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'Mulan' at home, 'Tenet' at the theater: Hollywood is making choices

Gary Thompson
The Philadelphia Inquirer
Yifei Liu stars in "Mulan," which will be available as a premium offer on Disney+ on Friday.

Movies live or die on word of mouth, and in these coronavirus-troubled times, the same may be true of the moviegoing experience.

Last weekend Hollywood rolled out "Unhinged" in a fairly wide with release (1,800 theaters, jumping to 2,300 this weekend) with a fairly big (pardon the pun) star, Russell Crowe, and had some small success. The movie topped $4 million, helping the total domestic box office to a $7 million weekend. (Sleepy late-August weekends last year were about 10 times that.)

But it's how that $4 million from "Unhinged" came in that may be more noteworthy: The movie's box office take actually ticked up from Friday to Saturday, indicating that folks were telling other folks about the film and their new-normal theater experience, says Paul Dergarabedian, senior box office analyst at movie industry data company Comscore.

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"Unhinged" is a "trial balloon," he said, for what looms as the Return of the Big Movie, which will happen Labor Day weekend with the release — in starkly different formats — of the anticipated blockbusters "Mulan" and "Tenet."

On Friday, Disney will make "Mulan" available on its new Disney+ streaming service for $29.99. Warner Bros. is giving fans "Tenet" the old-fashioned way on Thursday, in theaters, the way traditionalist writer-director Christopher Nolan (who made "Dunkirk," "Inception" and three "Batman" movies for the studio) intended his new time-bending spy film to be seen.

Piped straight into consumers' living rooms for $29.99 above and beyond the monthly $6.99 subscription, "Mulan" is a big jump in pricing for what Hollywood calls premium video on demand, the industry term for theatrical releases that go to streaming early —  or first — at a markup.

When "Trolls World Tour" (Comcast Universal) and "Scoob!" (Warner Bros.) skipped theaters and went to PVOD in recent months, the price was $19.99 for 48-hour access. Disney+ is charging $10 more but will give its subscribers permanent access to the title for as long as they subscribe.

Will customers go for it? A survey by the Hollywood Reporter found that one in five Disney+ subscribers said they'd be "very interested" and 23% "somewhat interested" in "Mulan" at that price. Disney CEO Bob Chapek reported early this month during the company's earnings call that the new streaming platform had amassed 60.5 million global subscribers.

Does this mean straight-to-streaming for blockbusters is a permanent channel for Disney? The company declined to address its "Mulan" strategy for this article, and Dergarabedian said that scenario almost certainly isn't the case.

The entertainment giant had the $200 million big-budget "Mulan" (originally scheduled for the spring) finished and in the hopper. It has a new in-house streaming service it wants to promote and build. So releasing "Mulan" as a high-profile enticement for subscribers made sense.

But COVID-19 isn't likely to mark the end of theatrical releases as we've known them. In-theater revenues have already started to recover in countries that have done a better job getting the coronavirus under control. In China, where COVID-19 originated, the leading Chinese movie last weekend made the equivalent of $80 million.

"The desire for that communal experience, to get out of the house, is still there," Dergarabedian said. And yet, in the best-case scenario, only half of North American theaters will be open in September, and those that do open will be at diminished capacity due to social distancing.

Nobody in Hollywood really wanted to go first under these circumstances with a large-scale theatrical release, so it fell to "Unhinged" (budget: $30 million), by start-up Solstice Studios, to test the waters in advance of "Tenet," starring Elizabeth Debicki, Robert Pattinson and John David Washington, among others, and budgeted at a reported $200 million-plus.

"We all came to the conclusion that it would be better for a movie with a lower threshold for success to start things off. They ('Tenet') didn't want to go first, so we were the warm-up act," said Mark Gill, president and CEO of Solstice.

Gill said he'd been in ongoing communication with exhibitors and other studios since early July, waiting for health officials to get a handle on the virus and for a critical mass of theaters to reopen.

"It's the first time in 102 years that theaters have shut down like this," he said. "It takes more than a minute to get them back up and running."

Reassuring audience feedback and exhibitor safety protocols have encouraged Solstice to expand its theatrical opening to this week's additional 500 screens. "I suspect that by the time 'Tenet' opens, that number will have risen substantially," he said.

This weekend, Searchlight Pictures' "The Personal History of David Copperfield," starring Dev Patel, and Disney 20th Century Studios' "The New Mutants" were the next movies to test the waters of theatrical release.

Most AMC, Regal and Cinemark theaters have now opened nationally, along with some smaller chains and independents, except in states like New Jersey and cities like Philadelphia where that's currently prohibited. (Philly theaters are set to open Sept. 8, with capacity limited to 25 people per screening, and with no food or drink service.)

Gill said the industry is on pins and needles waiting to see how safely theaters can reopen — one or two superspreader events would mean a big setback. But studios and distributors are encouraged by successful theater reopenings overseas, he said.

Robert Pattinson, right, and John David Washington star in "Tenet." The movie is playing at Regal West Manchester, Queensgate Movies 13 and Hanover Movies 16.

Once the world gets a hand on COVID-19, Dergarabedian sees nearly all of the blockbusters currently circling the airport and waiting for permission to land in theaters — "Wonder Woman 1984," "Black Widow," "No Time to Die" — eventually following the lead of "Tenet" and opening theatrically in some fashion.

"It's hard to predict, of course," Gill said. "The biggest factor is public health, and it looks like more people are doing what they've been asked to do, and that's good. I think theater owners also realize they can't act like the typical Los Angeles bar owner who just packed them in, ignored regulations, and naturally got shut down again."