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Sep 8, 2020

Disney gains after 'Mulan' fuels optimism about streaming growth

Mulan release brings jump in Disney+ downloads

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Walt Disney Co. shares rose the most in more than in a month, fueled by optimism that the online release of “Mulan” will bolster the company’s position in streaming.

The shares gained as much as 3.9 per cent to US$137.14, the largest intraday gain since Aug. 4, after preliminary data from researchers suggested that that “Mulan” helped spur downloads of the Disney+ app. Deutsche Bank AG also upgraded Disney to a buy recommendation from a hold, citing its streaming prospects.

“Mulan,” a live-action remake of the 1998 animated hit, was released online Friday after the pandemic prompted Disney to scrub its U.S. theatrical rollout. To see the film, customers of its US$7-a-month Disney+ service have to pay an additional US$30 -- an approach the company hasn’t attempted before. Disney is releasing the film in theaters in countries that don’t have the streaming platform.

Installations of the streaming app rose 68 per cent to 890,000 over the weekend, according to Sensor Tower Inc., a sign “Mulan” drove new customers to the service. Dollars spent on the app climbed 193 per cent to US$12 million compared with a week earlier, the research firm found.

“Mulan” was the most-watched movie online over the weekend, according to the streaming platform Reelgood, which has 2 million customers. It accounted for 15 per cent of streams for the top 20 titles on the platform, compared with 9.1 per cent for the No. 2 film, “I’m Thinking of Ending Things.”

“Mulan” is a high-profile test of whether movie fans are willing to pay up to get new films online -- an approach called PVOD, or premium video on demand. The Covid-19 crisis, which shut down theaters around the world, has prompted Hollywood studios to experiment with different PVOD strategies. Comcast Corp.’s Universal Studios made its “Trolls World Tour” film available online in April for a US$20 fee.

“The release of ‘Mulan’ in PVOD this past weekend should serve as an early proof point with respect to PVOD,” Bryan Kraft, an analyst at Deutsche Bank, said in his report upgrading the stock.

Disney has said that the “Mulan” release was a one-time event prompted by the pandemic. But it shows Disney could do more with premium video, Kraft said.

“Disney could even offer a ‘new release’ tier on Disney+ that gives subscribers access to all new releases for a premium price,” he said. And as Disney+ adds more subscribers -- and raises monthly rates -- it may become feasible to release new movies on the platform without special fees, he said.

This approach is more economical than releasing movies through third parties because “Disney keeps more of the revenue, captures the data and adds value to the overall Disney+ subscription,” he said.

In July, Disney put “Hamilton” -- a filmed version of the Broadway show -- on its streaming service at no additional cost. “Hamilton” generated a 79 per cent or one million increase in week-over-week app downloads the weekend it was released, Sensor Tower said.

Apptopia Inc., another market researcher, put the number of downloads this past weekend at 674,000. About two-thirds of them came from the U.S.

The numbers only reflect downloads from the Apple Inc. and Google online stores and not other ways that customers could subscribe to Disney+ and purchase “Mulan,” such as through devices from Roku Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. And a download doesn’t necessarily turn into a sale or new customer.

It may take longer to get a complete picture of how “Mulan” did. Disney isn’t expected to immediately release purchase numbers.