Walt Disney cannot presume (and presumably will not presume) that China, currently flush with homegrown blockbusters, will flock to Mulan just because it’s Mulan.
And the hits keep coming, with Walt Disney offering up a new trailer for their live-action remake of Mulan. This Niki Caro-directed action drama features no talking dragon, a different villain (Gong Li’s evil witch) and no explicit stand-in for Li Shang. This is not going to be a Gus Van Sant-style remake of the 1998 toon, although the trailer does make a few offhand references to the iconography and/or dialogue from the Disney animated feature. What it will be is a big-budget, visually dynamic action drama featuring an entirely Asian cast (and a female action hero) within an IP that is familiar to audiences around the world.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the film is going to score big in China when it opens (presumably) concurrently with the March 27 domestic launch date. And while I wouldn’t bet against it, that’s not necessarily a guarantee. After all, China isn’t exactly starving for big-budget blockbusters starring predominantly Chinese casts, especially not in the last five years. The very thing that will make it stand out in North America and (arguably) much of the world, that it’s a big-budget action blockbuster starring a majority (if not entirely) Asian cast, is what will also make it, well, to quote Raul Julia’s immortal Street Fighter monologue, “Tuesday” for actual Chinese moviegoers.
A delayed release and piracy notwithstanding, we saw this with Crazy Rich Asians in the summer of 2018. It was lauded as a watershed moment of Asian representation in a mainstream Hollywood movie, but it was a much bigger deal in North America than it was in China. The Constance Wu/Henry Golding flick earned $174.5 million domestic and $238.5 million worldwide, still terrific on a $30 million budget, but with just $1.143 million in China. For reference, that’s noticeably less than $2.35 million earned in North America by My People, My Country, an anthology movie you’ve probably never heard of that grossed $423 million worldwide this past October.
China has its own somewhat regular supply of homegrown blockbuster thrills. Think the recent likes of Monster Hunter ($385 million in 2015), The Mermaid ($555 million in 2016), Wolf Warrior 2 ($854 million in 2017), Detective Chinatown 2 ($544 million last year) and both Ne Zha and The Wandering Earth, which earned over/under $700 million this year. As suou’re not going to get a lot of talk in China about Chinese moviegoers going “Huzzah, I’m myself onscreen in a big budget movie!” This isn’t a new idea, as western critics and audiences were a lot more impressed with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than were eastern audiences.
The Hollywood movies that break big in China tend to either be superhero movies (put a pin in that for a moment), installments of already popular franchises like Fast & Furious and Jurassic World or distinctly American/foreign flicks like Ready Player One, Green Book, Coco and Zootopia. While Kung Fu Panda 3 did well in China in early 2016, its $154 million gross wasn’t by itself enough to make the DreamWorks toon into a hit, as it still needed $141 million domestic and $223 million elsewhere to earn $521 million. Abominable, a co-production between DreamWorks and Pearl Studios that took place in modern-day China, earned $15 million in China.
Meanwhile, in what could be one of the more significant box office stories of the last 18 months, China’s fandom for DC/Marvel superhero movies has exploded to now approximate the sub-genre’s popularity in North America. Where once such films, outside of the Avengers installments, had a ceiling of around $120 million, Ant-Man and the Wasp earned $125 million, Venom grossed $269 million, Aquaman made $298 million, Captain Marvel earned $154 million and Spider-Man: Far from Home jumped 71% from Spider-Man: Homecoming’s $116 million cume for a $200 million total, enough to push the Sony flick over Skyfall to become Sony’s biggest grosser ever.
Avengers: Endgame jumped 70% from Infinity War (from $359 million to $619 million), which allowed it to pass Avatar at the global box office. More importantly, while recent non-superhero flicks like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Kong; Skull Island, Resident Evil: The Final Chapter, Ready Player One, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, Coco and xXx: Return of Xander Cage soared to $150-$230 million Chinese totals, this year only one Hollywood release that isn’t a superhero movie, Hobbs & Shaw, earned even $136 million. If this is the “new normal,” where DC/Marvel movies dominate over there as much as they dominate over here, it changes the entire equation for non-superhero blockbusters.
This is not to say that Mulan will bomb in China, or that it won’t earn enough in North America and overseas to be just fine without Transformers-level grosses in what will soon be the world’s biggest moviegoing market. What this does mean is that Disney, and I’m sure they know this already as they have the same numbers I do, must do more than just say “Hey, it’s Mulan, with lots of Chinese characters, based on a Chinese story!” They must look at the notion of Mulan in China as a starting point and sell the movie as something worth seeing even for folks indulging in explicitly Chinese mega-movies.
Chinese audiences are more discerning than for which they are given credit. Warcraft was more frontloaded there than it was in North America (it was essentially their Batman v Superman) and they were no more enthralled with Dark Phoenix or Terminator: Dark Fate (after initially embracing X-Men: Apocalypse and Terminator Genisys to the tune of $113-$122 million) than were we. Moreover, Disney’s biggest recent successes, be they the MCU flicks, the Star Wars movies, the toons or the live-action fairy tales, didn’t remotely rely on China to achieve blockbuster status. That’s good, because recent history suggests that Mulan in China is less of a sure thing than you might think.
— Mulan (@DisneysMulan) December 5, 2019