August 5, 2020
NEWS ANALYSIS — With its live-action feature film Mulan delayed three times at the box office due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and theaters not slated to re-open (maybe) until later this month, Disney had to act.
CEO Bob Chapek reached back to his home entertainment roots and went where former CEO Bob Iger never ventured: premium VOD. Chapek, former president of Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, announced Aug. 4 that Disney+ subscribers would be afforded exclusive in-home access to Mulan on Sept. 4 for $29.99. The movie will be released simultaneously in theaters in regions internationally that do not have access to Disney+.
In crossing the PVOD line in the sand with theaters, Chapek dealt a major short-term blow to exhibitors that have come to count on Disney movies to drive attendance and concession sales. It was just over a year ago that Disney’s market share of the domestic movie theaters reached 35% ($1.88 billion) — surpassing the next two studios combined.
With Avengers: Endgame, Aladdin, Toy Story 4, The Lion King and Sony Pictures’ Spider-Man: Far From Home (produced by Disney’s Marvel Studios), Disney reigned supreme at the box office. Previous attempts at jumpstarting PVOD had largely failed because Disney refused to join. The studio ended 2019 with seven movies each generating more than $1 billion at the global box office — a fiscal tally replicated in 2018.
“We have a studio that is doing extremely well and a [90-day release window] formula that is serving us really well in terms of its bottom line,” Iger said last November.
How times have changed. And for Chapek, upending traditional distribution business models is part of his legacy. As home video boss, Chapek championed the shrewd “Disney Vault” release strategy for its legacy animation titles. The studio would take specific DVD/Blu-ray Disc movies out of retail circulation and put them into the “vault” for months, thereby allowing the studio to re-sell the movies to starved hardcore fans, families and general consumers.
For Mulan, which reportedly has upwards of $300 million in production and marketing costs, going straight to home entertainment allows Chapek to test the PVOD waters while leaving the door open to theatrical.
“In order to meet the needs of consumers during this unpredictable period, we thought it was important to find alternative ways to bring this exceptional family-friendly film to them in a timely manner,” Chapek said. “We see this as an opportunity to bring this incredible film to a broad audience currently unable to go to movie theaters, while also further enhancing the value and attractiveness of a Disney+ subscription.”
Chapek said the Mulan PVOD release would be (for now) a one-off experiment, and Wedbush Securities media analyst Michael Pachter believes him.
“It really is that they can’t afford to do nothing and wait for theaters to re-open,” Pachter said. “It will be more problematic for Marvel stuff down the road.”