Are Tenet and Mulan the most important movies of 2020.

Did Mulan and Tenet Just Become the Most Important Movies of 2020?

Dept. of Check and Mate


Ever since March, when cinemas across the world were forced shut by the coronavirus, Hollywood studios have been cautiously pushing back the release dates of their major movies. At first, there was an optimism that things would be better by June, that the world would heal, and things would somehow return to normal. But now, with America staring into the abyss, the so-called “Hollywood Summer” has been pushed well into the fall. Kind of.

From the moment the world went into lockdown, both Disney and Warner Bros. have been engaged in a high stakes game of chicken. Mulan and Tenet, two of this year’s most anticipated movies, have ended up becoming the unwitting guinea pigs of release strategy and box office performance in this time of quarantine. Neither studio, however, wanted to be the first to test the waters. Neither was willing to “sacrifice” one of their tentpoles during this uncertain period.

But then, something changed. Instead of endlessly postponing the release date of their movies every couple of weeks, Warner Bros. and Disney made an unprecedented decision.

On August 26th, Tenet would be pushed out to 70 countries around the world before a wide release in the United States. On September 4th, Mulan would be released on Disney+ (for a whopping $29.99), wherever it was available, and in cinemas, wherever it was not. It is a bold move, and one that will likely be used as a benchmark for future releases. 

And just like that, Mulan and Tenet became the most important movies of 2020.

John David Washington stars is Christopher Nolan's time-bending Tenet.

Now before we get into what all of this means, a quick but important note. Mulan and Tenet, while incredibly important to Disney and Warner Bros. respectively, are very different beasts.

Disney’s Mulan, much like many of their live-action remakes, has billion dollar ambitions. This one, in particular, has been redrawn and cast in order to aggressively target a mainland Chinese audience. Unlike its previous remakes (Aladdin, The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), which have remained remarkably faithful to their source material, Disney is hoping that the risks they’re taking with Mulan – by basing the movie on the original legend as opposed to their own animated adaptation, by making it a truly Chinese story that’s set within Chinese culture and history – will eventually pay off at the Chinese box office.

Christopher Nolan’s Tenet, on the other hand, is one of those rare things in Hollywood. It is neither a sequel nor part of a franchise. It isn’t based on a best-selling book or cult comic. It is a tentpole that is wholly original, from one of the few directors who can open a mega-budget movie without the benefit of an existing IP. Nolan’s last three originals – Inception, Interstellar, and Dunkirk – besides being well acclaimed, also made over $500 million dollars globally. He is one of the few directors who is able to seamlessly blend art house concepts with high octane action, without sacrificing any of his intellectual ambitions at the altar of mass appeal. 

Mulan's lead, Liu Yifei, is a household name in China.

Disney and Warner Bros. are taking a calculated risk. While global box office takings hit an all time high in 2019 ($42.5 billion), ticket sales at American cineplexes fell to a six-year low. And this despite soaring marketing costs. So why not take the movie to where the audiences are? In America, that’s into their homes. For the rest of us, it’s still in cinemas. (At least for now.) Also, given how much overseas ticket sales play a factor in whether or not a mega-budget movie gets greenlit, why stifle its release based on America’s incompetence in dealing with the coronavirus?

China alone is by far the most important foreign market. More so for a Christopher Nolan movie. Nolan’s box office numbers there dwarf earnings in other Non-U.S. territories by a massive margin. Of all his recent efforts, Inception made $68.4 million, The Dark Knight Rises took $52.8 million, while Dunkirk grossed $51 million. Interstellar was far and away his biggest hit with a whopping $122 million at the Chinese box office. (The Dark Knight was never released in the Middle Kingdom, allegedly due to that subplot involving a corrupt Chinese businessman.)

As for Mulan, no one can really predict how well it will do in the Middle Kingdom. The original animated film was a box office bomb when it was released there in 1999. And Disney is hoping that all of its efforts, as well as the movie’s lead – Liu Yifei is a household name in China – will be able to woo audiences to their new and improved version.

Mulan and Mushu from Disney's 1998 animated feature.

This new release strategy by Disney and Warner Bros. still keeps China very much in the game.

The original Mulan was released in China at a time when they only allowed in about 10 foreign movies a year. The movie, which grossed about $300 million worldwide, was a massive flop in China. In Mulan’s home province of Hunan, the movie made barely $30,000.

There were many reasons for its failure at the time. China’s feud with Disney over Kundun (a movie about the life of the Dalai Lama) meant a significantly delayed release. The movie opened almost a year later than it did in the United States, after most Chinese audiences had already acquired the movie on pirated VCDs. At the time, the movie’s poor performance was also blamed on bad timing, as it was released just after schools re-opened.

