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Mulan – a tale of international compromise leaving no one satisfied

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Photo of Tim Mulligan
by Tim Mulligan

A year unlike any other continues to throw curveballs at media companies with strong digital and international footprints. The live-action remake of the popular 90’s Disney animation Mulan has been 10 years in the making. During that time Disney has had to manage a seismic shift in the tectonic plates of film watching and the relationship between the US and China.

The decision to simultaneously release Mulan on Disney+ as a premium video on-demand (PVOD) title for $30 at the same time as its theatrical release was an admission that the box office is no longer a viable option in 2020. The -55% year-on-year (YoY) decline in Disney studio entertainment revenues in Q2 2020 graphically underscored the impact of COVID-19 on what has historically been a key revenue stream for the media major. Whether it can return to contributing the 17% of group revenues achieved in 2019 will depend upon how quickly the COVID-19 pandemic ends. Much will depend upon whether consumers now using their home screens as theatrical release windows will be prepared to return to movie theatres for future releases, or whether they will continue to pay premium on-demand pricing for access to newly released films devoid of the social event trappings of going to a cinema. With estimated revenues for its opening weekend at $40 million (86% of which was PVOD-derived revenue), Mulan’s predominately PVOD release compares poorly to last year’s live-action remake of The Lion King, which generated $192 million in its cinema-only opening weekend. 

With Mulan set to become available to all Disney+ subscribers at the end of the year, much now rests on how the film performs in Chinese cinemas – which is the largest theatrical release market available for the title.

It is impossible to please everyone

China is now poised to become the world’s largest film market by revenues (it already has more movie theatres than the US). Making a blockbuster summer film, especially one based upon a Chinese national heroine, releasable in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is crucial for international success. As such, the film team worked with the PRC authorities to ensure compliance with strict domestic censorship laws and to enable filming in the beautiful, yet troubled Xinjiang region of western China. Xinjiang means ‘new frontier’ in the Chinese language, and what was tumultuously true two millennia ago when the first Chinese presence was established in the region remains the case now – an estimated one million of the Uighur ethnic minority (which makes up nearly half of the province’s population) are currently incarcerated in “re-education camps”, one of which is close to where some of the pivotal scenes in the new title were filmed. This along with the credits of the film, which thanked four separate Chinese state propaganda departments, has been seen in the increasingly anti-PRC US as a step too far. Calls to boycott the film have also occurred at the same time that the Chinese star of the film, Liu Yifei, has been criticised for previously showing her support for the Hong Kong Police on Weibo – the micro-blogging site which fills the twitter-banned social media space in China.

The film itself has also been criticised by both nostalgic US digital natives with fond memories of the original Disney animation and Chinese audiences. While US aged 20+ audiences are upset by the contemporary sassy tone of the dialogue as opposed to the film they remember, Chinese audiences are disappointed with the Western (American) story-telling narrative for what remains, at its core, a Chinese national tale.

For Disney, Mulan is one more headache in a year that is going far, far away from the original plan.

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