Disney Remains Committed to ‘Mulan’ Global Release, Even if China Film Biz Stays Closed

The final trailer for Disney’s Mulan was one of the highlights of the weekend’s Superbowl LIV. It was fast-moving, spectacular and seemingly well-received by fans on social media. It was also a reaffirmation of the studio’s commitment to releasing the family blockbuster in late March.

The film faces an unexpected headwind in one of its key markets: China. There, a dangerous virus outbreak has closed cinemas since the end of January and stirred up a storm of problems across the length of the entire film industry, from local production, through exhibition, to Hollywood distribution.

It would be disappointing for Disney if China cannot be part of the film’s synchronized global launch. But the studio faces an unenviable choice – leave the China release to a later date, or delay the entire global campaign until a time when the Wuhan coronavirus has died down. Not only is it currently unclear when that might be, but the film’s marketing and promotional campaign would also have to be restarted.

That would be an unwelcome additional expense on top of what may well be the most costly non-franchise movie of all time: “Mulan” has a production budget of $200 million.

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A significant portion of that may have been spent giving “Mulan” the best shot at working in China, the world’s second largest theatrical market with a box office last year exceeding $9 billion.

Based on a well-known Chinese legend about a female warrior from the fourth century AD, the film-makers went back to the original source material, the folksong “Ballad of Mulan,” for inspiration for both the screenplay and the film’s design.

The title role went to Crystal Liu, a young but already celebrated singer-actress, better known in China as Liu Yifei. Other lead roles go to mainland Chinese superstars Gong Li and Jet Li, and the popular Hong Kong-based Donnie Yen.

But while “Mulan” is a story that’s culturally specific to China, it’s a movie that Disney sees as appealing to markets all around the world. Presented largely in English, and directed by New Zealander Niki Caro, the film plays up the contemporary concept of a female hero, as well as trading in adventure, spectacle and martial arts action.

Significantly, “Mulan” was not made as an official U.S.-China co-production. While a co-production might have offered the studio a greater share of the China box office revenue, the complications of working in China can outweigh the benefits. Among those is the requirement that an overseas release cannot precede the Chinese release.

As such, “Mulan” will suffer the slight disadvantage of being treated as an import into China, but Disney will enjoy the flexibility of setting its own release dates around the planet – from March 25 in Finland and France, and March 27 in North America.

Disney’s China reps had anticipated “Mulan” obtaining a slot that would have allowed a day-and-date or near simultaneous outing, concurrent with its Asian and North American sorties. But the firm had not yet received an authorized release date by the time China ground to a virus-induced halt.

If Disney is ultimately unable to include China as part of the film’s global release pattern, there is a danger that online pirated versions of “Mulan” may leak into the country. (The studio has not altered its release plans in Asia-Pacific, where there will be Chinese-language versions of the film.) Piracy could shrink or compromise the box office success of the film’s eventual China release, though the Chinese government which maintains ultimate control over the Internet in China, has the ability to stamp out much of it.

But, important as “Mulan” is for the studio, Disney has greater headaches in China brought on by the virus outbreak. On a conference call this week, Disney chairman Bob Iger warned that the group would lose out on $175 million of operating income if the Shanghai and Hong Kong Disneyland theme parks remain closed for two months.

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