Disney’s “Mulan” could shape the future of distribution in Hollywood, but producer Jason Reed just hopes that it entertains, offers hope and even inspires audiences
“Mulan” had its world premiere at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on March 9 amid a wave of fanfare and anticipation for the blockbuster epic’s March 27 release date — but the world knows how that played out.
The film didn’t make it to theaters that week, nor the week after, nor the one after that. The coronavirus pandemic shut down theaters in North America and across the world the week of March 16. Since then, it’s been months of delay after delay.
“We were on a high. We had the momentum going and then to have the theaters shut down — it was obviously very disappointing,” “Mulan” producer Jason Reed told TheWrap. “It’s been a roller coaster.”
The song-less live-action reimagining of Disney’s 1998 animated classic is finally making its way to audiences around the world: On Disney+ for an extra $29.99 for those in the U.S. and in theaters in other parts of the world where Disney+ isn’t yet available.
The pandemic has turned the conversation around the film into one on the future of Hollywood film distribution, but Reed hopes that the hard work, the painstaking dedication to craft brought by the filmmakers, cast and crew is able to shine through and provide people with a much-needed respite.
Below is a conversation between Reed and TheWrap. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TheWrap: What a long road it’s been to people finally getting a chance to see this movie.
JR: I have to say, despite everything, all the other conversations that are being had right now, I’m just so thankful that people are finally going to get to see the movie. I’m so proud of everyone that worked on the film. Our cast was amazing. [Director Niki Caro] is indefatigable, and she really is our own Mulan. She just doesn’t stop. And all of our department heads… they just did such great work and they really put so much of themselves into the movie that not being able to show it has just been — it has been difficult.
No one could have imagined back in March that we’d still be here six months later. At the onset, what sort of concerns did you have in terms of whether people would ever be able to see it?
That is for sure. It’s been a roller coaster. We had the premiere. We had the big rollout; we had this amazing global day-and-date marketing plan and publicity plan. We had amazing partners involved in bringing the film to audiences around the world, and the momentum was building and it felt so good. Then to have the theaters shut down. It was obviously very disappointing.
That said, public health is the most important concern. As good as this movie is, or as good as I believe this movie is, it’s not worth anyone getting infected and passing it along to their family, so we were truly supportive of efforts to try to contain the spread of the virus and were completely understanding that that would impact our movie. Going into limbo was obviously very difficult. We’ve worked very hard on this movie. We were eager to share it with the world.
It became clear pretty early that “Mulan” and “Tenet” were going to be important in reviving Hollywood. The films have taken different paths to reentering the world. How do you compare those strategies?
I don’t think anybody has a clear view of what the future holds. I would love to say that I have a crystal ball and can see into the future, but I don’t. All I can say is that, in this particular moment, I think that what best suited the movie was this hybrid release where we’re going in the markets where there is a robust theatrical availability for audiences. We’re going to release it there theatrically and where Disney+ is an option we’re going to make it available to audiences that way. And I think that points to sort of a more dynamic approach to exhibition and distribution that I think would probably outlive this pandemic.
These big media companies will have a lot more tools available to them as these windows start to shift around; become more flexible. I think that the big media companies will start to tailor the distribution and release schedule based on the individual attributes of the creative. So if it’s something like Chris Nolan, where Chris Nolan’s fans really are driven by the theatrical experience of those movies, I think that’s sort of an irreplaceable experience. And I don’t see that going away, but I think there’s going to be very few rules going forward.
So how do you gauge what success looks like for a “Mulan?”
We’re having a lot of conversations with Disney and with other people about this. What should our expectation be? What should audience’s expectations be? It’s a whole new world. At the end of the day, what was disappointing for me is that the conversation around the movie has become one of business models and distribution, as opposed to talking about the movie itself, and the work that Niki and [lead actress Yifei Liu] did because they came at this movie from an artistic standpoint, and from a cultural standpoint, and not necessarily from a business standpoint, even though it’s this huge event movie with epic battle scenes and all this stuff that would have appeal to a broad audience. It just wasn’t the nature of the conversation when we were making the movie. The nature of the conversation: How do we tell this woman’s story?
Five, six years ago on a Friday mid-afternoon, you had a sense of what your weekend box office was gonna be. Like, oh, it’s gonna break [$100 million], this is awesome. And everybody could start partying on Friday night.
Now, who knows. You don’t get the data quickly and despite the streamers having really direct access to the consumer information, it’s all so complex, and it takes a while to analyze and figure things out. It’s like okay, we don’t know when we’re gonna know what this all looks like and the information that third-party providers have may or may not be accurate and, you know, how do you even compare apples to apples? Because “Tenet” had this really strong, really promising international weekend. What’s our international weekend theatrically gonna look like? And how do you compare it?
Let’s talk about the movie, because it’s not a direct live-action remake. The focus of the film is slightly different from the animated version millennials like myself grew up with.
We knew the animated film already exists. It’s great. You’re one click away from it on Disney+, and we get to have all of the fun of going back and watching that movie whenever we want to. We wanted to take this opportunity and the equity in the title and sort of the importance of the title for so many different people to make an epic Disney-branded movie.
We wanted to go back, look at [“The Ballad of Mulan”] and really draw from both that literary tradition in China and the Disney traditional storytelling and bring those together. And we were looking at the movie as an opportunity to make a movie along the lines of a Kurosawa: A big, epic movie that will be accessible for an entire family to enjoy. And we wanted to really ground the story in her emotional journey. We did think that there’s a real value in grounding the movie so that the emotional content plays more real and deeper. That was our approach. And, you know, the musical version’s already been made. We pay homage to that. We wanted to do something new.
This film is coming out now in a much different time than it would have before the pandemic. What do you hope people get out of watching it, either with a group in a theater or with their family at home?
I think that the themes of the movie have become even more relevant than when we started making it and when we were originally going to release it. Telling a story about this young girl’s journey and her finding her place, and where she fits in the world, and how she can lead a good and honorable life. I thought that was really compelling, and I still find it very compelling. But now after being in quarantine and locked down and dealing with all the people that have lost their livelihoods and lost their lives, or lost their loved ones, the idea that this movie embraces family and the primacy of family and the sacrifices that we make for the ones we love, I think that has become even more important and more resonant in the past several months.
My hope is that the movie provides a respite to families, in particular, who’ve been cooped up and not been able to do the things that they normally do. I hope that it entertains them. But I also hope that it gives them hope and even inspires them a little bit. And that it reminds us of the things that we have learned and reinforces the things that we’ve learned over the past few months: That there’s nothing more important than family and the ones we keep close.