But because of the pandemic, and the unpredictable nature at which the box office marketplace is unfolding, Disney needs to win big on this $200M epic. Right now, with the entertainment conglomerate’s parks hampered by COVID-19 in parts of the world, what’s clicking for them right now is their streaming service, Disney+, particularly in the wake of their Independence Day launch of Hamilton. It’s what makes Wall Street go wild. Hence, opening Mulan offshore in territories that don’t have Disney+, and where ticket sales can be nothing but vibrant (i.e. China), and then hoping that families shell out an extra $30 to watch it on Disney+ on Sept. 4; it’s a business recipe that COVID-19 can’t curb.
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We caught up with Mulan producer Jason Reed, a former Walt Disney Studios EVP who specialized in franchise management and cross platform development, to talk about how this $200M epic, shot in China and New Zealand over 75 days, came to be. At Disney, Reed worked on such movies as Enchanted, Hannah Montana: The Movie, Bringing Down the House, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, the National Treasure franchise, and Alice in Wonderland; that latter title another movie which crushed the theatrical window, from 17 weeks to 13 weeks before hitting DVD store shelves (a move by Bob Chapek in 2010, then Walt Disney Studios President of Distribution, now CEO). While it’s the sort of maneuver that makes exhibition gripe, it didn’t steal any money from them as Alice banked $1.03 billion at the global box office, $334M of that in the U.S. alone; still director Tim Burton’s highest grossing movie of all-time. Reed’s producing credits include serving as EP on Paramount’s $485M grossing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, ABC’s one-hour drama series The Crossing, and the network’s ten-episode event Of Kings and Prophets.
Here’s our conversation with Reed:
DEADLINE: Movie theaters are still reopening from the pandemic. It’s going to be a while before New York and LA come back online. What is your take on Mulan’s move to Disney+ (in territories which have the streaming service), and were you a part of that distribution decision?
JASON REED: I was not part of that decision. We were aware that it was a possibility and we have been very much involved in the conversations about when and how to release the movie, although ultimately that was always Disney’s decision. I think we find ourselves in extraordinary times and I don’t think that anything that is happening during the pandemic is setting a precedent for what has to happen in the future. However, I do think that the pandemic has accelerated plans that we were already seeing. In our industry, as well as every other industries, my sense is that what we were seeing and what we’ve been seeing is a more dynamic distribution model evolving, one that tailors the distribution for the creative content as much as it does for the actual business model that’s preexisting; whether that’s day and date theatrical and streaming or whether it’s a hybrid approach like this is going to be, where some territories are theatrical and some territories are streaming only.
There’s going to be, I believe, a period of time where all of these things become arrows in the quiver and it’s not going to fall back into the old model of, well, here’s the windows that we have and here’s the order in which we go, and here’s how long each one is if we’re going to individually sell off those windows where we have a big movie and it’s going to do X, and then we’re going to put it in the drive-ins and second-run theaters, and then we’re going to put it out in premium, and then we’re going to put it here, and then it’ll run on television. I don’t think that’s going to continue as a set-in-stone model, but what I think what we will see is exhibition and distribution having to figure out how to best optimize each unit, and if it’s a small indie movie with a very specific audience, well, then streaming only might be the best approach to getting that to the most number of people.
If it’s a big spectacular film that really demands a theatrical release, well, then maybe it goes into theatrical with a long run, maybe it goes for a short run, and goes to a premium SVOD or electronic cell model. I think that everything is open, and everything is going to change. My personal belief is that the theatrical experience will continue regardless of the business trends because I think there is a real value to communal film watching. Whether it’s a big comedy, or a big event film, or a big action movie, the experience is enhanced by sitting with an audience and I think that because even if something’s available on streaming there still might be a theatrical release. There are films that I still sneak off and go see at revival houses all the time because I think it’s really fun.
Now that the Paramount Decrees are gone, I’m very curious to see what happens with exhibition over the next five years. Looking back at the Spanish Flu pandemic, of 1918-1919, that really led to the creation of exhibition. Prior to that, they were basically little mom and pop shops, so with one screen, two screens owned by a family, and when the pandemic shut everything down they all were going bankrupt. So, Adolph Zucker, and soon to be followed by many others, went in and started buying them up out of bankruptcy, or out of desperation and built those additional studio exhibition arms, which then got tossed out, which ended that stuff because of the Paramount Decree, but it laid the foundation for the studio system that operated really until the ‘80s, late ‘70s and that is something that came out of that stronger than it had ever been. By 1921 they were already doing much higher business than they did prior, so I don’t see any reason to think that this pandemic is going to cause any long-term harm to the business, and in fact, I think there’s a lot of indication that it will position the business in a much better place going forward.
DEADLINE: How do the live-action feature adaptations of Disney’s animated films get off the ground, and in particular Mulan? Does everything start with Disney President of Production Sean Bailey?
REED: I think there are a lot of different ways these come together, I don’t think there’s a pattern for it, necessarily. I know that when we started, I was an executive at Disney when we did Alice and Wonderland, and that was because (screenwriter) Linda Woolverton had a fresh, new take on the story. There wasn’t a pattern of doing those movies yet, so it was based solely on someone coming in with a new creative approach that got us excited about re-examining a piece of entertainment. With Mulan the executive team read a spec script that had some new elements that refreshed the story and explored her journey a little more deeply than the animated movie had the ability to do. I think the executives, Sean, and the executives at Disney saw an opportunity to dig into this story in a new way and thought that it fit with that moment.
DEADLINE: Mulan received a foe in this live-action version.
