Box Office Analysis: Tenet vs Mulan


Interpreting the box office is a near-impossible task in 2020, but the results of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet and Niki Caro’s Mulan make for fascinating reading.

With the potential to reshape the film industry forever, the box office battle between these two films is more important than ever, so let’s dive into some analysis.

Why Tenet vs Mulan?

On paper, Tenet and Mulan may not seem to be direct competitors at the box office. One is a cerebral, mind-bending thriller from legendary director Christopher Nolan, and the other is a family-friendly action movie from box office juggernauts Disney.

However, the events of 2020 and the two films’ coinciding release dates make them the first litmus test for what could be the biggest change in the movie industry in over a century.

Despite hesitation from some, Warner Bros. released Tenet into cinemas around the world. Meanwhile, Disney cancelled Mulan‘s theatrical release in most countries and launched it directly onto its own streaming platform. Both films opened on September 4 in the USA, with earlier releases for each in other territories.

Why does this matter?

The events of 2020 that shut down cinemas across the globe for months on end has the potential to spell the end of physical movie theatres on a large scale.

The rise of VOD (video on demand) platforms and direct-to-streaming releases has threatened to impact the viability of theatrical releases, but up until this year, a happy medium had been found between the two spheres.

While Netflix, Amazon Prime and more were succeeding with the online releases of independent and international cinema, as well as a growing number of Hollywood movies, the theatrical industry was stronger than ever, with huge box office hits including Avengers: Endgame and Star Wars: The Force Awakens proving that audiences still couldn’t resist the big-screen experience.

In 2020, however, with studios unable to release into cinemas for so long, streaming looks set to steal a march even for the biggest Hollywood blockbusters.

How would both films have done in normal circumstances?

If 2020 had gone like any other year, then both Tenet and Mulan would have been two of the biggest box office hits of the year, releasing into cinemas across the world and likely setting records galore.

Christopher Nolan, whose films have generated nearly $5bn at the global box office, would have seen Tenet likely take in between $600-800m, on par with his other most recent sci-fi blockbusters, Inception and Interstellar.

Mulan, however, would probably have been the highest-grossing film of 2020. With no Avengers-scale superhero movie scheduled for this year, Disney’s live-action remakes would have certainly been the strongest performers worldwide, and Mulan was predicted to gross at least $1.5bn, after an opening weekend between $150-250m.

Box Office Analysis

Of course, 2020 didn’t pan out how we all expected, and now Tenet and Mulan are the leading representatives of two competing future visions for the film industry. Tenet‘s results show the potential future of traditional theatrical releases, while Mulan the future of online releases.

And at first glance, the results look better for traditional movie theatres, and pretty dismal for Disney’s vision of online releases.

Having outstripped demand for advance tickets of Nolan’s most recent films, Tenet launched into cinemas around the world with immense anticipation, partly as a result of pent-up cinemagoing demand, as well as expectation of yet another modern classic from one of cinema’s best working directors.

In South Korea, Tenet sold out all of its IMAX screenings in its first week of release, while in the UK, it took a better-than-expected $7.1m in its first five days of release. After its first wide weekend of release, the film had a worldwide gross of $53m from 41 countries, well down on the figures for Interstellar and Inception, but an impressive achievement considering cinemas were bound to operate below full capacity.

The film’s North American release wasn’t quite as spectacular, taking only $20.2m on wide release, far below what would be expected in relation to the impressive results from other territories. Of course, cinemas there were also unable to sell tickets to full capacity, but given the strong performance of Tenet elsewhere, its first weekend in North America is a disappointment.

And this is why it’s so difficult to draw solid conclusions from Tenet‘s first weeks in cinemas. The numbers aren’t as gloomy as most in the industry expected at first, but they’re not spectacular enough to fully confirm the return of theatrical releases.

Mulan launched onto Disney+ on September 4 in most countries, and had a small theatrical release in countries without the streaming service, including Thailand and Singapore.

The results from the release in South East Asia were not terrible, but not spectacular either. However, its online release is the most important, and those results do not look promising from any angle.

Understanding how films perform on streaming platforms is a little difficult, because results are given by the distributing studio, so negative figures are less likely to be announced.

