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Why Subscribers Will Have To Pay $30 To Watch New 'Mulan' Movie

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Disney Plus watchers are used to shelling out a monthly fee for the streaming service. To many parents working from home, this fee is the cost of sanity, and it's pretty low. Disney Plus costs less than 10 bucks a month unless you want to see Disney's new live action movie "Mulan." For that, subscribers will have to shell out $30. Joining us to explain Disney's strategy here is Elaine Low. She's a senior reporter at Variety and covers all things television.

Hi, Elaine.

ELAINE LOW: Hi there. Thanks for having me.

VANEK SMITH: Absolutely. So "Mulan," for the uninitiated, was an animated movie that Disney released back in 1998. They have made a live-action version. And now Disney is hoping that people will pay extra to watch it. What is the company's thinking here?

LOW: This is a huge move for Disney. As my colleague Rebecca Rubin reported earlier, "Mulan's" theatrical release date was postponed three times before it was delayed indefinitely. The movie had a production budget of $200 million, so Disney putting what was supposed to be this huge summer blockbuster directly on its streaming service is definitely not a decision that the company made lightly.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And this was delays because of COVID-19.

LOW: Right. Absolutely. I mean, the pandemic has just shifted so many companies' priorities. And this is not how the company intended for it to turn out.

VANEK SMITH: This is a rare moment for Disney. I mean, this is a company that has made money every year for 40 years. It is not making money right now. It's losing money. And this does seem like a moment of the company trying to figure out how to make money again in our strange, new economic world. Do you think this will work?

LOW: Well, the way Disney CEO Bob Chapek put it is that putting "Mulan" on Disney Plus would be a one-off. So this is definitely a very experimental time for them. But they've also made clear that Disney Plus is, and the whole direct-to-consumer streaming space for them is, quote, unquote, "the future of the company." So they are betting a lot on this service, but you're right. They are - you know, financially have really taken a hit from the pandemic right now. You look at their studio entertainment revenue. It's down 55% year over year for the quarter. Their theme parks and consumer products, which is a hugely lucrative business - down 85% year over year. So they're hoping that they're able to make back some of what they would have made in the theatrical window with "Mulan."

VANEK SMITH: Thirty dollars seems like a - that seems very expensive to me. Do you think people will pay that much?

LOW: I think it depends on who you are - right? - and where you live. If you're a part of a family of four living in LA like I am, then going to the movies easily winds up costing close to $100 when you factor in tickets, parking, popcorn. But, you know, if...

VANEK SMITH: Yeah.

LOW: ...You're one person living in a city where the cost of living isn't that high, then $30 is a lot of money for one movie. And it's likely to put off some people. And also, when you consider that "Hamilton" - right? - which was supposed to be released in theaters, went straight to Disney Plus but didn't cost extra - but, you know, you also consider there's high interest in Disney Plus. And, like, over 10 million people signed up for the service after the day it launched last November. And now it's already shot up to 60.5 million global subscribers, which is four years ahead of its targeted goals for that. It's likely to be a big draw for new Disney Plus subscribers as well.

VANEK SMITH: So there has been a little bit of concern that Disney has chosen this specific movie to try out this new business plan. What is the cultural impact here of charging this much money for "Mulan"?

LOW: When it comes to representation at least, it'll be one of the very few major summer movies to feature a predominantly Asian cast that isn't going to get a chance to shine in theaters. You look at "Crazy Rich Asians" two years ago. That was a big win for the Asian American community because it - you know, it not only let us see our own faces reflected on the big screen, but jeez, it did gangbusters at the box office. It showed that Asian and Asian American casts could bring in a crowd, and "Mulan" just isn't going to get that chance. But at least it'll have an opportunity to reach people directly at home who might not have chosen a seat in theaters anyway.

VANEK SMITH: Elaine Low is a senior reporter with Variety.

Thank you, Elaine.

LOW: Thanks so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.