by Ray Keating
September 14, 2020
The release of Mulan on Disney+ was supposed to be a major test case – perhaps a potential gamechanger – for the movie industry. So far, it’s turned out to be a mess for Disney, and deservedly so.
The reported $200-million production budget for Mulan made its release on Disney+, rather than in theaters, a big decision. And then there was the experiment of charging an additional premium price ($29.99) to view it on Disney+, which subscribers already pay for.
What could be learned from all of this? There’s actually little about the business model for movie releases, and more about the do’s and don’ts when making movies.
The clearest takeaway might be: It’s dangerous for a U.S. business to get into bed with the Chinese communist government.
Also, when filming a movie in China, perhaps don’t do it in the Xinjiang region where prison and indoctrination camps intern Uighur Muslims. For good measure, in the movie’s credits, don’t thank the government entities guilty of the oppression – such as the Turpan Public Security Bureau – and the propaganda agencies pushing lies and covering up.
For good measure, perhaps the movie’s star, Liu Yifei (Mulan), should have refrained from supporting the Hong Kong police for cracking down on pro-democracy protestors last year. And the same goes for another actor in the film, Donnie Yen (Commander Tung), who subsequently did the same thing.
And it’s not a good idea to distort history in order to – intentionally or not? – pander to the Chinese communists’ nationalistic impulses. Writing in Foreign Policy, Jeanette Ng points out:
But the rotten heart of Mulan as a film, rather than its production process, is the accidental regurgitation of China’s current nationalist myths as part of a messy, confused, and boring film. The title card fades into a location said to be the “Silk Road, Northwest China.” This is, of course, Xinjiang—here set up by the narrative frame as an inalienable part of China that Mulan must defend for her father, her family, and her emperor. That’s not the historical reality—or even the reality of the original poem the stories are based on, which depicts Mulan as the servant of a khan of the Northern Wei dynasty, not an all-powerful Chinese emperor.
On September 10, CNBC reported, “Chinese authorities have told major media outlets not to cover Walt Disney’s release of ‘Mulan’, in an order issued after controversy erupted overseas over the film’s links with the Xinjiang region… No reason was given in the notice, but the sources said they believed it was because of the overseas backlash over the film’s links to Xinjiang.” And according to The New York Times, the box office for Mulan in China was underwhelming during its opening weekend, with “a tepid $23 million” that came up short of expectations and other recent major releases, such as Tenet’s $29.6 million opening and The Eight Hundred, a Chinese war epic, registering $75.7 million during its opening weekend.
In the U.S., lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle are displeased, and demanding more information from Disney and CEO Bob Chapek. Reuters, for example, reported:
A group of bipartisan U.S. lawmakers urged Walt Disney Co CEO Bob Chapek to explain the company's connection with “security and propaganda” authorities of China's Xinjiang region during the production of live-action war epic “Mulan”. “Disney's apparent cooperation with officials of the People's Republic of China (PRC) who are most responsible for committing atrocities - or for covering up those crimes - is profoundly disturbing,” the Republican senators and representatives wrote in Friday's letter. It urged Disney to make a detailed explanation. The letter was retweeted by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), which monitors human rights and the rule of law and submits an annual report to President Donald Trump and Congress.
The lawmakers’ letter also said:
Publicly available information prior to the filming of Mulan showed the existence of mass internment camps for the detention of Uyghurs. By July 1, 2018, major news outlets in the United States, Australia, United Kingdom, and Hong Kong all had reported that Beijing had interned hundreds of thousands, if not more than one million, Uyghurs and minorities in the XUAR. The decision to film parts of Mulan in the XUAR, in cooperation with local security and propaganda elements, offers tacit legitimacy to these perpetrators of crimes that may warrant the designation of genocide…”
The Walt Disney Company’s website states, “We believe social responsibility is a long-term investment that serves to strengthen our operations and competitiveness in the marketplace, enhance risk management, attract and engage talented employees, and maintain our reputation.” We seek to fully understand how you implement this commitment in the activities you undertake in China.
Hmmm, that last point warrants some added attention. In October of last year, when asked about the Hong Kong protests, then-CEO Bob Iger said, “What we learned in the last week – we’ve learned how complicated this is. The biggest learning from that is that caution is imperative. To take a position that could harm our company in some form would be a big mistake. I just don’t believe it’s something we should engage in in a public manner.” Of course, there have been other issues that Iger and Disney have been more than willing to engage on publicly. And what they miss, or choose to ignore, is that if you go into business with a communist government (as Disney has with its Shanghai and Hong Kong theme parks) - indeed, any government - politics are bound to come into play. And it might get uncomfortable – very uncomfortable.
Finally, according to Vanity Fair, Disney CFO Christine McCarthy told the Bank of America Virtual 2020 Media, Communications & Entertainment Conference that the controversy over the credits in Mulan has “generated a lot of issues for us.”
Aw, poor Disney executives. The “issues” they face, though, aren’t nearly as dire as the “issues” faced by pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, nor by the Uighur Muslims imprisoned in the Xinjiang region of China, nor by so many others suffering at the hands of the Chinese government led by President Xi Jinping, who seems intent on becoming the next Chairman Mao.
Perhaps the Disney brass needs to be reminded of a couple of things that Walt Disney himself declared…
“I believe that this spiritual and intellectual freedom which we Americans enjoy is our greatest cultural blessing. Therefore, it seems to me, that the first duty of culture is to defend freedom and resist all tyranny.”
“Tomorrow will be better as long as America keeps alive the ideals of freedom and a better life.”
Listen to Walt – those seem to be some pretty sound guiding principles.
Ray Keating is the editor, publisher and economist for DisneyBizJournal.com, and author of the Pastor Stephen Grant novels. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, get the paperback or Kindle edition of Ray Keating’s new book Behind Enemy Lines: Conservative Communiques from Left-Wing New York.