Last week, we figured out that Mulan was likely watched by 1.2 million Americans on its opening weekend. (Plus or minus 1-1.5 million.) We estimated this means it likely ends up with a global PVOD of $150 million.
But what I didn’t do was explain what all that data means.
Which is today’s article. As I was writing up my implications, I realized I was really writing another entry in my series on the changing film distribution landscape, “Should you release your film straight-to-streaming (Netflix)?” So here’s the latest version of that. As before (See Part I here or Part II here), I’ll be asking myself the questions.
Was the Mulan PVOD “experiment” worth it?
I’m probably too much of a stickler on language–I called out a much more influential strategic technology analyst on Twitter for mixing up aggregation and bundling this week–but I do believe terms of art have a role in setting strategy. Words have meaning and mixing them up can make for sloppy understanding.
The word “experiment” should be reserved for true experiments. Meaning scientifically rigorous processes to draw statistically significant conclusions. In business, this is incredibly hard to do. Most often, we have a sample size of “1”. Given that a company can’t split the universe into multiple alternate realities to see what happens, if they change their strategy they have only one data point to draw conclusions from. They only have the one strategy to adjust. It’s an “n of 1” as I wrote last Wednesday. Meaning we can’t draw conclusions from it.
I prefer “test” instead.
Fine, was the Mulan “test” worth it?
Probably not. Because most “tests” really don’t help refine strategy. Strategically, it’s usually a mistake to run “tests” that muddy your strategy and/or consumer value/brand proposition. In this case, Mulan was huge news. With tens of millions of dollars on the line, you shouldn’t run “tests”, but make strategic decisions that align with your long term strategy.
As it is, Disney got the data that PVOD sales didn’t match their expectations. Consider a question I’ll ask later: What if Disney had released Hamilton on PVOD? Then arguably the test would have worked! But the true difference is one film was the most popular musical of the last decade, and the other was a live-action adaptation. The track record on live-action remakes is more mixed: they’ve had a much more up and down reception. (The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast did really well; Cinderella less so.) In other words, we could have guessed that Mulan could not launch well but Hamilton would have.
But that’s why Disney needs to decide if PVOD is a part of their strategy or not going forward.
Okay, my last try: “Was the Mulan PVOD release strategy the best one to maximize revenue?”
That is the best way to ask the question! Thanks, me.
I think it wasn’t. With the caveat that I’m second guessing the executives, let’s review the options Disney had in front of them. They could release in theaters now, or next year. They could try the PVOD test. They could release in TVOD. Or go straight to SVOD on Disney+.
Trying to run the numbers wouldn’t really help since it would require tons of estimates and just guess work. But if we’re ranking the options, my gut is Disney ended up choosing the 3rd or 4th worst option. I’d do it this way:
1. Release on TVOD in September in Disney+ territories, theaters elsewhere.
2. Release in September in theaters globally, with a shortened window.
3. Release sometime next year in theaters globally.
4. Release on PVOD in September as above.
5. Release straight to SVOD in Disney+ territories, theaters elsewhere.
Here’s my logic for number one: Mulan had higher brand equity than Trolls: World Tour, so it would have generated more interest. Indeed, the biggest release tactic that held Mulan back wasn’t the price, it was the distribution strategy. However, you could convince me that options 2 and 3 could have beat option 1.
As I wrote a few weeks back about “exclusive distribution channels” when it came to Spotify, Podcasts and Joe Rogan, when you go “exclusive” you artificially limit your upside. Disney essentially opted for the same path here. The problem was their exclusive channel doesn’t look to be worth it. Essentially, TVOD would have expanded the footprint by so much that it would likely have generated more sales. So that’s my number 1 option to maximize revenue. (And a lower price I think would have further convinced folks to buy it.)
What about the new subscribers Mulan brought in?
Uh, look at the Antenna data of new sign-ups in context of past releases:
In other words, Mulan didn’t drive new subscribers. Because it was PVOD, fundamentally, it didn’t help with retention either. The number of new subscribers is barely statistically significant.
What about releasing in theaters?
Unlike Universal, Disney hasn’t been expressly antagonistic to theater chains. (Though as soon as AMC and Comcast agreed on a deal, they publicly became best buddies again.) So assuming Disney could have sold the theater chains on it, yes there is a chance they could have released Mulan in theaters followed by a simultaneous or 3 weeks later PVOD release. That would have made more money than PVOD only.
The logic for me is simple: give multiple options for customers to watch a film. The challenge is most theaters in huge markets are still closed. It’s that uncertainty that is hurting theaters more than anything. And the theater chains would have fought fiercely.
Could Disney have held it until next year?
They could, but three things are holding them back. Which I’ve been struggling to explain all summer, and think I just figured out.
First, the financial cost of capital. Which is the idea that if you spend $200 million to make a film, the goal is to eventually make $216 million accounting for inflation since the entertainment industry’s cost of capital is roughly 8%. (No matter what else you know about entertainment, that’s the key math.) If you wait a year, you need to make 8% extra to cover the costs of the delay. That’s the damage “cost of capital” does to a cash flow statement.
(Want an explainer on net present value/the time value of money? Go here.)
For big films, this is clearly worth it; smaller films it isn’t. If the next Fast and Furious film does a billion dollars, taking the 8% cost of capital hit is better than a 60% total revenue hit. Using this logic, Disney should have moved it back.
The second cost, though, may be the real driver. That of what I’m calling “organizational” cost of capital. If everyone moves their films back simultaneously, the problem is many of those films can’t release at the same time. And that means you can’t start making new films, since they won’t have anywhere to go.