A scene from Disney's live-action film Mulan.
The Chinese authorities have told the mainstream media not to cover Walt Disney's release of "Mulan". This came after controversy broke out overseas over the film's links with the Xinjiang region, four people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Disney, slated to open in local theaters on Friday, had high hopes for Mulan in China, but it would be another blow to the $ 200 million production if it were no longer featured in the country's severely censored media .
Mulan played well-known Chinese actors – Jet Li, Gong Li, Donnie Yen, and Liu Yifei – and was based on a Chinese folk tale. It was tailored to appeal to audiences in China, the second largest film market in the world.
But mixed online reviews and cinema capacity constraints due to coronavirus prevention measures are likely to weigh on box office performance before major media outlets received a notice asking them not to cover the film.
Three sources reported that Reuters media received the announcement, two of which said it was broadcast by the Cyberspace Administration of China. A fourth source from a major Chinese newspaper said he had received a text message with a similar assignment from an older colleague.
No reason was given in the notice, but the sources said they believed this was due to the overseas backlash over the film's links with Xinjiang.
Neither the Cyberspace Administration nor Disney immediately responded to requests for comment.
Partly shot in Xinjiang, Mulan's credits were picked up thanks to the authorities there, resulting in a boycott of the film overseas. China's crackdown on ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims in Xinjiang has been criticized by some governments, including the United States, and human rights groups.
On Wednesday, the Global Times, a tabloid of the ruling Communist Party's People's Daily, criticized the backlash against the film in an editorial in its English edition, describing it as "another manifestation of extreme ideologies in US public opinion regarding China" .
Disney had worked to ensure that Mulan was well tested with Chinese audiences, and the company's chief financial officer told investors on Wednesday that it was "very pleased" with the initial results of its release elsewhere.
Due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the film was released in many markets and not in theaters via Disney's streaming service.
According to data from Maoyan, a Tencent-backed ticketing platform, Mulan will likely be shown on more than 40% of Chinese screens as of Friday. Chinese theaters currently limit capacity to typically 50 percent.
The film had sold 9.78 million yuan ($ 1.43 million) in tickets on Thursday afternoon, accounting for 55% of all ticket sales for Friday's shows in China.
An analyst who refused to be named because he said the situation was sensitive, predicted the film would make a dismal 150 million yuan at the box office in the mainland given early audience ratings.
The movie, which many have already seen online, earned a 4.7 out of 10 rating on the popular Douban social media website, where users leave reviews of movies, books, and music.