HOW DISNEY’S MULAN MIGHT SET A FRIGHTENING ANTI-CONSUMER PRECEDENT FOR STREAMING SERVICES

Theatrical poster for Disney’s “Mulan.” Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios.

Disney’s Mulan has had something of a tumultuous lead-up to release: multiple delays, a controversial lead actress, and most recently some questionable end credits. Of all the bumps in the road, the one with perhaps the most potential for lasting effects is its premium pricing mode.

Before Mulan faced public scrutiny, it was in much dreaded development hell since 2010. After finally getting the green light (and a $200 million budget, unprecedented for a female director), the official Hollywood premiere took place in early March of 2020. Then, as we all know, nature took its course and due to COVID-19, the film was delayed numerous times. Even before the world set on fire, controversies arose, like Disney’s decision to hire a white director, the disputed removal of the character of Captain Li Shang, and most notably lead actress Yifei Liu shared her support for the Hong Kong government and police force following their assaulting of peaceful protestors, which led to a massive boycott campaign. That boycott effort has since resurfaced following the film’s release when viewers noticed Disney’s public thanking of a Chinese government agency accused of human rights violations in Xinjiang in its credits. At time of writing, #BoycottMulan is rampant on Twitter.

Photo of a Hong Kong Protest from June 16, 2019. Courtesy of Studio Incendo/Wikimedia Commons.

Disney essentially decided to “cut their losses” (so to speak, this is Disney after all; they hardly cut anything) and release Mulan solely on Disney+ at a premium cost of $29.99 on top of the monthly subscription fee, much to the chagrin of fans. The reasoning for the high price point seems to be the ticketing math. One family paying $12-$15 for a theater ticket as opposed to each individual member certainly adds up quickly. And to be fair, even a thirty dollar price tag would save families of over three members money had they decided to see it in theaters.

Disney’s current plan is to strip the premium price tag in early December, essentially treating the Disney+ airing as a traditional theater premiere (with a $36.98 Grouponed cover charge) and the open admission on December 4, 2020 as the customary on-demand and/or DVD release. To freely announce the date on which Mulan will drop its extra charge was a risky move that will play out in one of two ways. The more desirable outcome for the company is that fans are enticed (or more likely, goaded by their children) to pay the premium up front to see the movie early. However, it is also possible that knowing the charge drop date might convince households to hold out and make Mulan a Christmas viewing experience. To digress and offer some unsolicited business advice/opinions: surely it would make more sense to hold out on the premium “theatrical” release until December, as that is most likely to be when subscriptions naturally uptick due to the holidays. Not only that, but perhaps much controversy (about the price, anyway) could be avoided by marketing the film as the perfect Christmas present or viewing material for the family (there is snow in it after all, how off-base could it be?).

As hotly anticipated as Mulan has been, the last half decade’s trend of live-action Disney adaptations has surely seen diminishing returns in the hype department (with the exception of last year’s The Lion King; thanks Beyoncé). Maybe Disney didn’t want to risk that hype dying down even more by waiting another three months to release the movie, but frankly nobody was expecting it to come out so suddenly in early September to begin with. As speculative as this all may be, it’s easy to see how a company that has gotten away with far more egregious things could get away with this.

More importantly, as time reveals the full degree of success Mulan sees (financially that is), a frightening precedent might emerge as a result. If Disney comes out in the green on this one (or even breaks even for that matter), there is very little stopping other streaming services from following suit. Granted, subscriptions to major players Netflix, Amazon and Hulu are more expensive than Disney+, but they are all big enough titans of industry to meet success in the same way Disney can. A bubble of meta-premium content will soon emerge and begin to expand, until premium content will become de rigueur for any and all platforms that already charge a monthly fee.

If anyone is able to set that precedent it’s Disney; Disneyland parks have seen no losses since raising their prices so drastically over the last decade, and the family friendly market will always be a dominant one. And that’s a scary thought, because in the age of COVID-19 when theaters worldwide are already struggling to stay afloat, the notion that film companies can not only eschew theatrical distribution entirely, but make more money in the process, can lead to a destructive anti-consumer market. And while that likely won’t mean the full death of the theater post-coronavirus (the Academy Awards do after all require theater showings for nomination eligibility), it could spell a massive downturn in the culture of moviegoing as we know it.

As it stands, Mulan’s numbers have been declared a streaming success, despite the ire of fans and activists, which spells bad news for consumers with limited income for entertainment. But every bubble is born to burst, and when consumers concede too much ground they will eventually notice once it is inevitably taken too far. We can only hope that moment comes sooner rather than later, or better yet that we realize now that we cannot let Mulan set such a wallet-puncturing standard.

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