Even under the best of circumstances, the box office has always been a fickle beast. Sure-fire hits with massive movie stars have missed the mark while smaller flicks have managed to ride surprising momentum en route to big totals. Raise your hand if you predicted that Joker would out-gross a Fast & Furious movie last year. Now raise your hand if you’re a complete liar. We just don’t always know what’s going to happen.
In the thick of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, that uncertainty has grown tenfold. The poster child for this whole ordeal has been Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, which is still positioned to be the first major new blockbuster to hit theaters since the COVID-19 outbreak began. Box office experts are split on the film’s prospects in the current landscape, but the general consensus is that the $200 million-budgeted feature needs to earn at least $400 million-$450 million worldwide to break even for Warner Bros.
However, Disney (DIS)’s Mulan, directed by Niki Caro and now scheduled to hit theaters August 21, likely has even more pressure to succeed due to the poor luck of timing. Traditionally, blockbusters receive marketing budgets between $120 million and $140 million. While Tenet isn’t believed to have delved too deeply into its promotional coffers due to its original July release date, Mulan had months of promotional legwork in the lead-up to its expected debut on March 27.
On July 7, 2019, the official teaser trailer and teaser poster were released during the broadcast of the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup Final. On September 30, the first official still image of star Liu Yifei in character debuted in Empire magazine. On December 5, the official trailer was unveiled to the world. And on January 15, Disney dropped Mulan‘s first TV spot, which was followed by additional spots in February and March.
It’s doubtful that Disney spent every last penny of its marketing budget up until this point—the bulk of a film’s marketing spend comes in the two weeks prior to release. But one reason Universal opted to push forward with Trolls World Tour on PVOD in April is because the studio had already spent the majority of that film’s promotional push and general marketing typically begins six weeks out from release. It’s not unreasonable to assume Disney invested a not insignificant amount money advertising Mulan before domestic theaters were ordered to close on March 16 due to COVID-19.
Mulan has now been delayed twice due to the coronavirus pandemic, and its August release date is looking increasingly unlikely due to a spike of new reported cases. Film executives estimate that each delay cost Disney between $200,000 and $400,000 in marketing fees, and it could jump to $5 million if the film is removed from the summer schedule entirely, Variety reported.
Mulan‘s reported budget is a healthy $200 million, which would make it Disney’s most expensive live-action remake, though actress Gong Li claimed the production budget was closer to $300 million at one point. In March, it was reported that the pandemic could force Mulan out of its release in China, the second-largest box office region in the world where all 12,000 national movie theaters remain closed due to COVID, altogether. Disney’s live-action remakes have streaky track records in the Middle Kingdom—recent examples include Beauty and the Beast ($84 million), Aladdin ($54 million), and The Lion King ($120 million)—but it was believed that Mulan could threaten the $100 million mark or more. One Wall Street analyst believes that further delays could convince Disney to send the film to PVOD and Disney+. All of it speaks to the pervading uncertainty still surrounding the industry.
What is known is that whenever Mulan finally does arrive and whichever medium is chosen for its delivery, it’s going to need to make a pretty penny to turn a profit for Disney thanks to prior expenditures, perhaps even surpassing the $500 million mark. Here’s hoping audiences can safely see the epic-looking blockbuster in the near future.