‘Mulan’ Streaming Release Was Shaped By Consumer Sentiment On Movie Theaters, Disney CFO Christine McCarthy Says

Settling on the release pattern for Mulan was “not an easy decision,” Disney CFO Christine McCarthy freely acknowledges. “There were so many factors at play here.”

Ultimately, the $200 million tentpole was released on September 4 as a “premier access” title costing $30 to subscribers to Disney+, with some select theatrical engagements in parts of the world. Appearing online at the Citi 2020 Global Technology Conference, McCarthy revealed that research on mixed consumer sentiment toward returning to movie theaters during COVID-19 played a key role in decision-making.

Not only were just 68% of U.S. theaters open by last weekend, she said, but L.A. and New York remain major missing pieces, and the overall view of potential ticket buyers was a mixed bag.

“We know what the statistics are on consumer behavior when people are asked, ‘Would you go to a theater?’” she said. “It’s gone up a bit in the last month, but a lot of that has to do with what demographic you’re in. In general, if you look at that research, you’ll generally see that older people are less likely. Probably younger people — the same people who are doing things we see on the news shows that they probably shouldn’t be doing, and crowding and partying — they’re probably more likely to go to a theater. But would a family with young kids go? Probably not.”

In aggregate, she said, “at best 40%” of available audiences would have gone out to theaters. “A collateral benefit is what we saw in some additional new subscribers. But that wasn’t the driving force.”

Asked by moderator Jason Bazinet, a veteran media analyst with Citi, about initial results from the release, McCarthy said only that executives are “very pleased.” She said more information would come out in November when Disney reports its next quarterly financial results.

In addition to Mulan, McCarthy assessed the nature of the recovery for Disney as it tries to ramp back up across many areas wiped out by coronavirus, from movie theaters to sports to production to theme parks.

“These are unprecedented times,” she said. Government, health officials and labor unions all have a stake in the company’s ability to try to return to normal levels of activity. Looking toward the fall and beyond, “We’ll have to ebb and flow as the rate of infection hopefully will stay low, but if it creeps back up, we may have to adjust accordingly,” she said, citing tweaks to Walt Disney World’s reopening in light of rising infections in Florida earlier in the summer.

Production-wise, she said, “there isn’t an on-off switch,” and the restart will be a gradual process “until a vaccine is widely available.”

A few features are going again, but case-by-case decisions must be made. “It’s going to depend on where they are, how big the cast is,” she said, and “outside shooting is going to be easier to deal with than inside a soundstage.”

Television production is “up and running on some scripted as well as unscripted series.” About 20 shows are back in action, some of them in “bubbles” akin to the NBA’s Orlando setup.

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