A trip to the movies — for most, what was once an innocuous affair has been fundamentally changed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Going to the movie theater and spending an exorbitant sum of money for the largest popcorn bucket is not an essential business, and cramming dozens of people into a dark theater is the opposite of social distancing. Fittingly, the American movie theater industry largely shut down in the wake of the pandemic.
Movies that were slated for release earlier in the year such as “Wonder Woman: 1984” and “No Time to Die” have been pushed back. Production schedules in Hollywood have been delayed. The stream of media has mostly dried up, save for releases on streaming platforms such as “Hamilton” on Disney+. Recently, however, movies are coming out again.
Since the beginning of August, major studios have released new movies, including “The New Mutants” and “Bill & Ted Face the Music.” Two of the year’s most-anticipated films, “Tenet” and “Mulan,” were released in the U.S. on Sept. 3 and Sept. 4, respectively. They represent opposite methods of release in the COVID-19 era: “Tenet” is showing in theaters, while “Mulan” requires an additional purchase on the Disney+ platform.
It makes sense that “Tenet” would represent the traditional method of a movie release — showing in theaters before becoming available for individual purchase. The film’s director, Christopher Nolan, is a proud supporter of theaters. Hollywood executives hoped his filmography, which includes the “Dark Knight Trilogy,” “Inception” and “Memento,” would draw audiences to reopening theaters.
Comparing the opening box office numbers for “Tenet” to what they might have been is an impossible task. In its opening weekend, “Tenet” grossed $20.2 million in the U.S. and Canada. For comparison, “Dunkirk,” Nolan’s previous film, grossed $50.5 million in its opening weekend. “Tenet” has performed better in international markets but is grossing a much smaller amount than previous big-budget films from Nolan.
Multiple factors have led to this relatively meager box office opening for “Tenet.” Theaters have not yet reopened in major markets like New York or California, and Disney estimates that “two-thirds of domestic theaters have reopened.” Theater occupancy has also been drastically decreased to better allow social distancing, and some consumers do not yet feel safe to go back to theaters, even to see a large blockbuster from a famous director.
On the other hand, “Mulan” represents a much different method of releasing a movie. While it has been screened in theaters internationally, with the Chinese theatrical opening slated for Sept. 11, the movie is only available in the U.S. as a premium purchase on the Disney+ streaming service. This direct-to-consumer distribution costs viewers $30, in addition to the preexisting monthly subscription to Disney+. “Mulan” will be available in this “premier access” period through Nov. 2, when it will be released for free viewing on Disney+. Disney has not released the statistics on how many consumers have purchased “Mulan” through this service.
Following “Mulan’s” release, there have been a variety of criticisms directed toward the film and its production. In 2019, Liu Yifei, who plays the titular lead, publicly declared her full support of the Hong Kong police.
"I support the Hong Kong police,” Yifei posted on Weibo (a Chinese equivalent of Twitter). “You can all attack me now. What a shame for Hong Kong." This statement, made in light of the ongoing protests and issues of sovereignty between mainland China and Hong Kong, led some to call for a boycott of “Mulan.”
This "#BoycottMulan" movement grew further when it was revealed that part of the film was filmed in China’s Xinjiang province, home to much of China’s Uighur population. This was revealed in the film’s end credits, where Disney acknowledges the “CPC Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Committee.”
For years, the Chinese government has oppressed the Uighur ethnic minority group, and recently there have been increasingly terrifying reports of cultural genocide and concentration camps perpetrated by the Chinese government. These concerns, as well as the potential for the film to be used as propaganda to ethnic minorities in the region, have contributed to the calls from many to boycott the film. However, it is difficult to tell how effective this boycott has been, as Disney is not releasing statistics on “Mulan.”
Clearly, movies and studios have had to adapt to the pandemic. Whether they adapted by delaying releases, moving to streaming services or implementing new safety measures surrounding theaters, the movie industry has tried to weather the storm. While theaters are reopening domestically, it may be some time until consumers come back to the theaters in pre-pandemic numbers. Meanwhile, streaming services have released movies direct-to-consumer, but social justice issues and high costs may deter many customers from consuming their movies this way.
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