How Disney is selling its delayed live-action adaptation of an animated favorite.
Like many movies of late, Disney’s Mulan should have come out much earlier this year were it not for the Covid-19-related theater closures. Now the movie, the latest in the studio’s series of live-action remakes of its animated catalog and the first one to receive a PG-13 rating, is finally coming not to theaters but to Disney+, albeit with a twist.
The story of the film is similar to that of the 1998 movie as well as the Chinese ballad it’s based on. Yifei Liu stars as Mulan, a young woman living with her family in a small village. When the emperor issues a decree that all households must send a son to join the army in order to defend against an invading force. With no brothers, Mulan disguises herself as a man so that her aging father doesn’t have to sign up himself. That begins an epic adventure for Mulan, one that requires her to be more than she ever believed she could be.
Back in March, when its release was originally scheduled, tracking estimated an $85 million plus opening weekend. Now, many months later, it’s about to debut on Disney+, but not as part of the normal streaming subscription plan. Instead a new “Premier Access” tier has been introduced that requires an additional $30 payment. That roughly mirrors the PVOD model established by other studios during the pandemic, but with the addition that subscribers are essentially purchasing early access, which they retain as long as they don’t cancel their Disney+ account. Those subscribers who choose not to will get access to the movie at no additional charge in December.
First reactions to the film, directed by Niki Caro, have been very positive, especially for the performances from Liu as well as costars Donnie Yen and others. Those reviews have earned it an 81 percent “Fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes, so let’s look at how the film has been marketed, including the big shift a month or so ago.
Mulan holds her sword up in front of her face on the first teaser poster from July. While the main photo shows her in her civilian clothes, the image that appears in the reflection of the sword is that of her in full battle armor, showing the warrior that lies within her waiting to be set free.
On the second poster (by marketing agency Art Machine) released in December, Mulan is put in an action pose, leaping through the battle raging around her while looking confident and deadly.
A series of character posters (by marketing agency Ignition) came out in late January, all of which feature Mulan reflected in the sword or other weapon, continuing the theme of reflection and forming your identity based on who you could become.
As it did for many other upcoming releases, Disney put out a poster tied to the Chinese New Year and designed in the style of a Chinese tapestry.
The RealD 3D poster also takes an artistic approach, showing Mulan in the middle of her training with foggy Chinese hilltops in the background. The same shot of Mulan in the middle of a battle seen elsewhere is used on the IMAX poster. The “Reflection” idea comes back on the Dolby Cinemas poster, which has Mulan in full battle regalia on top while she’s in her standard village garb in the reflection of the lake she’s standing alongside. She stands triumphantly on the battlefield on the ScreenX poster and is guiding her horse into battle on the one-sheet for 4DX showings. All those came out earlier this year when it was still believed the movie would come to theaters.
In August a new poster came out specifically for Disney+ showing Mulan walking up what look like temple or fortress stairs, the shadow of a massive dragon also visible next to. Another has a thin, paper-like dragon form coming out from the background as Mulan holds her sword. Just earlier this week one more poster was released that shows Mulan riding her horse into battle, an image that mimics one of the posters used for the 1998 version’s theatrical release. That batch of posters included reworkings of some of the earlier one-sheets but with new dates and the Disney+ messaging instead of “in theaters.”
The teaser trailer (29.2 million views on YouTube) released in July has Mulan being told a husband has been arranged for her, a situation she seems resigned to but not happy with. We’re then shown images of her practicing moves more martial than marital. She puts those skills to use on the battlefield as she fights with an army and on her own to defend against invaders threatening her country.
Mulan’s job is to bring honor to her family she’s told by her father as the second trailer (18.3 million views on YouTube), released in early December, opens. When an invading army threatens her homeland, Mulan steps up to take her father’s place in the battle to fend them off. Hiding her identity means holding back her true potential, though, and only when she unleashes that can she fight the way she was meant to.
The final trailer (4 million views on YouTube), released in early February, mostly sticks to what’s been seen before, but adds some details on the struggle Mulan’s family faces as she goes to war and more.
Online and Social
Disney’s website for the film (likely a holdover from when it was intended for theaters as it hasn’t created sites for other Disney+ releases) has the standard marketing materials along with family activities like movie-themed snack recipes and a PDF activity packet to download.
Advertising and Publicity
Liu landed in some controversy in August of 2019 when, in the midst of months-long pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong she made comments in support of the region’s police force, the same group that had been cracking down on those protesters. That lead to the grassroots “#BoycottMulan” campaign among Hong Kong residents and others.
Things only got worse, with Disney finding itself in an untenable position – support democracy or the massive Chinese market the studio depends on – as the problems around the protests grew. The controversy lead Liu to skip a planned appearance at the D23 event in August.
TV advertising began in early January with a commercial that recaps the story in condensed form, showing Mulan stepping in to fight in her father’s place and bring honor to her family. Another extended spot came out a bit later that takes a similar approach, only with more footage. It was also among the movies with a commercial airing during the Super Bowl broadcast, but it didn’t offer much in the way of new footage or story elements.
