Column: What Mulan Could Mean for Disney+ and the Future of Movie Distribution

Kelly O'Grady
Kelly O'Grady is dot.LA's chief host & correspondent. Kelly serves as dot.LA's on-air talent, and is responsible for designing and executing all video efforts. A former management consultant for McKinsey, and TV reporter for NESN, she also served on Disney's Corporate Strategy team, focusing on M&A and the company's direct-to-consumer streaming efforts. Kelly holds a bachelor's degree from Harvard College and an MBA from Harvard Business School. A Boston native, Kelly spent a year as Miss Massachusetts USA, and can be found supporting her beloved Patriots every Sunday come football season.
Column: What Mulan Could Mean for Disney+ and the Future of Movie Distribution

Looking for something to do this holiday weekend? Grab the (microwaved) popcorn and 'let's get down to business.'

Disney is releasing its live-action remake "Mulan" on Disney+, with potentially groundbreaking implications for how tentpole films are usually released.

If you're a Disney+ subscriber, you can gain exclusive access — but you will have to pay $29.99 on top of the monthly subscription fee. To purchase, head to your Disney+ app on Apple, Roku and Google platforms or to Disney+'s website. You'll retain the film for as long as you remain a Disney+ subscriber. But if you're planning to catch "Mulan" when it's added to the general Disney+ library, you'll have to wait until December 4th.

I worked as a senior analyst at Disney when it was just beginning to devise how to bring its content direct-to-consumer. This is another shrewd business experiment for the media giant to test out a little disruptive distribution. Streaming has become a core part of its strategy as the pandemic wreaks havoc across traditional revenue streams. And as many users hop between streaming services, the "Mulan" release may give Disney+ a well-timed incentive to keep customers from cancelling subscriptions while they await the next season of "The Mandalorian." Giving its users sustained access to one of 2020's only films — and a key addition to its princess franchise at that— could give Disney+ a stickiness advantage over its competitors.

So how should you evaluate whether Mulan's release is a success?

The New Economics of the Release

Let's consider the pure revenue economics of the film. From the outset, the potential audience pool is smaller compared to a wide theater release. By limiting purchases to Disney+ subscribers, you eliminate the prospect of reaching every individual that has access to a theater. And while not everyone frequents theaters regularly, the number is certainly higher than the service's subscriber base.

"Mulan"'s debut may incentivize new Disney+ sign ups though, adding to an already hefty base of around 60 million subscribers. Now, "Mulan" is the first Disney live-action remake to receive a PG-13 rating for "sequences of violence" — something which may deter parents from picking it for family movie night — but that could be counterbalanced if the movie can draw in the young male demo, where strong female-led films tend to struggle.

These recent live-action films have grossed anywhere from around $400M to $1.7B worldwide. A key caveat to remember is that on Disney+ entire families will watch "Mulan" together, rather than purchasing a separate ticket for each viewer at the theater (families, this is actually a steal for you). So if we assume "Mulan" measures up against its peers creatively, roughly a quarter of those 60M subscribers would have to pay $29.99 to compete on the low-end performance of ~$400M. And to pass the coveted $1B mark? Over 50% of Disney+ users would need to purchase access.

Now, this back-of-the-envelope math solely considers Disney+ and does not take into account that "Mulan" will receive a traditional release in countries where cinemas are open and Disney+ is not available — like China. Regardless, the Disney+ release will have to convert a significant portion of its base to bring in as much as a traditional theatrical release — albeit a base of proclaimed Disney fans.

Streaming Subscriptions

The complicating factor is that a dollar spent with the streaming platform is more valuable to Disney than one spent at the theater. With a traditional release, cinema distributors take about 40-50% of box office revenue over a film's run, whereas an Apple or Google will only take 30%. And if a subscriber purchases directly via the Disney+ website, Disney keeps 100%… not to mention the increased revenue from potential new signups. It is an intriguing nuance that will certainly impact Disney's evaluation of future release strategies.

Business Unit Monetization

The other key aspect is the business unit halo effect. What makes Disney special is its franchise monetization engine. Although difficult to quantify, Disney evaluates how intellectual property can be leveraged beyond a film, into merchandise, experiences, and spin-offs. Social distancing has revealed where that engine is vulnerable. Disney won't be able to repeatedly engage fans on a theme park ride or at retail stores, which could make it difficult to build a strong franchise. The Disney+ release will not address those challenges. Further, downstream revenue from DVD and digital sales will suffer from this move. There is no need to buy another copy of "Mulan" when your purchase lives in your Disney+ app.

Branding and Data

There is significant upside to be captured, though. When subscribers can rewatch "Mulan" whenever they like, it makes it much easier and faster for Disney to create a legion of superfans and to build brand affinity. Further, the direct access to "Mulan" purchasers' data is invaluable — something impossible to capture for theatergoers. When the pandemic does pass, Disney will have a more sophisticated understanding of its fans and can use that to better engage consumers across its businesses. They will know you're not only a "Mulan" fan, but that your family also frequently watches "Frozen"; don't be surprised if you get a targeted invite to hang with Olaf at the parks.

With all these dynamics at play, how the "Mulan" experiment turns out will have important repercussions not just for Disney, but Hollywood in general. While I doubt the movie's success or lack thereof will completely overhaul the way movies are currently released, I think that we will see lasting changes, from the way studios experiment with a variety of distribution methods to a reduction of the length of time movies stay in theaters.

Different studios are likely to have different strategies for each of their films, but the belief that a tentpole movie needs to start with a theatrical release is about to be tested.


Kelly O'Grady heads up video for dot.LA and serves as chief host & correspondent. You can watch her speak about Disney here. Find her on Instagram @kfogrady and email her at kelly@dot.LA.

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