Why 'Mulan' and other summer blockbusters won't be coming to a home near you

More and more movies once destined for the big screen are going on-demand while theaters are closed due to the pandemic. Here's what will and will not change about moviegoing because of Covid-19.

Posted: May 17, 2020 11:00 AM
Updated: May 17, 2020 11:01 AM

With theaters closed because of coronavirus, studios are shifting all types of films to digital platforms. Yet one genre is largely missing from Hollywood's digital revolution: blockbusters.

Not long after the crisis started, studios began announcing revised release dates that pushed their biggest franchises into late 2020, and in many instances well into 2021. While Universal irked theater owners by boasting about the on-demand returns from "Trolls World Tour," those kinds of numbers aren't enough to offset the money left on the table by forgoing a global theatrical launch.

That's why films like "Black Widow," "No Time to Die" and "F9" were delayed instead of released digitally. With no clear guidance about if, when or how theaters will reopen, could big films like "Mulan" or "Wonder Woman 1984" make the giant leap to digital?

Probably not, according to Shawn Robbins, chief analyst at Boxoffice.com.

"Unless there is a drastic setback from current plans to gradually reopen cinemas, I wouldn't bet on it," Robbins said. "The blockbusters remaining on the schedule have too much dependency on box office revenue."

Robbins added that a digital release could also "cannibalize the profits of a major title" via potential home video sales and global box office returns.

A summer movie season amid coronavirus

Keeping blockbusters on the big screen is sometimes about more than money, however.

For example, Warner Bros.' "Tenet," which is set to hit theaters on July 17, would undoubtedly do gangbusters on digital thanks to the name recognition alone of its director. Christopher Nolan's films, which include hits such as "The Dark Knight" and "Inception," have made more than $4.5 billion at the worldwide box office, according to Comscore.

Nolan is a staunch believer of the theatrical experience and likely would never allow his films to debut anywhere but the big screen. So if Warner Bros. wants to stay in the Christopher Nolan business, it has to stay in the movie theater business.

"Unless aliens possess his frontal lobe, Nolan will not cave to the cries of digital," Jeff Bock, senior analyst at entertainment research firm Exhibitor Relations, told CNN Business. "And if Warner Bros. decides digital is the right move, he'll likely never work with them again."

"Mulan," which opens a week later on July 24, might also be an ideal candidate for a digital release, but it also comes with major hurdles for Disney.

The live-action remake of the 1998 animated classic would likely make millions of dollars via on-demand, and give a huge boost to Disney+ subscriber numbers at a time when Disney could use a big win.

But like "Tenet," it's unlikely "Mulan" makes a move to streaming or on-demand anytime soon.

The $200 million film has "too much global potential to skip a traditional release in theaters," Robbins said. And with authorities reopening theaters in China, where the film's story and characters are set, Disney has even more reasons to stay put and see what happens.

On top of all of that, Disney CEO Bob Chapek has said that the company believes in the "value of the theatrical experience overall for large blockbuster movies," so it would be tough to reverse course.

Then, finally, there's Warner Bros.' "Wonder Woman 1984," with its scheduled opening date of August 14. Like "Mulan," the superhero sequel, projected to be one of the highest-grossing films of 2020, is just too big to bypass theaters.

"While I'm sure it would absolutely destroy digital record books, I think it still makes sense to play the wait and see game with this title," Bock said.

Which summer movies could go to digital?

While major blockbusters are likely to stay in theaters, other summer films like "The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run" and "Bill & Ted Face the Music" could make their way to digital, according to Bock.

"We just don't know at this point what the world will look like in June and July, but what we do know is if studios are planning to release these films in theaters, they'd have to begin advertising them right now," Bock said. "That's more money that they might be risking. That's why these some of these films make a lot of sense going straight to digital."

Warner Bros.' "Scoob!" and Disney's "Artemis Fowl" were all set to hit theaters this summer but are now heading directly to living rooms.

And Disney announced on Tuesday that it's fast-tracking the premiere of the filmed version of the original Broadway production of "Hamilton." It will now stream on Disney+ on July 3 rather than in theaters next year.

"With the uncertainty that lies ahead, studios are no doubt running alternative scenarios, crunching numbers and ultimately weighing the possibility of more films going to on-demand," Bock said. "The pandemic will likely only streamline which films fit into that pipeline more and more going forward."

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