Disney’s ‘Mulan’ will look to Christopher Nolan’s ‘Tenet’ as a movie theater health test

As almost all the movie theaters in America remain shuttered due to coronavirus, a wide array of big theatrical blockbusters have had their premiere dates delayed to later in the year—and some were delayed a full year.

Some of the biggest delayed releases are from Disney (DIS), which put out seven billion-dollar box office releases in 2019. “Mulan” was pushed from March 27 to July 24; Marvel’s “Black Widow” was pushed from May 1 to Nov. 6; and Pixar’s “Soul” was pushed from June 19 to Nov. 20.

“Mulan” is first up, and will be a major litmus test for Disney. But on Disney’s Q2 earnings call on Tuesday, new CEO Bob Chapek was asked how confident Disney feels that moviegoers will be comfortable going to theaters right when they reopen, and he pointed to a competitor’s movie as the first litmus test.

“We’re going to get a pretty good idea of that, because there’s a competitive movie that opens one week before our film,” Chapek said. “At that point, we’re hoping that there’s some return to a semblance of normal.”

Chapek was referencing “Tenet,” the trippy action film coming out on July 17 from Christopher Nolan, the director of “Inception,” “Interstellar,” and the Dark Knight trilogy. The film’s distributor is Warner Brothers (T).

It’s unusual to see Disney taking any cues from Warner Brothers, and especially for a live-action remake of an animated classic from 1998. But coronavirus has created a new reality for Hollywood. Disney finds itself in a position of rooting on “Tenet,” since it would reflect that moviegoers are ready to return to theaters.

IMAX is another movie industry player with its fingers crossed for the success of “Tenet.” The movie will be offered in IMAX format, and IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond told Yahoo Finance there are anxious questions around the film’s release. “Chris really wants to release it at that time, and certainly people who are going to show it really want it released, and a lot of fans really want it released,” said Gelfond. “But at the end of the day, a lot of these things are based on detailed economic projections. So, is it going to do the right kind of revenue that’s going to work for Warner Brothers? Will audiences show up, and in what numbers?”

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 13: An outdoor ad for Disney’s “Mulan” is seen on March 13, 2020 in Hollywood, California. The spread of COVID-19 has negatively affected a wide range of industries all across the global economy. (Photo by Rich Fury/Getty Images)

John Partilla, CEO of Screenvision, which sells the advertisements you see in movie theaters before the previews begin, is optimistic about the return of movie theater ticket sales.

He sees a “silver lining” to the crisis: “We have a lot of fresh content that is in the can, and has been in the can, and as we’re all sitting at home, going through the carousel of streaming and what is out there, I think we’re starting to see diminishing supply of content—no surprise. And as people enter this reopening phase, Hollywood is in a very fortunate place in that there is a lot of terrific new content. In fact, the Hollywood slate is denser and more robust now, in the back half of 2020, because so much was pushed from the start of the year.”

Still, there’s a lot of agita among movie theater chains after Universal had such success releasing “Trolls World Tour” straight to digital rental. AMC has threatened not to show any Universal movies in the future, even once theaters reemerge after coronavirus.

Partilla is betting that threat won’t stick, and that the “Trolls” example doesn’t mean doom for theaters. “I think most of these experiments are very one-off,” he says. “The theatrical window model endures for a simple reason: it works economically for everyone in the value chain.”

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more on how coronavirus is affecting the entertainment industry:

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Bethenny Frankel predicts coronavirus will level the Hollywood playing field

Coronavirus is forcing Quibi, NBC Peacock to change their plans at launch

Coronavirus puts ‘extreme pressure’ on all three pillars of Disney’s business

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