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Navigating the global pandemic has been a complicated thing for both movie studios and movie theaters. Theaters have had to remain closed in a variety of locations, which in turn forced studios to delay releasing major films. In many cases, the delays then meant theaters were in no hurry to reopen, as they would have no new movies to show. While some smaller new releases made the decision to go straight to streaming or other VOD platforms, major tentpole movies were being pushed back again and again as it was clear that, especially in the United States, still the top box office market, theaters wouldn't be open nationally anytime soon.
This week Disney broke the stalemate when the company announced that Mulan, its live-action remake of the animated film, would be released on Disney+, albeit with a premium price tag of $29.99-- and only in markets where theaters are closed. Theater owners both big and small have taken issue with many of the decisions studios have been making due to the pandemic, and one theater owner in France probably symbolizes the feelings of many, as a video of him smashing a Mulan promotional display with a bat has gone viral. Check it out.
His reaction, while perhaps physically extreme, is understandable. Mulan was essentially a guaranteed box office success. Before theaters closed down it was tracking very well, which is exactly why Disney was holding off on releasing it. Theaters need movies to show and with the ongoing trend from the studios being the production of fewer films overall, and focusing on big tentpoles, the loss of even one of those means a significant loss of income for the theaters.
The Mulan situation is just one of many examples of the normal studio/theater relationship going through major changes as part of the global pandemic. Trolls World Tour became the first movie planned for theatrical release back in April to go straight to VOD channels instead. Several others have followed, but none of them as big as Mulan.
Following the Trolls move, Universal announced that it planned to release other features as Premium VOD movies in the future, a decision that resulted in AMC, the largest theater chain in North America, to say that it would no longer show Universal films at all. Now, the two have come to an agreement that will see Universal release theatrical films on VOD after only 17 days, a decision which other theater companies, both large and small, are not necessarily happy with.
We're living in an unprecedented time and all businesses are trying to figure out how to navigate the changing landscape. How many of these recent changes will become the new normal and how many are simply a necessity of the moment, we still don't really know. Disney is calling the Mulan decision a "one-off" but you can be sure the studio is very interested to see just how this will play in the marketplace.