'Mulan' Sets Sail on Historic Dual PVOD-Theatrical Journey

Mulan Still 2 -Liu Yifei - Disney Enterprises Publicity -H 2020
Courtesy of Disney Enterprises Publicity

Liu Yifei in 'Mulan'

Niki Caro's live-action adaptation of the classic Disney animated film stars Chinese actress Liu Yifei.

Disney's Mulan sets sail over Labor Day weekend on a historic dual premium VOD/theatrical journey as Hollywood struggles to rebound from the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic by testing new release models.

The live-action adaptation of the classic animated pic will be made available to Disney+ subscribers in the U.S. and select international markets on Sept. 4 at a premium price. Those paying to watch the film will have access to it for as long as they remain customers of the streaming service. In the U.S., the cost is $29.99. Mulan will also be made available to Disney+ customers in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and several Western European countries at varying price points.

Additionally, the studio announced Tuesday that Mulan will be made available to all Disney+ members at no extra charge on Dec. 4.

Key territories where Mulan will play on the big screen include Russia (Sept. 10), China (Sept. 11) and South Korea (Sept. 17).

Hopes are especially high for China, where the box office is rebounding in a major way. War epic The Eight Hundred crossed the $300 million mark on Wednesday despite capacity being limited to 50 percent across the Middle Kingdom.

Niki Caro directed the adventure epic that stars Liu Yifei as Mulan, a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a man to spare her elderly father from military service.

This weekend, Mulan opens theatrically in a number of smaller international territories, including Croatia, the Czech Republic, the Middle East, Slovakia, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan and Thailand.

Like Christopher Nolan's Tenet, Mulan was forced to delay its debut on the big screen numerous times due to COVID-19 (it was originally set to launch in late March). In August, Disney ultimately decided to scrap a traditional theatrical release in favor of a dual model that is unprecedented for a Hollywood tentpole.

Both event pics cost $200 million to produce before marketing, meaning they will have to gross hundreds of millions to land in the black. Tenet is staying the course and will open in U.S. theaters on Sept. 3 after debuting to a better-than-expected $53 million-plus internationally — including Canada — last weekend.

The U.S. lags much of the rest of the world in terms of theater reopenings. And it is still not clear when theaters can flip on the lights in Los Angeles and New York City, the country's two largest moviegoing markets.

Disney's revamped plan for Mulan was a major blow for the exhibition business, which was counting on playing both it and Tenet. (Of all the major Hollywood studios, Disney had been viewed as the biggest proponent of theatrical windows.)

It is the first time Disney has offered a film on Disney+ at a top-tier price, thus creating its own premium video-on-demand service at a time when PVOD is gaining strength across the industry because of the pandemic.

Universal Pictures became the first major studio in the COVID-19 era to break the theatrical window when announcing in March that Trolls World Tour — which had been set for an early April release — would instead be made available to rent on PVOD for 48 hours for $19.99. Any theaters that remained open were also offered the film, although by April, most theaters across the globe had gone dark.

Since then, a number of Hollywood films have gone straight to PVOD in the U.S. Mulan is unique in that it could do big box office business in the markets where it is playing theatrically, such as China and the rest of Asia.

The Disney film also stars veteran Hong Kong and Chinese actors Jet Li, Gong Li and Donnie Yen, along with Jason Scott Lee, Yoson An, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Ron Yuan, Tzi Ma, Rosalind Chao, Cheng Pei-Pei, Nelson Lee and Chum Ehelepola. Veteran Hong Kong hitmaker Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Monster Hunt) served as a creative consultant and executive producer on the film.

Unlike box office grosses, Hollywood studios don't have to report PVOD numbers. NBCUniversal brass have said that Trolls World Tour made $100 million in the U.S. but haven't elaborated further.

Speaking to investors in August, Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek stressed that Mulan is a "one-off" and shouldn't be taken to mean that the company is looking to permanently alter theatrical windowing.  "That said," Chapek added, "we find it very interesting to be able to take a new offering to consumers at that $29.99 price and learn from it and see what happens not only in terms of the uptick of the number of subscribers we got on the platform, but also the number of transactions we get on that PVOD offering."