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Why Disney's On-Demand Release of 'Mulan' Is Still a Failure

By Rich Duprey – Sep 10, 2020 at 9:40AM

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Data shows a big surge in Disney+ app downloads, but that might not be enough to claim success.

Disney's (DIS -2.60%) streaming platform Disney+ is an unparalleled success, hitting over 60 million subscribers in less than a year and doing so four years ahead of schedule.

It was also a perfectly timed debut as the global pandemic shut down movie studios, giving consumers the incentive to turn to the streaming platform for entertainment. Disney isn't giving up on theaters -- it can't forego the billions of dollars they generate -- but it is a "unique opportunity" to extend the Disney+ brand beyond being just a subscription-based service.

Yet despite what seems to be a surge in downloads of the streaming video platform's app over the weekend, Disney's direct-to-video release of the live-action remake of Mulan could still be a failure.

Mulan holding a sword

Image source: Disney.

Good, but not good enough

Data from Sensor Tower shows there was a 68% jump in Disney+ downloads this past weekend to 890,000, compared to the weekend before, along with a 193% increase in spending on the app to $12 million, indicating Mulan was the driver.

While Apptopia figures show about 25% fewer downloads, or 674,000, it still suggests there was significant demand for the movie.  

Yet that might not be enough to recoup Disney's investment. Even at the higher figures, that's less than $27 million generated, which might not even pay for the movie's marketing costs. Of course, the download numbers don't take into account other ways people may have signed up for the service, but Disney would still need millions of Disney+ subscribers who also have to pay up just to break even, which seems unlikely.

All subscribers need to do is wait till Dec. 4, when Mulan appears on the streaming platform and they can watch it as part of their subscription.

A high hurdle

Of course, turning a profit on Mulan wasn't Disney's only goal. Bringing in more subscribers to Disney+ and having them remain with the service was a secondary consideration, as was proving that consumers would pay for content on the service. 

Some of those goals look successful, but there are differences between when Comcast's (CMCSA -1.94%) Universal Pictures released Trolls World Tour to streaming video in April and Mulan going to on-demand this weekend that explain why it might not be as successful.

When Universal released Trolls World Tour, the pandemic was only just getting under way, kids were suddenly at home with nothing to do, and parents were desperate for some diversion. At $20 a pop, it was an easy call to make.

That's not the case now. The economy is reopening; there is a lot more entertainment available, including movie theaters; and the $30 fee to stream is a deterrent.

Consumers pay up to go to the theater, even though they can wait a few months for a movie to show up on Netflix or Amazon, because they want the big screen experience. In Mulan's case, consumers are being asked to pay near-theater rates for a small screen experience, and Disney+ subscribers have the option of simply waiting it out.

Mulan also isn't getting the best reviews. RottenTomatoes has a 78% critics score and a dubious 55% audience rating because Disney chose to cut some scenes and original characters that made the animated version a classic to placate Chinese audiences (R.I.P., Mushu the dragon). The movie also has a darker, more adult flavor than the original that children might not find as appealing, and it is caught up in politics over Hong Kong independence.

Maybe next time

The bump in downloads of Disney+ and spending on the app is encouraging, and Disney seems to have opened up a new channel for future movie releases, but Mulan itself still looks like a failure.

Less greedy pricing, better directorial decisions, and more judicious film selection could be what it takes for Disney to grow its streaming video platform while also generating movie profits.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Rich Duprey has no position in any of the stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon, Netflix, and Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Comcast and recommends the following options: long January 2022 $1920 calls on Amazon, long January 2021 $60 calls on Walt Disney, short October 2020 $125 calls on Walt Disney, and short January 2022 $1940 calls on Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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