Amid those changes — and the frustrating process of moving the ball, only to move it again — why are these studios insisting on a theatrical release at such a fraught moment? Why not just put “Tenet” and “Mulan” on digital platforms and be done with it? I mean, that’s what “Trolls World Tour” did, and that worked out pretty well.
But there are good reasons the studios won’t just release these big-budget films on digital, even with a captive audience stuck at home, clamoring for content.
“It’s both financial and symbolic,” Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore (SCOR), told CNN Business. “It’s one thing if smaller or independent films go to digital, but blockbusters are a different animal. If they skip theaters, it shatters the setup the industry has had for decades, which has benefited both theaters and studios.”
Films like “Tenet” and “Mulan” are set up to be major global hits: They cost hundreds of millions to produce and hopefully will bring back billions in box office returns. And with all due respect, “Trolls World Tour” wasn’t expected to bring in the ticket sales of a thriller from Christopher Nolan, arguably Hollywood’s most prominent director, and a movie based on an animated classic from Disney (DIS), Hollywood’s biggest movie studio.
(Warner Bros., which produced “Tenet,” is a unit of AT&T, which also owns CNN.)
And digital, while arguably the future, isn’t yet bringing in the type of money that a giant theatrical release still can.
Yet it’s about more than just money. There are cultural and industrial ramifications that come with placing a film like “Mulan” or “Tenet” on a Disney+ or HBO Max. It sets a precedent that impacts a studio’s bottom line and could forever change how we go to the movies.
Making “Mulan” wasn’t cheap. Disney spent $200 million on production alone, and the studio then invested time and money to make sure that the film would be a hit in the US and China — the No. 2 movie market in the world.
“Mulan,” which tells the story of a legendary fighter from ancient China, was set to be a billion-dollar hit before coronavirus. With its international cast and China-focused storyline, a big part of that was expected to be because of Chinese audiences.
There is no Disney+ in China. Putting “Mulan” on digital would be wasting the potential (and profits!) that the film could have globally.
That’s why delaying the film over and over again, at least for now, still makes more sense from a dollars-and-cents point of view — even if it frustrates the millions of parents stuck at home clamoring for ways to entertain their kids.
“Trolls World Tour,” however, is an entirely different consideration. It made more sense for Universal to put the movie in homes because it provided a low-risk opportunity to experiment with an at-home release in “a vacuum of competition,” according to Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com
“From a historical perspective, most animated sequels outside of top tier franchises have been prone to the law of diminishing returns,” Robbins said. “‘Trolls World Tour’ may have turned out to be a relative success as a theatrical release, but the first film didn’t generate the kind of blockbuster box office earnings that are expected from a major international player like ‘Mulan.’”
But some of you may be saying, “Well, Disney skipped theaters and released ‘Hamilton’ on Disney+, and that was a big deal.”
That’s true. Despite not having substantial numbers to back it up, “Hamilton” was a sensation when it hit Disney+ on the 4th of July weekend. But would that film have been a blockbuster in theaters? We’ll never know.
“Hamilton,” which Disney reportedly bought the rights to for $75 million, is a Broadway show about America’s founding fathers — so who knows if there would’ve been massive demand from audiences outside the US.
It was also nearly three hours long, which would likely have hurt its box office since longer movies play on fewer screens and have fewer showings, which equals less money. Sure, “Avengers: Endgame” was more than three hours and still managed to become the biggest film of all time. But Alexander Hamilton is no Captain America.
In the end, it was worth the financial risk for Universal to release “World Tour” and for Disney to release “Hamilton” at home. But a film like “Mulan?” That risks leaving way too much money on the table.
If digital packed the financial punch that theaters still do, audiences would likely be watching “F9,” the next “Fast & Furious” film, at home right now and not in theaters next April.
Beyond the money, the symbolic half of this equation is also key.
For theaters, which are struggling to outlast coronavirus destroying business for several months, it’s also about maintaining the exclusive, event-like feel of going to the movies. This is why studios and streamers like Netflix have been grappling with how long a film should be available in theaters before being offered on other platforms.
Studios may balk at releasing big films at home because that would train audiences to expect it going forward. And If that happens, good luck ever getting viewers back to movie theaters post-Covid.
It’s about also maintaining relationships. For example, “Tenet” would undoubtedly do well on digital thanks to its director’s name recognition. However, Nolan is a staunch believer in the theatrical experience, and it’s doubtful he would allow his films to debut anywhere but the big screen.
The studios have to keep things copacetic with theaters owners if they want their symbiotic relationship, which made over $40 billion in 2019, to continue. Just look at AMC Theatres banning Universal films earlier this year for just suggesting that the studio would put more movies on digital.
So it may not be worth the risk for studios to throw the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to digital and streaming just yet. However, as theater closures stretch into the fall and possibly winter, it wouldn’t be shocking if a studio decided to be the first one to release a big film at home.
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the old Hollywood adage, “nobody knows anything,” rings truer now more than ever.