REED: Yeah, and we’re trying not to talk too much about that part. It’s something new and fun. It’s one of the surprising elements of the movie. However, you point out exactly the reason why that character is there: It’s to provide another strong female character who has a different point of view than Mulan, and has a different set of goals, but deals with a lot of similar issues, so it provided a nice compare and contrast with her journey.
DEADLINE: The original 1998 film came out of Disney’s 1990s animated musical renaissance, but what was the decision behind not making the live-action feature, a musical?
REED: Part of our thinking is that we thought that this material would be a great opportunity to do something new for the Disney label, to take this and convert it from a musical comedy, which the animated film was, which is great. We still love it, and it’s one of my favorite Disney animated movies of all time. That movie still exists, but then to take that material and use it as the foundation on which to do a big epic adventure movie. You can’t watch Gladiator with your five-year-old, it’s just not appropriate. But I love those movies, and when I was growing up I loved watching David Lean movies, and I loved watching these big-scale movies that told big stories.
DEADLINE: What was it about Niki Caro’s pitch that won the studio over? Marvel has established this great track record in hiring independent feature directors who lend their storytelling sensibility and vision to big budget spectacles. Was that also the thinking here?
REED: We had two big traditions that we wanted to honor making this film. We wanted to honor the cultural origins of the original story and we felt like we needed to honor the storytelling tradition of Disney. You have this huge fanbase for the original animated movie, you have this centuries-long global fanbase for the original story, and the movie, it subsequently becomes such a strong touch point for several other audiences as well: females in general, Asian diaspora and the LGBTQ community. So, we had a movie that was an important story for so many different people, and one of the things that we all knew was going to be important was how are we respectful and thoughtful about how we address all of that.
When I thought of Niki’s filmography, she has always been defined by her ability to go into specific cultures, find the universal story, and bring a mass audience into that world, whether it’s the Maori culture with Whale Rider or the miners in North Country or the runners in McFarland, USA, she has a sensitivity and a character-based approach to telling a story that I think allows her to put all of those pieces together.
Secondly, she knows how to do a lot with less. Every day she was a problem solver. She just comes at telling story from a human, very character-driven place, and yes, we knew we had to do it at a scope, and a scale, and the action, and all of the thrills, but she never got lost in all of that because the most important thing for her was how do we use all of these tools to tell this woman’s story, and that’s a very independent way of thinking.
So, I think those were the two things that really got the studio excited, and she just came in and won it in the room in the way she talked about building the team, and building the action, and telling the story, and bringing authenticity to a young woman’s journey and to finding a way to really make clear the pressures that someone at that time would face in their community.
DEADLINE: Tell us about discovering Liu Yifei.
REED: We did this unprecedented global search for an actress to play the role. Tens of thousands, I believe auditioned around the world. We had scouts going to martial arts schools, dance schools, and performance schools all throughout China. We had casting offices open in all of the major cities that had significant Chinese populations of working artists, and ultimately Yifei was working on a project in China and she wasn’t initially available. We actually flew over to meet with her and we were smitten. Niki was like, she’s the one. It’s that simple, and fortunately, the studio loved her as well and immediately signed on.
DEADLINE: Overall, what was your biggest challenge in making Mulan?
REED: It was part of our goal from the beginning, and it was certainly part of Niki’s vision that this wouldn’t be a big special effects digital spectacular. This would be grounded and real, and done as practically as possible. You wanted to feel the dirt under Mulan’s fingernails and the horse underneath her. So, that required us moving hundreds and hundreds of people to very wild and inhospitable areas. For instance, for the big battle scene, which we actually shot on the south island of New Zealand, we had 300 people two hours away from the nearest big city, and we had to build horse stables, kitchens, equipment storage, and housing, etc., and bring in food. It was an army on the march, both literally and figuratively, so it was a daunting logistical challenge, but it was great to be able to actually sit and see this in real-time, real life. We brought in Mongolian trick riders. These are guys that live very much how they lived when the original story of Mulan was written. Now they have televisions and water purifiers, but they still live in yurts out in the middle of the plains, in the steppes with their horses, and they’re some of the most impressive human beings I’ve ever met, and their connection to their animals, their connection to their horses. They added a layer of authenticity and it forced the production team to push themselves even harder, because when there’s the real guys doing the real stuff you’re like, ‘We’ve got to live up to what these guys are doing.’ Also, heat and cold do not seem to bother them in any way. They’re somewhat indefatigable, so everybody had to keep up with these guys.
DEADLINE: With COVID now, it would be very different to do some of these battle scenes.
REED: I don’t know if right now you even could. Technically you could build it in digital, but I don’t think you could get the same impact. There’s a different feel to seeing a guy jump on and off and turn around in the saddle on his horse in real-life, actually watching it, and to watch hundreds of soldiers on horseback charging. I think it just has a different feel than if you created it all digitally.
DEADLINE: When it comes to Disney’s live action reboots of its animated vault, do you think the future supply is rather limited in quantity? Obviously, one day we’ll see a live-action take on Moana or a Frozen.
REED: As you just said, there are a lot more titles that have big fanbases that certainly audiences would love to see another version of or continue to live in the world created by those movies. There is not an endless supply of them. However, I think that there is an endless supply of stories that can be told in the Disney style and at the scope and scale of how Disney tells those stories, and it might not be a Frozen movie, but it might be a different princess story that’s original. What I think is really fun about the future of Disney going forward is now that they have multiple business models they can embrace, be it Disney+, or theatrical, or a hybrid of the two I think it gives them a lot more creative freedom. I think it’s going to be great for audiences because they’re going to get a much broader, wider array of stories told in that tradition than they would’ve if they were limited to simply theatrical.
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