It’s been a while hasn’t it. Often, I’ll try and find something relevant to talk about, and one of the surprising side effects of COVID is that there really isn’t too much to talk about relating to media. Or rather, predictions made in mid-March and the beginning of lockdown are slowly coming to fruition.
It seems like a lifetime ago that Trolls: World Tour spelled the end of AMC theatrical distribution amidst their incredible streaming performance, and now we have Mulan released for $29.99 straight to Disney+ on September 4th – described by some outlets as a “F*ck You to Exhibitors.” I rarely try to use hyperbolic language for my titles, but I cannot stress how pissed off exhibitors are with Disney.
Writing from the UK this is especially concerning, as cinemas and theatres have slowly tried reopening in accordance with government guidelines, and a huge must-see Disney blockbuster like Mulan could have been a big boost to the market and entertainment economy.
There’s already been a lot of analysis on what it means for theaters – with reports of AMC shutting down in the US, and risks of permanent shutdowns for over 70% of UK entertainment venues, though whether theaters will go the way of arcades has yet to be seen.
I think audiences still want a sense of a theater-going experience, with drive-in theatres becoming an increasingly viable option due to the ease with which one can social-distance. Walmart even looks to capitalise off of this with their launch of drive-ins at 160 stores across the US. But what this means for the windows system has yet to be seen.
France, for example, has a windows system enshrined in law (with specific times film can go from theatre to home media – often considerably longer than other nations.) There are various cultural reasons for this too, and explains the adamant rejection of Disney’s modern practices in the clip above. Of course, what would a window system mean in a post-theatre world?
MULAN 2020: LET’S GET DOWN TO BUSINESS
I want to talk about this year’s Mulan specifically, as I feel that it’s the biggest film going for a straight-to-SVOD market. It can certainly be described as a “Big Budget Blockbuster” in the same vain as all the other Disney remakes, and has definitely attracted more attention than the other movies going for SVOD releases.
Previously, we’d only really seen kid’s films like Trolls: World Tour, or niche audience films like Valiant Comics’ Bloodshot look to this market over a theatrical release. For these films, that makes sense. They may be diametrically opposed genres, but they both have a very specific audience who they’re appealing to.
This isn’t the case with Mulan which is more of a typical four-quadrant blockbuster – fun for kids, teens, parents, grandparents, etc. and built on an already popular 90s animated movie. Of course, given the source material, there’s a huge audience in China for a blockbuster of this size. Back in 2019 I even predicted that it would be the highest-grossing movie of 2020 (and … I mean, if COVID hadn’t happened I like to think that would still be the case.)
Economically, this works out pretty well in the viewer’s favour. In theatres you don’t just pay for the film, but also food and drink at the concession stand. Not to mention the inability to start and stop the film at your leisure – or any of the other arguments people have for home video over theatre. A family of four could end up paying well over $29.99 for their viewing – undoubtedly more if you’re taking other members with you.
I know from my London experience that tickets can cost £15.99 for adults before factoring in a large popcorn and a Diet Coke, so I know many would welcome this more affordable option. Of course the question is, will people pay premium, or are they prepared to wait a few months before seeing it on the same platform for no additional fees?
This is why I wanted to write about this, because Disney now controls distribution and production, and Mulan is a movie that could have easily made its money back off the box office without question. But of streaming works anywhere near as well as Trolls: World Tour – and based on the already-established IP and wider audience appeal, I’m willing to bet it will – then there’s no economic reason why Disney wouldn’t continue with this approach.
The questions are of course how whether this will affect our media, and how distributors will operate going forward. But first I want to address one film that has mysteriously gone unmentioned by Disney.
A STORYWORLD WITHOUT THEATRE?
I think that Black Widow will be the defining answer to whether or not theatrical distribution is dead. There’s already been much speculation of whether it will be a Disney+ release, as well as it’s broader role in the MCU, but nothing confirmed. The difference is Mulan isn’t sustaining a franchise in the same way as like the MCU – where each film adds onto or develops a broader narrative. It’s a blockbuster, but not a storyworld.
