Piracy hurt Disney’s Mulan in China in 1999, and it appears to be happening again

  • Mulan was downloaded more than 400,000 times and uploaded to illegal streaming sites ahead of its cinematic debut in China
  • Disney’s animated Mulan was widely available on pirated discs when it was released in China in 1999, nearly a year late

When Disney’s animated musical Mulan was released in China in early 1999, nine months had passed since its international debut. Pirated copies of the film were widely available on disc by that point, and the film famously flopped in the country. Now, it looks like history might be repeating itself.

Disney’s live-action remake of the film, also titled Mulan, was the most pirated movie in the world during its first weekend online, according to data from iknowwhatyoudownload.com. The film was put up on the Disney+ streaming platform in the US and a handful of other markets on Friday, September 4, and became widely available on pirate sites within an hour of going live.

In China alone, Mulan was downloaded more than 250,000 times over the peer-to-peer downloading protocol BitTorrent by that Sunday. And that is likely just the tip of the iceberg as illicit streaming sites and downloads from cloud platforms like Baidu Wangpan are more difficult to track. Several streaming sites known for pirated content had Mulan up within a day of its release.


This might be troubling for Disney, but Mulan did not exactly flop in China when it opened in cinemas this past weekend. It topped China’s box office with an estimated US$23.2 million while cinemas are operating at half capacity as they try to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it still falls short of the US$28.9 million that Christopher Nolan’s Tenet pulled in during its opening weekend in China. And the domestic blockbuster war film The Eight Hundred has been on a tear, pulling in US$175 million within a week after its release on August 21 and making more than US$330 million to date.

Not all Disney films are huge hits in China. Last year’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil made US$22.5 million its opening weekend in the country.

But given the story’s origins in Chinese folklore, Mulan was supposed to be different. The film has also been plagued by controversies outside China related to last year’s protests in Hong Kong and recently the revelation that parts of it were filmed in Xinjiang, where China is facing accusations of human rights abuses against the region’s Uygur Muslim minority. Beijing has repeatedly denied those accusations.

The prolonged closures of cinemas during the pandemic also led Disney to make the unprecedented move of debuting the US$200 million film online, taking the film on a “circuitous path” to release, said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore.

“While it may not have met expectations in its opening in China, it’s tough to determine whether the controversy swirling around the film had an impact or if piracy may have played a role,” Dergarabedian said. He added that it would take time to assess the film’s overall performance.

Piracy of the film took off fast in China. On September 4, China saw 49,000 downloads of Mulan. By the next day, downloads ballooned to nearly 139,000, with another 74,300 downloads on Sunday. Total downloads surpassed 400,000 through September 10 before it started playing in cinemas the next day.

Dedicated subtitle translators have also boosted the popularity of pirated copies of the film in China. Disney did not make Chinese subtitles for Mulan available on Disney+, but people were uploading their own translations less than a day after the film released. Chinese subtitles could soon be found on the many illegal streaming sites that made it easy for people to find pirated copies. Some of the sites embedded the subtitles in the film along with ads that ran across the top.

Soon after Mulan’s release, negative reviews started pouring in on Chinese review site Douban. More than 150,000 ratings have so far resulted in an average of 4.9 out of 10. One reviewer likened it to a “weird Chinese meal” at a Western Chinese restaurant. Members of the Chinese diaspora have also panned the movie online for peddling in stereotypes.

The 1998 film was criticised for having a Mulan who looked too foreign and was too Americanised. But the new film is criticised for going too far in the other direction, relying on stereotypes about filial piety and fighting for the honour of the dynasty. This sidelines the feminist themes of the first Disney film and the original Chinese folklore, some charge.

The negative reviews were a sharp turn in sentiment after many pledged to support the film last year over a controversy concerning Mulan lead actress Liu Yifei. Liu posted on microblogging site Weibo in support of the Hong Kong police during the city’s tumultuous pro-democracy protests. Protesters have accused the police of brutality.

Then a new controversy started after the film’s release. Some people quickly noticed the credits offered “special thanks” to government entities in Xinjiang, where some of the film’s scenery was shot. The UN estimated that more than a million Uygurs have been held in internment camps in the region.

Disney did not respond to requests for comment. But The Walt Disney Company chief financial officer Christine McCarthy addressed the controversy in a recent Bank of America conference, saying the film was almost entirely shot in New Zealand and that they needed permission from the Chinese government to film scenery in 20 different locations in the country. “I would just leave it at that, but that is generated a lot of issues for us,” she added.

Inside China, the controversy has been muted, with local media reportedly told not to cover the release of Mulan. Following the slate of negative reviews, though, it’s hard to to tell whether this had any impact.

Negative sentiment about Mulan online in China was mostly about the film’s content. And there would not have been such extensive knowledge about that in the country without widespread piracy.

Piracy is nothing new, of course, especially not in China, which has built up a reputation for it despite consumers’ higher propensity to pay for content in recent years. But Disney’s unique release strategy for Mulan changed how quickly people had access to high-quality copies. Putting the film online ahead of its theatrical release gave viewers easy access to free high-definition copies with 5.1 surround sound on day one.

This was very different from the poor copies of films recorded in a theatre that might typically be available so soon after they are released. For many people, the experience of watching a pirated copy of Mulan at home might be almost identical to watching on a legal streaming platform. And this was before they were even allowed to pay for it in China.

Disney had high hopes for the film in China: Mulan has an all-star cast of household names in China that includes Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Gong Li, in addition to Liu Yifei.

“If Mulan doesn’t work in China, we have a problem, I think,” Walt Disney Studios co-chairman Alan Horn had said in a round-table discussion with The Hollywood Reporter last year.

The entertainment giant is not the only one invested in whether Mulan works in China. The film’s success and how it relates to Disney’s release strategy could impact how other movie studios release films in the future as they try to find a model that works for the pandemic.

“Depending upon the outcome, Disney and other studios may adjust their thinking on how to release their films,” Dergarabedian said. “But we should keep in mind that this may only apply during the pandemic and not necessarily long term, though lessons learned now may have an impact down the road.”