The most fascinating reason for the movie’s failure, however, was that local audiences just didn’t find Mulan Chinese enough. Moviegoers would refer to her as “Yang Mulan,” or “Foreign Mulan” in Chinese. Some complained that she looks either Korean or Western. While others called her “too individualistic” and “too self-aggrandizing,” failing to exhibit the same depth of filial piety as her legendary predecessor. Mushu was also far too American.


Even so, the math still isn’t ideal. Releasing these movies now definitely means they will earn far less money than if they were released later. While cinemas have re-opened in China and other countries across the world, they are still operating at a reduced capacity. And while they could potentially have more screenings in a day (given there really isn’t anything else out there), it is still unlikely to match up to what could have been.

We still have no idea who any of these characters are in Tenet.

Tenet and Mulan make for very interesting sacrificial lambs.

If Tenet really is as good as everyone wants it to be, then positive word of mouth should give it the long legs it needs to survive in a time when huge opening weekend numbers are no longer possible. What’s more, given that it isn’t tied into any other IP or franchise, it is unlikely to do much damage to Warner Bros.’ upcoming slate if it flops. The same can’t be said of Wonder Woman ’84, for example.

Mulan will be a testbed for Disney+. Remember that the House of Mouse has been readying themselves for this future for most of 2019. Last year’s stellar performance at the box office, felt like one long marketing campaign for the November launch of Disney+. Their slate, which saw the culmination of a decade’s worth of movies in the MCU, which saw the end of the Skywalker Saga, which leaned hard into nostalgia, seemed like it was trying to make a statement. “Look at us, we’ve got all these movies, that made all this money, and you can now watch it at home for just $6.99 a month.” This will be the first time that they’re offering a premium product on their subscription service and, if it works, they might just do the same for Black Widow, and The Eternals, and Soul. Especially since they don’t have to share any of that money they make with cinemas.

Two further points on this with regards to the American context. 1) Mulan would be the first major movie to be put on VOD. Every other movie that has been “relegated” to a streamer thus far have been somewhat expendable to studios. (Trolls: World Tour, The Hunt, Scoob!, The Lovebirds, Greyhound, Artemis Fowl.) 2) The U.S. market remains untested with regards to a $30 rental. We have no idea what the psychological price barrier is for a digital release.

Was the digital release of Trolls World Tour a worthy benchmark?
The digital success of Trolls: World Tour, had Universal thinking that it was a new path forward for Hollywood.

Digital only releases, like what happened with Scoob! and Trolls: World Tour, felt like false starts. They came at a time when people were stuck at home and desperate. But as the world slowly heals, people are going to want to go back out and indulge in the shared communal experience of cinema.

It is also important to note that the rest of us weren’t given the same options to watch new movies at home. Sure, we got Greyhound when it was shunted to AppleTV+, and The Lovebirds when it landed on Netflix, but any talk regarding VOD is almost always U.S. centric. Which is ironic given how much more important the rest of the world is to a movie’s financial success.

Trying to predict how well Mulan or Tenet will do feels like a fool’s errand. That being said, it will be a good benchmark as to just how valuable a big summer movie is internationally. Even in these less than optimal conditions. Yes, there is a global audience who are so starved for big budget Hollywood entertainment that they will flock to see the first major thing that comes out. But how many of them would go back and risk a second and third viewing.

What does this mean for the future of cinema?

What happens with Tenet and Mulan could potentially change the way Hollywood chooses to distribute its movies. Whether just for now, or beyond COVID-19 remains to be seen. But whatever happens, whether its a direct to consumer model, or even a shorter theatrical window, the biggest losers end up being the American cinemas.

Good or bad, smash hit or flop, Tenet and Mulan have already made history. Every other studio is going to be watching to see what happens before they decide when to reschedule their major releases. The “box office performance” of these movies could determine when and how we end up watching Wonder Woman ’84, or Black Widow, or No Time To Die. It could mean that we, out here, end up being the only ones who get to experience them on the big screen. It could mean that we’d get to see those movies long before anyone in the United States. And why not? It is, after all, always summer where we are.

Uma has been reviewing things for most of his life: movies, television shows, books, video games, his mum's cooking, Bahir's fashion sense. He is a firm believer that the answer to most questions can be found within the cinematic canon. In fact, most of what he knows about life he learned from Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. He still hasn't forgiven Christopher Nolan for the travesties that are Interstellar and The Dark Knight Rises.

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