That said, Mulan is a good test run to see if audiences are receptive to this change in status quo – are we prepared to debut blockbuster movies in the comfort of our own homes?
Black Widow has a lot more riding on this specifically because it’s an MCU film. It’s something that could potentially affect other corners of the storyworld and franchise going forward. Due to the studio’s silence on the film, it’s clear they’re more hesitant to bring this to Disney+. Why? I have a few thoughts.
This could be because they want to reach as wide an audience as possible. It’s still early days for Disney+, and although it’s proving popular, there still may not be as many viewers watching as in theatres. The flipside of course, is that you have to signup to Disney+ to see how the story continues – it’s a good selling point for the service, and I know a few MCU fans who’d bite.
Then there is also what I call a transmedia “Franchise Hierarchy.” Often theatrical releases were considered the tentpoles of a franchise – your MCU films, Star Wars films, Terminator films etc. are what the filmgoing public is familiar with. Then you’d get your TV spinoffs like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Star Wars: The Clone Wars, or Sarah Connor Chronicles respectively (as well as video games, graphic novels, etc.) which are catered for hardcore fans who wanted to immerse themselves more in the storyworld.
Most interestingly, narratives and plot points almost never fed back into the films proper. You can watch 7 seasons of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and not once will any MCU film even acknowledge they exist. This could be why they’re holding off on Black Widow – if they still want to hold onto that mainstream audience and concept of a franchise hierarchy. After all, “Straight-to-Video” has had a stigma attached to it when compared to “Theatrical Release.”
I’m prepared to say that the hierarchy will change, with shows like WandaVision reportedly being instrumental in the events of Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, but we’ll see if this can truly come to fruition. At the very least I think Disney/Marvel would want their first movie carrying Phase 4 to hit the ground running in theatres – even if it means the date being pushed back.
HOME ENTERTAIMENT VS. LOCATION-BASED ENTERTAINMENT – A STRUGGLE FOR ENGAGEMENT
There’s no doubt in my mind that Disney+ will be the streaming service response to Netflix. Amazon certainly has great content, but to me it feels like the streaming service is an add-on to the Amazon Prime package.
We live in an age where stories can exist in all manner of forms, and audiences can interact with them in a number of ways. Should Disney+ reject the theatrical release system moving forward, and release big blockbuster hits like Black Widow, Captain Marvel 2, Star Wars sequels directly to audiences – suddenly that has massive implications for fan engagement, and narrative structures moving forward.
For transmedia properties, that’s fantastic. There would no longer be a disconnect between film and television as we had with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. having zero impact on the events of the films. Instead, you could (theoretically) interact with a storyworld on the same home entertainment setup – film, TV, video games, etc. all in one place with producers feeling comfortable that audiences wouldn’t miss out on any key plot points.
As for fandom, I think that’s a larger debate – especially with location-based engagement like conventions, theatrical debuts, etc. I think Martin Scorsese had a point when he compared Marvel films to theme park rides – you queue up for hours, there’s a social element, you see people dressed up as their favourite characters, and there’s an emotional component separate to what is simply shown on screen.
It’s not a film; it’s an event.
In many ways I classify theatrical releases as “Location-Based Entertainment,” and it’s vastly different to simply sitting at home watching Disney+. Moreover, it vastly impacts our understanding of active and passive viewing. If you just want to kill time and find something to watch on Disney+ that’s very different to actively going out to a theatre.
Undoubtedly COVID has played the defining role in the discussion about these films, and how Mulan is getting a Disney+ debut. In a post-COVID world it will be more interesting to see how audiences prefer their blockbusters – with a choice between the Silver Screen or Home Streaming. It’s difficult to answer that question now given the pandemic, but no doubt it’s at the forefront of producers and studio execs all over the world.