The coronavirus pandemic has trashed the entertainment industry, and one of its highest-profile targets has been Disney’s live-action adaptation of Mulan. Originally slated to release on March 27, the film’s theatrical debut was moved to July 24, then August 21, then taken off the calendar entirely.

But on an earnings call with investors, Disney executives announced that Mulan will be released on Disney+, the company’s streaming service, on September 4. It will come with a fee attached: Subscribers will pay an additional $29.99 to rent the film. In countries without Disney+ — including China, the country in which Mulan is set — the company plans to release the film in theaters that same day.

This is big news for Disney, which had delayed the film to make sure it could maximize profits with a theatrical release. But theaters around the world closed down in March out of concerns for public health and safety, and they remain closed in many countries. With US theaters in a state of limbo heading into fall, the company’s new release plans are a kind of trial balloon that will indicate whether at-home audiences are willing to pay $29.99 to see a movie they won’t even own.

That sounds like a lot of money, though it’s still less than the cost of two or three movie tickets in many cities. (The average price of a movie ticket nationwide in 2019 hovered around $9.) Add popcorn and soda and the cost is about the same, albeit without the theatrical experience. For some audiences, that may be enough; for others, the plethora of at-home entertainment available on streaming platforms may suffice until the film’s price drops.

On August 4, Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the decision was made due to the pandemic and didn’t represent a future shift in Disney’s business model. But it’s not hard to imagine that if Mulan is very successful on Disney+, the company will begin to ponder more permanent changes.

Liu Yifei shoots an arrow from a bow in Mulan.
The Mulan decision is one in a string of pandemic-prompted changes to release schedules.
Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

The Mulan news is just the latest in a string of recent announcements indicating the pandemic has hastened seismic changes that industry insiders have long believed would eventually arrive.

A week earlier, Warner Bros. announced that the summer’s other extensively delayed, high-profile release, Christopher Nolan’s thriller Tenet, would open in 70 international territories on August 26 before a limited release in US theaters on September 3. The film was initially pushed back in the US to ensure a simultaneous release worldwide. But as other countries reopened after lockdown, so did their theaters. Meanwhile, the vast majority of US theaters (with the exception of drive-ins) remain closed as states suffer from spiking infection rates and few signs of the virus slowing.

And on July 29, megaplex chain AMC and Universal, one of Hollywood’s six major studios, announced they’d struck a deal to shorten the window between a movie’s theatrical and digital releases. Traditionally, a movie wouldn’t be available on on-demand platforms (such as iTunes and Amazon Prime) until months after it arrived in theaters; but now, Universal’s movies can go digital a mere 17 days after debuting in AMC’s theaters. (AMC will share a cut of the profits.)

A month past 2020’s midway point, it seems foolhardy to speculate about what these changes truly mean for the future of movies. Theaters and theater chains are in danger of going out of business completely. Even when they do reopen, it will be a long time before they can open at full capacity. And the fact that concessions are a big part of the theatrical business in the US — but you can’t wear a mask and munch popcorn at the same time — is another giant wrinkle. Movie studios hold the cards for now, but they’re not immune to financial turmoil. With the expensive, large-scale productions that keep the lights on experiencing not only delayed releases but also production challenges, it’s not clear how many studios will last, either. Compact release windows and higher digital-rental fees, if audiences become accustomed to them, may start to seem inevitable.

There are more questions than answers, and anyone who acts as if they know the future of movies right now is either a fool or trying to sell someone something. Changes in Hollywood have almost always been propelled by new technologies and social norms, from the addition of sound to the changes in self-censorship models. The advent of streaming is yet another chapter in that book. But one thing is clear: The decision by one of the entertainment industry’s biggest businesses to deliver a tentpole release like Mulan to its digital service signals that the pandemic, and the US’s failure to contain it, is what’s shifting tectonic plates this time around.

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