Also, Disney’s release of Mulan is different to normal direct-to-VOD launches, as the film is only able to view on Disney+ by paying an extra ‘Premier Access’ fee (differs by country) on top of the normal subscription cost.

In the week before the film’s release, downloads of the Disney+ app grew hugely in comparison to previous weeks, however when it came to those who actually paid the Premier Access fee for Mulan, the numbers were far less impressive.

According to reports, the film was viewed by 1.1m households, which translates to a ‘box office’ gross of just $33.5m. Compared with its predicted opening weekend gross of over $150m worldwide, these results make for grim reading for Disney and the future of direct-to-streaming releases over traditional theatrical launches.

Mulan‘s poor performance is down to a variety of reasons. One is undoubtedly Disney’s decision to release it behind an extra paywall, which was heavily criticised even after the initial price of $29.99 was reduced.

Also, films that release directly onto streaming platforms invariably end up on pirate websites within hours, rather than the shaky camera copies of theatrical releases. This means viewers were able to watch Mulan in HD quality on opening day without paying a penny for it, inevitably hurting Disney’s takings.

Reviews of the film haven’t been spectacular, but better than many of Disney’s live-action remakes, all of which were huge box office successes. Reception has been much harsher in China, where audiences’ complaints look set to make it a box office bomb there.

Which movie has done better?

Looking at these early figures, Tenet has definitely beaten Mulan in terms of surpassing expectations and – in some places – net box office takings.

Having only released in North America a week ago, things could still change dramatically, however prospects for theatrical releases in 2020 are far better than they were a month ago, while the future of direct-to-streaming for blockbusters like Mulan looks very gloomy.

Does this solve the debate?

In short, no. While Tenet‘s performance is good news for cinemas and Mulan‘s bad news for streaming, the results of these two films are worth taking with a pinch of salt, given the continued uncertainty around the world.

For one, large proportions of audiences around the world still remain reluctant to go to the cinema to see a film, and the reduced capacity of movie theatres as a result of restrictions means that Tenet‘s gross is well below what it should be. And if circumstances around the world don’t change soon, cinemas could really start to struggle with these much-reduced numbers.

Meanwhile, Disney’s decision to release Mulan behind an extra paywall is undoubtedly a key reason for its struggles. There have been rumours it could release on VOD on Amazon Prime or Youtube for a fee, but to replicate the viewing numbers that Netflix and Amazon originals see on a weekly basis, Disney has to release Mulan to all of its subscribers without an extra fee.

Whether or not that is viable for a film that cost so much money to make is another matter, but the vast majority of viewers are not willing to pay prices higher than cinema tickets to watch a film on the small screen.

Where do we go from here?

Tenet and Mulan will both remain at the top of the conversation for most of September, but the real future for both theatrical releases and streaming could become clearer as we head into the autumn.

The next big film to release in cinemas around the world is Marvel’s Black Widow, set to debut in late October/early November. The film is currently slated for a theatrical release, and Mulan‘s poor numbers online may help to convince Disney into releasing it in cinemas.

DC Comics’ Wonder Woman 1984 was set to launch in early October, but has just been pushed back to release at Christmas. This is in part to reduce competition for Warner Bros.’ Tenet, but is also a reaction to Tenet‘s less-than-stellar box office numbers in North America.

With Wonder Woman‘s delay and Disney still mulling their strategy for Black Widow, we could see both films pushed back either to the Christmas period, Valentine’s Day weekend or very possibly next summer.

There is certainly pent-up demand for a crowd-pleasing big screen blockbuster, and both Wonder Woman and Black Widow could take the opportunity to make the most of that audience appetite. If either film is released online, however, it will need to be without a ‘Premier Access’ fee, otherwise we could be seeing both superhero blockbusters failing miserably in similar style to Mulan.

There’s a lot at stake in the world of cinema at the moment, and things could change dramatically between now and the end of 2020. At present, prospects look better for theatrical releases, but perhaps not good enough in the long term. Meanwhile, the results for streaming have been dire in Mulan‘s case, but Disney may need to overhaul their release strategy in the months ahead.


About Author

The Mad Movie Man, AKA Anthony Cullen, writes articles and reviews about movies and the world of cinema. Since January 1st, 2013, he has watched and reviewed a movie every day. This is the blog dedicated to the project: