'Mulan' was set to be a blockbuster in China. But then came the coronavirus.

The outbreak has forced tens of thousands of Chinese movie theaters to close. It's not clear whether multiplexes will be open in time for the premiere.
Image: Mulan
Workers wearing masks staff a promotional stand for the Disney move "Mulan" in an almost empty shopping mall in Beijing on Feb. 16, 2020.Greg Baker / AFP - Getty Images file

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By Daniel Arkin

The live-action remake of "Mulan" — the first major Disney movie featuring an all-Asian cast — was set to be a blockbuster event in China, home to the second-largest market for the global film industry.

But the rapid spread of the new coronavirus across mainland China could upend those expectations.

The outbreak has forced Chinese officials to close tens of thousands of movie theaters, scuttling the release of high-profile American imports such as "Jojo Rabbit" and "Dolittle." It was not clear whether multiplexes would be open in time for the late March worldwide premiere of "Mulan."

The potential postponement of the film's Chinese release could deal yet another blow to the country's movie box office, a key pillar of its entertainment economy. It could also sting Disney, which relies on overseas ticket revenues to bolster its bottom line.

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"Mulan" will have "major appeal in China, [so] the expected strong box office for the film is for now put on hold," said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior analyst at the media measurement company Comscore. He added that most other film producers and distributors face similar uncertainty.

Dergarabedian said China's total of $9.2 billion in box office revenue last year, just shy of the combined $11.4 billion in sales in the U.S. over the same period, explains the high stakes for major Hollywood studios.

Workers wearing masks staff a promotional stand for the Disney move "Mulan" in an almost empty shopping mall in Beijing on Feb. 16, 2020.Greg Baker / AFP - Getty Images file

Walt Disney Studios did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment. Sean Bailey, Disney's president of production, told The Hollywood Reporter that he was "looking at it day by day" amid the widening public health crisis.

The movie, directed by Niki Caro ("Whale Rider"), was budgeted at roughly $200 million and, unusually for the kid-friendly Disney brand, got a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association. It tells the tale of a young Chinese woman who disguises herself as a male warrior.

In less than a month since the coronavirus was officially declared a public health emergency, the number of confirmed cases around the world has risen to more than 81,000. The virus is quickly spreading throughout Europe, and this week U.S. health officials warned Americans to prepare for what could become a pandemic.

Chinese officials first warned against large public gatherings Jan. 24. The economic toll of the virus is one of several issues fueling what has reportedly been described as a "bleak winter" for the Chinese entertainment industry, along with new censorship guidelines and a clampdown on tax evasion.

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"Mulan," a retelling the 1998 animated movie, drew controversy in August after its star, Chinese American actress Liu Yifei, suggested she supported the police crackdown on Hong Kong protesters.

In a post on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, Liu shared an image from the Chinese newspaper The People's Daily that said: "I support the Hong Kong police. You can beat me up now."

Liu's post fueled the rise of a hashtag, #BoycottMulan, on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter — all of which are blocked under China's strict censorship regime.