Box Office: 'Mulan' Off to Slow Start in China

Disney's Live-Action Mulan -Publicity Still 14-H 2019
Walt Disney Pictures

Beijing authorities ordered local media not to provide any coverage of the $200 million tentpole, after international outcry over reports that Disney shot portions of the film in Xinjiang Provence, where Beijing is accused of human rights abuses.

Disney's Mulan is off to a low-key start at China's theatrical box office, a market where it was once expected to be a sure-fire blockbuster.

Mulan had pulled in just $4.4 million (30 million RMB) as of 5 p.m., Beijing time, Friday, according to data from local box office tracker Artisan Gateway. As of 8 p.m., local time, ticket sales had climbed to approximately $6 million (41 million RMB).

So far, Mulan appears to be selling tickets at a slightly slower pace than Warner Bros' Tenet did last weekend. The Christopher Nolan-directed sci-fi film finished its opening weekend with $30 million.

In the COVID-19 era, a $30 million start would probably be considered encouraging in North America — Tenet's $20 million domestic opening was cheered stateside — but China's box office already is capable of earnings much closer to pre-pandemic full capacity, thanks to the country's far more effective containment of the virus. In late August, local tentpole The Eight Hundred opened to $112 million and has since climbed to $365 million.

Throughout this week, local analysts and industry insiders were expecting Mulan to debut somewhere between $30 million to $40 million. Thus far, it's tracking to land on the low end of that range.

But word of mouth is everything in the always unpredictable China market, and the country's leading ticketing apps — Maoyan and Alibaba's Taopiaopiao — have yet to release their average user ratings for Mulan. Once those social scores drop later tonight, the film's fate will be clearer.

The Disney tentpole has already weathered a torrent of ugly news internationally — and the bad press has begun to have an oblique effect within China.

Beijing authorities told major media outlets in the country not to cover Mulan in any way, according to a report Friday from Reuters. The blackout on Mulan coverage appears to be a reaction to recent international outcry over a pair of human rights scandals associated with the movie.

The trouble for Mulan began over a year ago when its star, Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei, voiced her support for the Hong Kong police force, which was then in the midst of brutally suppressing the city's pro-democracy movement. Her comments sparked a heated online backlash under the hashtag #BoycottMulan. In recent weeks, democracy advocates in Taiwan and Thailand have joined the online campaign.

The ugly human rights optics took an even darker turn last weekend when early viewers of Mulan on Disney+ spotted a "special thanks" in the film's credits to various government entities in Xinjiang Provence, where China has been accused of gross human rights abuses against its Muslim Uighur minority population. At that point it became clear that Disney not only shot portions of Mulan within the troubled region — the movie was filmed on location in New Zealand and China — but that doing so involved the studio collaborating with a Chinese security agency believed to be directly involved in the extrajudicial detainment of over 1 million Uigurs in cultural re-education camps.

China maintains that the mass detention camps in Xinjiang are part of a peaceful effort to improve the region's security and economic development. Beijing also is allergic to international criticism of its actions in the region, and all mentions of the issue are strictly censored within China.

Reuters said no reason was provided to local media when the blackout of Mulan coverage was ordered — but the agency's sources said they suspected it was related to the international outcry over Xinjiang.

Produced for $200 million — the most Disney has spent on any of its live-action remakes — Mulan was once expected to do gangbusters business in the Chinese market. The film is based on a beloved Chinese legend and stars, alongside relative newcomer Liu, a slew of Chinese cinema icons, including Gong Li, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and others.