action epic angling to reap hundreds of millions of dollars in Middle Kingdom ticket sales.
Then came COVID-19.
Despite the studio’s best-laid plans — tailoring the $200 million, Niki Caro–directed tentpole to appeal to modern Chinese sensibilities, and landing a special clemency from the Chinese government to have the PG-13 movie hit theaters there as part of a global synchronized launch — Disney was forced to abort Mulan’s launch scheme due to coronavirus fears. Now, even amid a proliferating series of pandemic-related closures, cancellations, and screeching production halts that have upended popular culture, those scrambled plans could exert a far-reaching financial impact on not just Disney’s bottom line but across Hollywood — as the possibility of a blockbuster movie season increasingly absent money-harvesting crowd-pleasers draws into ever sharper focus.
Last month, Disney indefinitely postponed Mulan’s distribution in China, the world’s second-biggest movie marketplace, while the country’s 70,000 theaters remain on forced outbreak shutdown. Then on Thursday, the House of Mouse took the unprecedented measure of pushing Mulan’s remaining multinational roll out from March 27 to some unspecified date later this year, making it the biggest budget and most extravagantly marketed movie to shrink away from its target release because of coronavirus-induced anxiety to date. (Fox/Marvel’s long-delayed New Mutants and the Guillermo del Toro–produced sci-fi–horror thriller Antlers were also punted off their original releases in the same studio announcement.)
An event film like Mulan, with a production budget nearing a quarter-billion dollars, typically requires at least $200 million in “P&A” — that is, prints and advertising — to pay for copies of the film that run through projectors and an ad spend encompassing online and print spots and TV commercials. With Mulan’s release so imminent, however, Disney had already likely blown through that P&A war chest and will have to spend an additional nine-figure sum ahead of the movie’s new release date.
But those losses will be peanuts compared to the budget shortfall created by the absence of promotional synchronicity between a Disney movie and its related consumer products, which accounted for $4.65 billion of the company’s revenue in 2018. Branded stuff like the Disney Mulan Two Reflections Fashion Doll Set ($29.99 at Target), GapKids’ girls’ Mulan T-shirt in oatmeal ($13), the Disney Store’s limited-edition $129.99 Mulan “phoenix character” statuette (featuring red-robed armor and molded boots, modeled after the live-action film’s star Liu Yifei), and the Mulan Deluxe Costume for Kids ($79.99 at shopDisney.com) are now likely headed for the bargain bin.
On Thursday, the Walt Disney Company announced a temporary closure of all Disney theme parks (including Florida’s Disney World Resort, Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park in Anaheim, and Disneyland Paris) simultaneous with an indefinite suspension of Disney Cruise Line operations starting March 14. The upshot: Mulan will also be denied the promotional bump of sneak peek events scheduled to take place at the studio’s branded attractions and “select sailings” this month.
To hear it from Richard Rushfield, editor of the influential entertainment industry newsletter the Ankler, the calculus of such a release-date switcheroo is much more complex than simply log-rolling a movie’s theatrical debut from one month into another, when coronavirus poses less of a health emergency. At recent events such as San Diego Comic-Con and the studio’s own D23, he notes, Disney laid out schematics detailing theatrical drop dates for presumed blockbusters from its various studio divisions including Marvel Studios, Pixar and Lucasfilm. “Disney’s built their calendar and locked up every ideal date for the next two and a half years already,” says Rushfield. “If they push Mulan back, then they’ve got to squeeze it in between other dates or push something else back. You just get this whole cascade effect on the calendar.”
“Then, because Disney is such a huge force at the box office — accounting for fully half of the box office at this point — all of the other studios now are just sort of like, ‘What is Disney going to do?’” he says. “With Disney postponing Mulan, you get every studio basically scrubbing their release calendar for the next few months.”
Of course Mulan is hardly the only movie in Hollywood’s upcoming spring-release corridor to retreat and regroup out of coronavirus-born jitters. Earlier this month, co-distributors Eon-MGM-Universal pressed the release-date ejector button on the 25th 007 adventure No Time to Die, and Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway was forced to run out on its March 19 global rollout (with Sony delaying the sequel’s theatrical bow until August 7). Capping weeks of uncertainty regarding the fate of the latest Fast & Furious installment, Universal postponed the release of F9 from May 22 to April 2021 “with the safety of everyone our foremost consideration,” according to a Fast Saga Twitter post. And on Thursday, Paramount put the rollouts of both Lovebirds and A Quiet Place Part II indefinitely on ice.
Compounding the studio’s distribution headaches, on Friday, Disney shut down production on multiple productions out of concerns over the global pandemic: a live-action version of The Little Mermaid set to start shooting in London next week, The Last Duel, Nightmare Alley and Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings among them. (Two other films in pre-production, Peter Pan and Wendy and Shrunk we also halted.)
But just days removed from Disney chief executive Robert Iger abruptly — and some say suspiciously — relinquishing his post (even if not his power for the foreseeable future) and Pixar’s animated elf romp Onward opening to a “soft” $39 million (a record low for the acclaimed studio division), the coronavirus cancellations could’ve been much worse. In 2019, Disney became the first studio in history to surpass $10 billion in worldwide box-office returns thanks to a string blockbusters including Avengers: Endgame, Toy Story 4, The Lion King and Captain Marvel.
“Disney’s very lucky this is happening this year and not last year,” Rushfield notes.