The decision by Disney to release Mulan via a premium home release has wrongfooted cinemas, and left Christopher Nolan’s Tenet as the big screen’s big hope.

It’s worth stating from the off here: major movie studios are not allowed to own cinemas chains. This has been the case in the US at least since 1948, when a landmark case – the United States v Paramount Pictures Inc – broke up the monopoly whereby studios owned both the cinema circuits and the films that were to show in them. It was a position that was widely abused, and action was deemed to be required. The Wikipedia article on it all is well worth reading.

In the aftermath of the ruling, the movie distribution model changed forever. No longer could a movie studio hog screens to itself, and in theory, the distribution channel was open to all.

It remains a landmark antitrust case in the history of cinema, and helped build the multiplex landscape that was in place until roughly the start of March this year. Of course, that’s when the impact of Covid-19 really began to hit exhibitors, with major blockbuster movies fleeing for the apparent safer waters of summer and winter.

Only we’re now at summer, and cinemas are open, but the traditional studios appear to have all but abandoned them. At the point where cinemas most needed Hollywood, Hollywood has been notable primarily by its absence. Instead, independent distributors – many of whom are living a far more perilous hand to mouth existence – are the ones who have held their nerve.

We were left with just two traditional, huge blockbusters on the schedule between now and Christmas. Warner Bros’ and Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, and Disney’s Mulan. Both cost north of $200m, and both are films that cinemas have been banking on to lure people back to the big screen. Thankfully, Warner Bros, Christopher Nolan and Disney had been insistent that cinemas were exactly where the films were heading.

Earlier this week, of course, it all changed. Disney announced that Mulan was now heading for a simultaneous mix of premium video on demand and a cinema releasewhere screens were open for the film. Troubling, though: the premium video on demand option that it chose was to make it exclusive to its Disney+ service. I wrote about that here and the effective invention of Disney++.

But there’s a bigger issue here. Disney is, without question, now a dominant player in the movie business, with a scary amount of influence (and that was even before its Fox acquisition). As much as its expensive legal team may contend otherwise – and thus I’ll add that all of this is in my own opinion thank you – the firm took home just shy of 40% of all American box office takings last year alone. Furthermore, it was behind 80% of the year’s biggest box office hits.

That much, I’d suggest, was earned. It gambled on Pixar, it gambled on Marvel, it gambled on live action tellings of its animated movies. And when those gambles worked, it doubled and tripled down on them. No wonder it’s the strategy pretty much every studio in town is now trying to copy.

However, the decision to slice distribution of one of its few major releases this year in the way it’s now opted to must raise questions somewhere. Appreciating that the studio held out for a cinema release for a long time for Mulan, its sudden pivot to – let’s face it – primarily a Disney+ release has shaken the cinema industry. Not least because many exhibitors never saw it coming, reassured by earlier words from Disney suggesting that Mulan was definitely destined for the big screen.

But now what? Disney boss Bob Chapek and his team have assured investors and the wider world that this is a one-off approach, and it appears that there aren’t plans to follow a similar model for Black Widow, the studio’s next huge blockbuster, later in the year. Yet if Mulan cleans up on Disney++ (as surely it must be called) and makes large amounts of money, what realistically is the firm supposed to do? If it finds a new well of fresh profit, do many really expect it to stick to the ‘one off’ line?

We’re already seeing Paramount in particular offing a lot of its films to Netflix. Sony too has sold on the likes of Greyhound and its planned Masters Of The Universe movie. Universal and Warner Bros also have their own streaming services, although notably when they respectively released Trolls World Tour and Scoob! straight to premium video on demand, neither made them exclusive to their own services.

Disney has. If you don’t live in a part of the world where cinemas are open, the only way you’re able to see Mulan when it’s released is via Disney+, assuming you have a subscription and the additional $29.99 asking price on top of that.

I’ve seen some sneering at Warner Bros and Christopher Nolan for digging their heels in where Tenet concerned, and sticking hard to the plan for a cinema release. Right now, at this end of the market, they are the only ones left who are. They really are it. The single huge new blockbuster option in cinemas.

What’s more, advocates of the big screen are utterly counting on it. Tenet now arguably needs to do financial numbers that dwarf Mulan’s, it needs to show that the big screen is the best way forward for blockbuster films. Because if Mulan soars and Tenet falls? Well, it’s not hard to see a path where the big screen becomes the boutique option rather than the mainstream choice.

Going back to the United States vs Paramount case, over the past few years, it’s looked less and less relevant. The rise of streaming services and the move to video on demand has weakened the hand of cinemas anyway. Over the past week, it’s now looking positively anachronistic. We may be looking at a case where the only future for major cinema chains if things don’t turn around is big studios moving in and investing in them (although given the mix of international laws and the variance in them, that’s wholly unlikely in any great numbers).

What we’re certainly seeing as a consequence of the Mulan movie is Disney strengthening Disney’s hand. That it may have been backed towards this position is clear, but that it’s now running a test case for sending the very biggest movies to small screens fast is equally obvious. A wealth of data will be being pored over in early September when Mulan lands, and the ramifications for cinema could well be immense.

It’s an awful lot of power than one pretty dominant player now has in the market. Sure, full credit to Disney for spotting the need for a Disney+ early and acting on it. But also, the fact that it’s now pulled its support for cinema at a point when the industry really was counting on its biggest player is really something.

Mulan is likely to become a huge marketing chip to play where Disney+ is concerned, and the firm will be looking for a boost in sign-ups. In its trail, it leaves exhibitors thanking the lord that Christopher Nolan doesn’t own a streaming service…

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