UK cinema owners say they were shocked and frustrated by Tuesday’s announcement that Disney is taking Mulan directly to Disney+ and avoiding a theatrical release entirely in any country where the service has launched.
After Warner Bros’ Tenet, the Disney pic was seen as a potential saviour for cinemas as they try to get back to business in a meaningful way following the punishing lockdown. As venues have tentatively re-opened, with the UK now having close to 40% of cinemas open, a big-ticket release is seen as essential for giving the public the motivation to venture back through their doors.
Mulan dropped off the calendar last month, which was worrying enough, but exhibitors are saying today their worst fears have been realized by the news that the movie will bypass theaters entirely when it debuts online September 4. This is a bigger kick in the teeth than the AMC/Universal deal, which will see mid-level releases play day-and-date in theaters and digitally, with the exhibitor receiving a percentage of the PVOD revenue.
“It’s a f*ck you to exhibitors,” one operator put it succinctly today. The Disney UK team are understood to have been somewhat blindsided themselves and sympathetic to their theatrical partners, with Director of Theatrical Sales Craig Jones mailing key operators last night just prior to the announcement to say the decision was “not taken lightly”.
Phil Clapp, head of the UK Cinema Association, also corresponded with members overnight, expressing his frustration with the Disney announcement and saying that the move was “a step backwards”.
Speaking to Deadline today, the UKCA chief added, “While no one under-estimates the challenges facing studio colleagues, at a time when many operators are showing faith in our business by investing in the safeguards necessary to re-open, we need the major studios – and film distributors in general – to do the same.
“First and foremost, it will deprive hundreds of thousands of cinema-goers of the chance to see such an impressive film in the best possible environment, the cinema theatre.
“‘With cinemas across the UK now continuing to re-open and welcome back their customers, the decision by Disney yesterday to put Mulan on their Disney+ service and not into cinemas will be seen by many as hugely disappointing and mistimed.
“While there may be continued issues in parts of the U.S. with the re-opening of cinemas, in other markets around the world, including the UK, cinemas are open and ready both for new films and the audiences that want to watch them. ‘
Disney CEO Bob Chapek said yesterday that the Mulan move was a “one-off” but relationships between the studio and exhibitors are tense. “They’re driving everything for themselves, taking all the revenue,” one exhibitor told Deadline today. “They’re not interested in collaborating. We need each other. It’s supposed to be a partnership.”
The exhib described the move as “cruel” and said the relationship going forward is going to be “turbulent” unless the studio makes good further down the line. Speculating, they suggested the House of Mouse could repay cinemas by renegotiating its exhibition terms for future releases.
A point of confusion today has been around why Disney wouldn’t let cinemas screen Mulan day-and-date in international markets where venues have re-opened in a meaningful way.
“It could be easier for their relationships with the major circuits to not do day-and-date and miss theatrical entirely,” one exhibitor suggested, pointing to the furore around Trolls as well as the Universal/AMC deal and noting that UK chains (outside of the AMC-owned Odeon) still have firm windowing policies.
Other factors, such as the minimal cost and simplicity of a digital-only release, and the huge opportunity to experiment with monopolizing a high-profile tentpole on its own platform with such a high ticket cost ($29.99, the UK cost has not been confirmed), are also being suggested. “It’s certainly audacious,” said one cinema owner.