Between a rock and a hard place
Making and releasing a movie during the ongoing pandemic is by no means an easy task. The pandemic has necessitated a number of adjustments and changes within the film industry worldwide to keep going in some form or fashion. In the case of Disney's reboot Mulan, the logistics of a pandemic shooting and release are the least of its concerns.
Disney has been rather blatant in recent times regarding its constantly expanding business interests in China. Its first theme park in mainland China, Disneyland Shanghai has been a resounding success. The Chinese Government has, at least on the surface, reciprocated Disney's care and attention by allowing Disney to acquire 21st Century Fox with no hints of any antitrust proceedings. Now with the latest round of controversies, Disney has found itself in, China does not look inclined to come to its rescue.
To give a brief background to the fiasco, it started with Disney's ill-fated Mulan reboot somehow stumbling to completion and release. While Disney had planned to showcase the film in LA in March, the pandemic kept pushing back the date for the official launch until Disney decided to launch the movie on its streaming platform in September. Before all this could happen, however, controversy befell Disney. In mid-August, Liu Yifei one of the lead stars of Mulan decided to weigh in on the Hong Kong situation using Weibo. She offered her unconditional support to the Hong Kong police, a stance that naturally made her the target of a global campaign to boycott the release of Mulan. Enraged social media posts pointed towards the many atrocities of the Hong Kong police during the riots. The public outcry was further accentuated by Disney refusing to make any comment on the matter. This stance is noteworthy given that Disney CEO Bob Iger has previously not been above wading into hot political issues. When Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accords, Bob stepped down from Trump's business advisory council stating that it was a matter of principle. But China is a sore subject for many of the global business giants. For Disney, China is a vital part of its early earnings. Of the record USD 2.8 billion made by Disney's Avenger: Endgame, 22 per cent of this total came from just China. Naturally, Hong Kong protestors and supporters were none too pleased with Disney taking a sheepish business-oriented stance of silence. For a time, there were even talks of a large crowd of protestors sitting in protest at the Hong Kong site of Disneyland.
But it was not over yet. When the credits for the movie were revealed, the film crew's and Disney's vote of thanks to Xinjiang autonomous region authorities sparked yet another firestorm. Xinjiang was where some of the movie was shot and it was fairly common for such a vote of thanks to be made in the normal course of things. There was however the 'small' detail that Xinjiang is also the site of the internationally condemned Uighur internment camps and the authorities the Disney crew were thanking were the very same authorities that had been heavily involved in inhuman and illegal internment of millions of Uighurs.
As international criticism of Disney grew and everyone from leaders to common folk everywhere called Disney out on its spineless silence on the whole matter, the saving grace for the whole fiasco may have been Mulan becoming a runaway hit and further endearing Disney to the Chinese. Unfortunately for Disney, this is not what happened. Not only did the Chinese Government silence all promotion of the movie in China on account of the international controversy, but the movie itself has also seen only a lukewarm critical and audience response in China. Now to cap off all the bad news, US lawmakers have now started official enquiries into Disney's possible connection with "security and propaganda" authorities of the Xinjiang region. For now, it is on the level of a hearing but it will be hard for Disney to dodge making a statement in this regard and that will further alienate them from one or the other side.
It must be noted that Disney is not alone in falling into the gaps of international power games. Getting into China meant compromise for most major corporations across the world. China has also been rather blatant in its use of pressure tactics to get companies to go the way they want. For the most part, this has worked. In recent memory, major game developer Activision Blizzard and sporting giant NBA were forced to take stances that support China after they were pressured by the possibility of falling revenues in China. What this points towards is an era where it is no longer possible for companies to remain apolitical and reap business rewards from both sides. In the modern world of internet and social media, for better or worse, everything is connected and expecting to escape this zero-sum game without a few scrapes is a mark of foolish and blind optimism.