Earlier this month, Disney took the biggest risk of any studio during the pandemic and released its tentpole film, “Mulan,” as a PVOD option on its Disney+ streaming service. The move was seen as an experiment to see if the studio would be able to recoup costs and make a profit by forgoing theatrical releases altogether. While we still don’t have any official word from Disney about how well the film has done on streaming, a new report suggests that the executives at the Mouse House should be very pleased with the early performance.
According to a research firm, Yahoo reports that 29% of US households that subscribe to Disney+ have purchased “Mulan” from the time it was released through September 12, a total of nine days since it debuted as a $30 Premier title on the streaming service. Since it’s estimated that 30 million of the 60+ million worldwide subscribers to Disney+ reside in the US, that means roughly 9 million people have already spent $30 on “Mulan.” And when Yahoo did the math, that comes to a total of approximately $261 million.
Of course, before we put that number into better perspective and compare to other recent releases, let’s take a moment to clarify that these ARE NOT official numbers from Disney and are only estimates provided by a third-party research firm. That being said, these firms make their money by being accurate, so we can assume that the numbers are not far off.
Now, the first comparison that everyone will make with these purported “Mulan” numbers are with Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” Both films were originally scheduled for massive day-and-date worldwide releases. Both were delayed for the pandemic. However, Disney decided to go mostly streaming with “Mulan,” skipping the theatrical release in many major markets, while Warner Bros. stood firm with a theatrical release (staggered due to limited regions of availability). That being said, they were both released in the US on the same date and are both $200 million films that were expected to be amongst the biggest releases of the year.
All that preamble is necessary when you look at the numbers side-by-side because let’s be real, this looks terrible for WB. Since the studio is only releasing North American numbers on a weekly basis, we can only look at the current domestic total for “Tenet,” which sits at $29.5 million. Nope, we didn’t put the decimal in the wrong spot. That’s twenty-nine-point-five-million-dollars. And if Yahoo’s numbers are accurate, a little more than 10% of the domestic gross for “Mulan.”
There are a couple of important factors to mention before you totally trash the “Tenet” box office. First, theaters in NYC, LA, and San Francisco are still shut down, and those cities are the three biggest filmgoing regions in the country. Also, the theaters are operating at reduced capacities, making it difficult to sell massive numbers of tickets. That said, these are all factors that WB knew before releasing the film, and last we checked, theaters aren’t struggling to keep up with the demand for tickets, but there’s just a lack of people willing to go to the cinema to watch Christopher Nolan’s latest.
The other factor that actually works against “Tenet” is the fact that WB is only receiving approximately 63% of the grosses from ticket sales. So that $29.5 million gross isn’t reflective of how much the studio has earned, which is significantly less. And in the case of Disney and “Mulan,” the studio seemingly earns 100% of the revenue generated, since the only people who can pay for the film are people who subscribe to the studio’s own streaming service. No middlemen at all.
It would be foolish to take these numbers and begin writing the obituary for Nolan’s film and the future of the theatrical experience. However, if the “Mulan” numbers are accurate, we could be looking at the first definitive proof that studios (specifically Disney) aren’t dependent on theatrical box office for profit. And that’s a fact that could drastically alter the future of cinema-going.