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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This Year’s Techstars’ Demo Day Included Robot Bartenders and Towable Rockets

Samson Amore

Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College and previously covered technology and entertainment for TheWrap and reported on the SoCal startup scene for the Los Angeles Business Journal. Send tips or pitches to samsonamore@dot.la and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.

This Year’s Techstars’ Demo Day Included Robot Bartenders and Towable Rockets
Andria Moore

On Wednesday, Techstars’ fall 2022 class gathered in Downtown Los Angeles to pitch their products to potential investors in hopes of securing their next big funding round. dot.LA co-sponsored the demo day presentation alongside Venice-based space news website Payload.

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Derek Jeter’s Arena Club Knocked a $10M Funding Round Right Out of the Park

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

sports trading cards
Arena Club /Andria Moore

Sports trading card platform Arena Club has raised $10 million in Series A funding.

Co-founded by CEO Brian Lee and Hall of Fame Yankees player Derek Jeter, Arena Club launched its digital showroom in September. Through the platform, sports fans can buy, sell, trade and display their card collections. Using computer vision and machine learning, Arena Club allows fans to grade and authenticate their cards, which can be stored in the company’s vault or delivered in protective “slabs.” Arena Club intends to use the new cash to expand these functions and scale its operations.

The new funding brings Arena Club’s total amount raised to $20 million. M13, defy.vc, Lightspeed Ventures, Elysian Park Ventures and BAM Ventures contributed to the round.

“Our team is thankful for the group of investors—led by M13, who see the bright future of the trading card hobby and our platform,” Lee said in a statement. “I have long admired M13 and the value they bring to early-stage startups.”

M13’s co-founder Courtney Reum, who formed the early-stage consumer technology venture firm in 2016 alongside his brother Carter Reum, will join Arena Club’s board. Reum has been eyeing the trading card space since 2020 when he began investing in what was once just a childhood hobby.

The sports trading card market surged in 2020 as fans turned to the hobby after the pandemic brought live events to a standstill. Since then, prices have come down, though demand remains high. And investors are still betting on trading card companies, with companies like Collectors bringing in $100 million earlier this year. Fanatics, which sells athletic collectibles and trading cards, reached a $31 billion valuation after raising $700 million earlier this week. On the blockchain, Tom Brady’s NFT company Autograph lets athletes sell digital collectibles directly to fans.

As for Arena Club, the company is looking to cement itself as a digital card show.

“Providing users with a digital card show allows us to use our first-class technology to give collectors from all over the world the luxury of being able to get the full trading card show experience at their fingertips,” Jeter said in a statement.

Is Airbnb’s New Push To Expand Short-Term Rentals Enough for Hosts To Combat LA’s City Policy?

Amrita Khalid
Amrita Khalid is a tech journalist based in Los Angeles, and has written for Quartz, The Daily Dot, Engadget, Inc. Magazine and number of other publications. She got her start in Washington, D.C., covering Congress for CQ-Roll Call. You can send tips or pitches to amrita@dot.la or reach out to her on Twitter at @askhalid.
LA house

L.A.’s lax enforcement of Airbnbs has led to an surge of illegal short-term rentals — even four years after the city passed a regulation to crack down on such practices. But what if hosts lived in a building that welcomed Airbnb guests and short-term rentals?

That’s the idea behind Airbnb’s new push to expand short-term rental offerings. The company is partnering with a number of corporate landlords that agreed to offer “Airbnb-friendly” apartment buildings, reported The Wall Street Journal last week. According to the report, the new service will feature more than 175 buildings managed by Equity Residential, Greystar Real Estate Partners LLC and 10 other companies that have agreed to clear more than 175 properties nationwide for short-term rentals.

But prospective hosts in Los Angeles who decide to rent apartments from Airbnb’s list of more than a dozen “friendly” buildings in the city likely won’t earn enough to break even due to a combination of high rents, taxes and city restrictions on short-term rentals. Rents on one-bedroom apartments in most of the partnered buildings listed soared well over $3,000 a month. Only a few studios were available under the $2,000 price range. If a host were to rent a one bedroom apartment with a monthly rent of $2,635 (which amounts to $31,656 annually), they would have to charge well over the $194 average price per night for Los Angeles (which amounts to $23,280 per year) according to analytics platform AllTheRooms.

Either way, residents who rent one of these Airbnb friendly apartments still have to apply for a permit through the City of Los Angeles in order to host on Airbnb.

“[..Airbnb-friendly buildings] seems like a good initiative. However, from a quick look, it seems that given the rent, Airbnb revenue wouldn’t be enough to cover all expenses if the host follows the city’s policy,” says Davide Proserpio, assistant professor of marketing at the USC Marshall School of Business.

In addition, since L.A.’s 120-day cap on short-term rentals still applies to the buildings on Airbnb’s listing platform, that greatly limits the number of longer-term guests a resident can host. Not to mention, some of the buildings that Airbnb lists have even shorter limits – The Milano Lofts in DTLA for example only allows residents to host 90 nights a year.

Airbnb’s calculations of host earnings may be greatly misleading as well, given that the estimate doesn’t include host expenses, taxes, cleaning fees or individual building restrictions. For example, Airbnb estimates that a resident of a $3,699 one bedroom apartment at the Vinz in Hollywood that hosts 7 nights a month can expect $1,108 a month in revenue if they host year-round. But the Vinz only allows hosts to rent 90 days a year, which greatly limits the potential for subletters and a consistent income stream.

Keep in mind too that since the apartment will have to serve as the host’s “primary residence”, hosts will have to live there six months out of the year. All of which is to say, it’s unclear how renting an apartment in an “Airbnb-friendly” building makes hosting easier — especially in a city where illegal short-term rentals already seem to be the norm.

https://twitter.com/askhalid
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