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How “Tenet” and “Mulan” tried to save the movies

September 25, 2020

Nancy Xing
Not long ago, it was assumed that two types of film could make studios a significant profit: Disney remakes and Christopher Nolan films. Disney has been churning out remakes of animated classics yearly since Rober Stromberg’s “Maleficent” in 2014. Last year, the studio released four (4!) remakes: Guy Ritchie’s “Aladdin,” Jon Favreau’s “The Lion King,” Tim Burton’s “Dumbo” and Brigham Taylor’s “Lady and the Tramp” (all available on Disney+). Globally, these films made about $3 billion altogether. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers Pictures has been worshiping their Nolan shrine for years now. With eight films at the studio under his belt, Nolan’s films have made about $4.7 billion. Naturally, both Disney and Warner Brothers decided to continue using these formulas this year, and so began the tragedies of Chistopher Nolan’s “Tenet” and Niki Caro’s “Mulan.”

Amid the pandemic, these two films were slated for theatrical release months ago, only to encounter hurdle after hurdle. “Mulan” was originally slated for March 27, then July 24, then August 21. Eventually, it was simply taken off Disney’s release schedule. “Tenet,” however, held firm with its July 16 release until it balked at the last minute to be pushed back indefinitely. With each film carrying a $200 million price tag, the studios anticipated that they could make back a decent profit and please their investors just enough to make up for the losses from the entire year. But, each studio decided to take different routes: Warner Brothers saw a chance to revitalize theaters, while Disney believed it could use the Premier Video on Demand (PVOD) option because of success from titles like Walt Dohrn’s “Trolls World Tour.”

Totals have come in since these two films finally released on September 4, and the results are…bad. “Tenet” was available in (open) theaters worldwide on August 26 and appeared on 3,000+ screens over Labor Day Weekend, even though some states still have restrictions on movie theaters. The $9 million it pulled in was less than half of the original estimate. Its second weekend showed a drop to $6.7 million and its third was merely $4.7 million. All told, the film pulled in $239 million, still far from being considered profitable. “Mulan” was also released in countries that have open movie theaters, but it has only made $57 million. The film was a hopeful for a hefty box office sum in China, where it has only made $36 million. As far as PVOD numbers, estimates originally pegged “Mulan” at $33.5 million, but it is likely that those numbers are inflated. These movies were meant to make their respective studios millions, but it might be a very long time before either of them turn a profit.

So, what went wrong?

“Tenet” made the false assumption that people were ready to come back to movie theaters. Six months have passed since the last movie officially released before quarantine swept the nation. Although plenty of states have allowed theaters to reopen, most of the movies screening are just Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or Emile Ardolino’s “Dirty Dancing.” Warner Brothers saw this as an opportunity to open with the first major motion picture and hoped that people would welcome the movie-going experience again. But the problem with theaters in this pandemic era is that they require crowds. The only people who would go to see “Tenet” in theaters are the people willing to risk sitting in an enclosed auditorium for two-and-a-half hours with strangers. Not only that, but the vast majority of people saw fewer than five movies a year even before the pandemic. It is very possible those people who went to Nolan’s film were simply cinephiles. However, movies often make millions of dollars at the box office from repeat visits. Right now, audiences want to see “Tenet” once at most. This reality is something that studios need to understand. Eventually, this number might grow in the United States, but it still demonstrates that not everyone is willing to come back.

In that case, why didn’t “Mulan” do better on PVOD? Universal was estimated to have made $100 million on “Trolls World Tour” earlier this year in just three weeks. It has been three weeks since the release of “Mulan,” and we are looking at a box office number that is one-third of that. The first thing to consider is the amount of controversy surrounding “Mulan.” Lead actress Yifei Liu made remarks last year supporting the Hong Kong police during the pro-democratic protests. The film itself also had a troubling lack of diversity behind the camera. To top it off, “Mulan” was filmed in the Xinjiang region, where human rights violations are being committed against millions of Uyghur people. The credits thanked the regional government for aiding in production. In addition to these controversies, Disney was blind with pride when they unveiled a price of $29.99 to view the film. “Trolls World Tour” and numerous films that went on PVOD months ago stuck to a $20 price tag, essentially setting the market price. Disney also revealed that Disney+ subscribers could watch the film on the platform in December, meaning that people might have just decided to wait.

Hollywood is still in the process of figuring out how to release new films. Will movies have to be in theaters for six months just to make a profit? Or will studios continue selling titles as PVOD options? It seems like no matter what, studios will be taking risks, with “Tenet” and “Mulan” serving as cautionary tales.


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