Costar Utkarsh Ambudkar was among those presenting at the recent Oscars ceremony.
An additional wave of TV commercials began in late February with spots that highlighted the secret training Mulan is doing, her power as a warrior and defender of her people, how her gracefulness is part of who she is and more.
How the stunts were choreographed and filmed was covered in a featurette released at the end of February that showed the training Liu underwent to take on the title role and how it all goes into telling the story. A second featurette focused more on the story and how it and the characters represent important elements of Chinese culture.
The movie’s Los Angeles premiere went off as planned, but many of those involved addressed the reality of releasing a movie amid the expanding Covid-19 outbreak, something that first led to the news Disney was scaling back the European premiere.
It wasn’t long after that, though, that the film was delayed, first indefinitely than to July and then to mid-August. In July Disney pulled it from the theatrical release calendar entirely before announcing the new Disney+ plan in August. The decision was understandable given the unpredictable nature of the world around us, but it was still met with disapproval from exhibitors, who felt it was a disrespectful sign of things to come, taking away one of the key titles they were counting on to bring people back to theaters.
It was a few weeks after that a new phase of the publicity campaign began, starting with a spot that focused less on the “honor” elements shown off before and more on the action, including a specific call out that the movie would be available exclusively to “Disney+ subscribers with Premier Access,” the first time that had been specifically noted. Additional spots clarified that even further, saying the movie would be available to “Disney+ subscribers who unlock Premier Access.”
A short featurette from mid-August had Caro talking about the incredible cast she assembled and the physical workout they all got and how massive the scale of the story is. Another featurette included Caro talking about the continued relevance of the story and the effort put into casting just the right actress for the title role, with Liu adding her connection with the character as well.
Online ads using the key art of Mulan holding her sword began appearing in mid- to late-August, including the “Premier Access” language and linking to a Disney+ signup page. Similar promotions were run within Disney+ itself, encouraging current subscribers. Those promos added the caveat that Premier Access gave them early access to the film, before it was available to all subscribers, indicating a windowing strategy for the movie within the service itself.
The #GoldOpen organization/movement that has worked to rally support for films with Asian leads announced in late August it was putting its weight behind this movie, including hosting virtual viewing parties and providing discussion and other resources people could reference and use.
Disney offered a “special look” in early March that featured the song “Loyal Brave True” from Christina Aguilera. The full video for that song came out in mid-August followed by a video for Aguilera’s “Reflection” along with a featurette on the making of that video.
Additional featurettes focused on the stunt work, especially as it relates to the invading army of the general played by Jason Scott Lee, another conversation with Caro on bringing the story to life and her respect for the culture depicted, the look of the costumes each character wears,
A handful of athletes of all kinds appear in this video sharing how they embody Mulan’s attributes of being loyal, brave and true to excel in their sports and overcome adversity.
Beginning earlier this week Disney has released a number of promotional videos encouraging people to purchase/stream the movie. Some like this featured Aguilera’s “Reflection” prominently while showing the journey Mulan embarks on.
The first clip shows Mulan using her incredible skills to take on the warriors of the invading army while the second clip shows the training camp Mulan is part of and the kind of drills they engage in.
Media and Press
An extended feature on the production of the movie covered everything from Liu’s social media misstep to this being Disney’s most expensive live action remake to date to how the Covid-19 outbreak in China has impacted release strategies.
The press campaign took a breather along with everything else until a few weeks ago, when it ramped back up leading to release. That included interviews with the movie’s producer and cinematographer as well as Caro and others discussing the various delays and uncertainty along with the unusual distribution plan put in place. Brief biographies of the main cast were offered here for audiences who may not be familiar with many of them.
A number of news outlets have published comparisons between this movie and the 1998 animated version, especially about the absence of Mushu, the dragon sidekick from the first film.
There’s been some understandable criticism that Disney is giving the movie short shrift with this experiment, not allowing a movie directed by a woman and featuring a predominantly Chinese cast – both things that are largely missing in the domestic theatrical market – the biggest platform available. Some of that is justified, but the reality is that this *is* the biggest platform available at the moment. At least it was when this plan was announced, a time when theaters might reopen and to what extent was still largely unknown.
Whatever those conversations and realities might be, it still comes down (at least here) to how effective the marketing campaign has been at selling the movie.
From that perspective, it’s a strong effort from Disney, one that remains laser-focused on a handful of themes, reinforcing them time and again across platforms to create a clear and recognizable brand identity for the movie. Those themes are largely pulled from the “loyal, brave, true” character attributes ascribed to Mulan herself as well as “reflection,” which is seen throughout the campaign.
The single misstep made involves the messaging around the Disney+ release. As stated before, it was surprising when new spots and ads weren’t immediately available when the new plans were announced in order to benefit from the coverage of those changed plans. And the messaging itself has evolved, with details coming out over the last month. That they were missing for some time, though, means there was a period of confusion or uncertainty around what Disney had in store.