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As pro-democracy protests continued in the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday despite threats of Beijing’s military force, the Walt Disney Company could find itself caught between the two sides, on and off-screen.
Disney has continually demonstrated a forward-thinking approach when it comes to doing business in China and Asia, even propelling properties like Black Panther and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which were originally thought to be challenged in the region, to great box office heights.
But what happens when the star of a potential $1 billion-grossing 2020 movie voices her support of those allegedly violating human rights?
On Thursday, Chinese-born Mulan star Liu Yifei exclaimed on blogging site Weibo that she stands with the Hong Kong police who since June have been engaged in an oppressive crackdown on anti-government demonstrators and journalists. The civil unrest was triggered by potential legislation which would have allowed suspected criminals to be extradited to territories where it doesn’t have formal extradition deals. Next to the previous riots that have occurred, 1.7 million protesters turned out today in the Hong Kong streets to brave the rain in a situation which media reports like CNN’s have described as peaceful.
”I support Hong Kong’s police, you can beat me up now. What a shame for Hong Kong. #Ialsosupporthongkongpolice#,” wrote Yifei last week. Suddenly, Disney has found themselves to be in the middle of a global human rights maelstrom, one which, at the moment, they’re currently waiting out. Deadline reached out to the Burbank, CA lot on Friday to get their take on #BoycottMulan and they did not respond to requests for comment. RelishMix reports that the Twitter hashtag #BoycottMulan spiked to a global 75K on Friday.
From what we gather at this point in time, the current #BoycottMulan social media outcry isn’t expected to impact Mulan‘s release, which is March 27 in U.S./Canada (typically these big tentpoles will go day and date with the U.S). Mulan has not been dated yet in China or Hong Kong. A title such as Mulan, with a release in Q1 would be submitted to the government’s China’s Propaganda Department in late January, which assesses all releases including imported pictures and homegrown product. Typically, mainland China lets a Hollywood studio know about a month prior what a pic’s release date will be.
“With the boycott originating through Hong Kong, people in China will deliberately go see the movie to protest the boycott. All of this could actually benefit the film,” says Stanley Rosen, University of Southern California Professor of Political Science, who has an expertise in Asian affairs.
International film insiders are hopeful that while the current political situation in Hong Kong is extremely delicate, it could subside well before Mulan‘s release.
Sources also say that it’s not unusual for a young Chinese-born actress like Yifei to be patriotic. While she was called out on Twitter for being a naturalized American citizen, Yifei’s acting and modeling career was launched in the PRC. Sources inform Deadline had Yifei expressed support for the Hong Kong protesters, that would have created larger complications for Mulan and Disney’s business in the PRC. Last week, celebrities such as Tony Leung Ka-fai and Jackie Chan, who have a history of being pro-Beijing, threw their weight behind the state’s POV against the Hong Kong protests.
Said Chan in an interview with CCTV, which prompted outcry from pro-Hong Kong supporters, “What’s happening in Hong Kong recently has made a lot of people heartbroken and worried. When I saw CCTV had posted on Weibo the hashtag ‘Five-starred red flag has 1.4 billion flag guards, I re-posted it immediately. I wanted to express as a Hongkonger and Chinese person, the most basic principles of patriotism. Safety, stability and peace are like air. Only when you lose them will you realize how precious they are.”
Despite the optimism for Mulan in mainland China, the question is whether the fallout from the Hong Kong protest lingers on and effects business, not just in the U.S. with Asian audiences, but other territories outside the PRC.
“If the situation in Hong Kong becomes more polarizing, more prolonged, and the crackdowns on the protesters are even more violent, and Yifei continues to tweet her support about it, that could very likely impact Mulan in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” says Rosen. One distribution source in the region concurs that Mulan‘s B.O. prospects and Taiwan and Hong Kong could be impacted (that said, Hong Kong isn’t a top ten overseas territory for Hollywood movies).
But there’s one area where #BoycottMulan could have an immediate effect on Disney.
“The biggest impact that the Boycott could have is on Hong Kong Disneyland. Already, people are not going from the mainland to Hong Kong. Shanghai already has its own Disneyland,” adds Rosen.
Though Hong Kong Disneyland has seen attendance spike roughly 10% between 2016 and 2018, there have been recent reports of a slowdown, with net losses in 2018 near $7M. Hong Kong Disneyland is not far from the Hong Kong Airport, which activists have occupied, causing flights to be grounded in recent days.
Some point out that Disney has released movies before in areas where there’s been geo-political conflicts, such as Russia or Nigeria, but, for some, Mulan is art imitating life.
Says Rosen, “For young people, Mulan is about fighting against repression. Liu’s comments will seem to be a personal insult, both to them and to the character that they love. Here’s an actress doing the opposite of what they feel the Mulan character and legend would do in the current situation, which would be to likely side with the protesters.”
Nancy Tartaglione contributed to this report