The Margin: $30 to watch ‘Mulan’ on Disney+ is either outrageous or an amazing deal, depending on who you ask 

The battle lines have been drawn. 

Disney’s decision to release its live-action “Mulan” movie on Disney+ for a $30 fee has split audiences into two camps. They include those furious about being charged three Hamiltons to watch something on a service that they are already paying for, when other releases (like, well, “Hamilton”) are included in the subscription price. And then there are those who say $30 is a lot less than they would have spent to bring their families to a theater to see the film in pre-pandemic times. 

New Walt Disney Co. DIS, +8.79% Chief Executive Bob Chapek explained in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday that “Mulan” will stream on Disney+ on Sept. 4 in areas where movie theaters remain closed over coronavirus concerns. It will still open in theaters in areas where cinemas are open, however. And the $29.99 fee is not a one-time rental; Disney+ users will be able to watch the big-budget action movie as much as they want for as long as they are subscribed to the streaming service. So it’s essentially paying to own the movie — as long as you remain a Disney+ subscriber. 

“We see this as an opportunity to bring this incredible film to a broad audience currently unable to go to movie theaters, while also further enhancing the value and attractiveness of a Disney+ subscription,” he said.

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But many people can’t get past the sticker-shock of paying $30 for a film during a pandemic that has cost more than 150,000 Americans their lives, and millions more their livelihoods. Besides, they’re already dropping $7 a month (or $70 a year) for Disney+. “What is Disney smoking to think I’d pay $30 to see ‘Mulan’ on a streaming service that costs me $8 a month,” tweeted one disgruntled customer.

Still others noted that $30 is less than it would cost to bring a family of four to a blockbuster movie before, especially when factoring in the price of snacks, gas, parking or baby-sitters for younger kids. The average U.S. movie ticket was $9.16 last year, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners, although they can run considerably higher in some cities. For example, a family of four (two parents, two children) in the greater New York City area would pay closer to $41.65 for a night at the movies, not counting snacks, according to ValuePenguin’s calculations. Tickets for adults at an AMC theater on the upper West Side were close to $18 apiece. 

Bernstein analyst Todd Juenger wrote in a note that he saw both sides. “Certainly, $30 for a family is significantly less expensive than it would cost to take that family to see this movie in a theater,” he said. “On the other hand, the marginal cost of watching some other movie on Disney+ or Netflix NFLX, -1.47% is ‘zero.’ Or framed differently, a consumer could receive almost a half-year of Hulu SVOD ad-supported, or Disney+ at the annual discounted rate, for the same price as watching Mulan once.” 

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Disney’s “Mulan” move also has some viewers wondering about the future of other films with releases pushed back by the COVID-19 pandemic, such as Marvel’s “Black Widow.” Chapek said that “‘Mulan’ is a one-off” during the Tuesday call. “That said, we find it very interesting to be able to … learn from it and see what happens, not only in terms of the uptake of the number of subscribers that we get on the platform but the actual number of transactions on the Disney Plus platform that we get.”

But Robert Thompson, a pop-cultural historian and director of the Bleier Center for TV & Pop Culture at Syracuse University, told MarketWatch that the move away from catching new releases in traditional cinemas to streaming them on-demand at home was already well underway before the pandemic. “This was all going to happen anyway,” he said. “The only thing this quarantine and this virus has done is accelerate the complete takeover of the digital distribution of content.” 

And he noted that if you look at how movies are normally released, the number of tickets they expect to sell, and how many people are probably going to gather around a single streaming device at home to watch “Mulan,” then the $30 price isn’t so surprising. 

“However, the average person is not going to do the math, and when you are presented with a product and a price tag, you are not going to do a cost-benefit analysis from the industry standpoint before you decide to get upset or not,” he said. “And a lot of people think they already paid for Disney+ and the amazing library it’s going to open up to them — but now they have to not only pay more to get ‘Mulan,’ but it’s a lot more than several months of the subscription fee!” 

And this sort of blowback is something that streaming services will have to sort out as they experiment with how much to charge for movies and documentaries that go straight to streaming. One early success story includes Universal Pictures’ UVV, +1.71% “Trolls World Tour” earlier in the pandemic, which was released to video-on-demand for $20. It grossed nearly $100 million, making it the biggest digital movie release ever. Jon Stewart’s political comedy “Irresistible,” starring Steve Carrell, also pivoted to premiering via premium video-on-demand last month, dropping on Amazon Prime AMZN, +2.10%, Apple TV AAPL, +0.36%, Google Play GOOG, +0.59% and FandangoNow FHP, to rent for around $19.99. 

But “Mulan” is going for $30, which Thompson suggests could advertise that it’s a premium title. “It’s an experiment. What we’re watching develop before our very eyes is the industry figuring out how much they could charge for this kind of giant picture,” Thompson said. “What Disney is doing now is feeling out whether the market will support that $30 price — listening to how many complaints they get, but more importantly, seeing how many people actually put down the $30.

“And a lot of people out there, despite all of the grumbling they’re doing … they’re gonna have a house full of kids who want to see ‘Mulan,’” he added.