Oscars 2003
Spirited Away by Miyazaki
Critics love Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away
Marc Hairston · March 2, 2003 | From his first original film, Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind (1984), Hayao Miyazaki has been a darling of both anime fans and film critics. Studio Ghibli, the animation studio he formed with his friend and mentor Isao Takahata, has turned out a series of box office hits that have outperformed the Japanese releases of such Disney blockbusters as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Just the announcement that Princess Mononoke (1997) would be his final film before retiring spurred attendance, pushing it to the top-grossing film ever released in Japan (a title it held for about three months until Titanic was released there). Spirited Away (2001) was an "extra" film he decided to come back and make before he retired completely. Again marketed as "Miyazaki's final film," it quickly toppled Titanic's box office and still holds the number one place. (Like Mark Twain's death, Miyazaki's "retirement" is greatly exaggerated. He is currently working on an adaptation of British fantasy writer Diana Wynne Jones' novel Howl's Moving Castle, scheduled for summer 2004.)

So with the 1996 announcement that Ghibli had signed a deal with Disney to release their films worldwide there was great excitement among anime fans. Finally these masterpieces would be released over here with the marketing push and treatment they deserved. It was hoped this would be another win-win arrangement like Pixar's with Disney, where Pixar supplied the product while Disney provided its marketing expertise. But some fans worried that this was really a plot by Disney to suppress any animated films that were superior to their own. What all the fans, both pro- and anti-Disney, failed to recognize then or now was that Disney's primary goal was to get the video rights in Japan. They used the rerelease of the Ghibli films on VHS (and later DVD) to introduce the concept of lower-priced sell-through home videos to the Japanese public. Financially both companies succeeded tremendously as all the films became multimillion-unit bestsellers in Japan. The North American distribution rights of the films were just the icing on top of this. And that's where the trouble began.

Spirited Away
Walt Disney Pictures, 2002
(Originally released in 2001)
Directed by Hayao Miyazaki
125 minutes

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Given Ghibli's Japanese box office numbers Disney was happy to release Princess Mononoke theatrically over here, but they expected another warm, family-friendly film like Kiki's Delivery Service. When they discovered Mononoke was an adult drama with PG-13 violence and intensity, they punted it over to Miramax for distribution. But Miramax faced an impossible task. While anime films are mainstream in Japan, over here 50-plus years of Disney animation has ingrained the idea that "animated" equals "kids' films" in the American psyche. Beautiful and moving as Mononoke was, the public just wasn't interested in an animated feature with a serious subject. It played a limited run in the art house circuit and made only about US$2.3 million.

After that debacle, Disney put any further American releases of the Ghibli films on hold. Still, they invested 10% in the production of Spirited Away with the right of first refusal for American distribution. But even as Spirited Away zoomed to the number one box office hit in Japan (US$230 million) in summer and fall 2001, Disney was publicly saying they had no interest in releasing it over here. Given their experience with Mononoke, their wariness was understandable.

Two things changed that. One was a surprise first-place win at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2002 and the second was Pixar's John Lasseter, a close friend of Miyazaki's since 1980 when both did early preproduction work on Little Nemo in Los Angeles. We will likely never know exactly what he did to persuade Disney's top brass (Miyazaki himself will only politely use the term "bulldoze" to describe Lasseter's efforts). Given that the Pixar contract is coming up for renewal it's clear that Disney were eager to keep Lasseter happy and agreed to release an English version with him as the executive producer. Plus, unlike Mononoke, Spirited Away was a more family-friendly film, so Disney was on familiar turf when it came to marketing it.

Getting the top brass to agree to release a film was one thing; getting the marketing department to push it was another. There was talk about the possibility of a nationwide release of about 1,000 theaters—not quite the 3,000+ theaters of a standard Disney release, but far more than Mononoke had. But Spirited Away still suffered from the "stepchild syndrome." Unwilling to invest the marketing effort that they normally gave their own animated features (or even as much as they gave their own B-films like The Country Bears or Tuck Everlasting), Spirited Away opened quietly and never got past a maximum release of 151 theaters in the U.S. Still, it managed to gross over US$5.5 million and gained the attention of just about every movie critic in the nation.

You can understand the marketing department's dilemma. In the modern market animated films are just one part of a multi-part merchandising plan. Lilo and Stitch is a success for Disney not just because of its box office and video sales, but because of the upcoming TV series, video games, possible tie-ins to the theme parks, and all the Stitch merchandise in the Disney Store. This is hardly an American-only phenomenon; Japanese companies are masters of marketing tie-ins and plush toys, keychains, etc. from Miyazaki's films are widely available in Japan. But Ghibli did not sell any merchandizing rights to the films and characters to Disney. So from the marketing department's view Spirited Away's box office and video sales were the only returns possible, so there was no point in wasting the advertising money.

Spirited Away did manage to find its way into almost every American film critic's heart and onto a sizable number of "top ten of 2002" lists. As of this writing there are rumors in trade magazines that Disney might do a widespread rerelease of the film if it wins the Oscar. Even if it doesn't win, more people will see the clips on the awards program than saw the film in theaters. Spirited Away did not turn out to be the breakout anime film we were hoping for, but whether it wins or not, it has helped pave the way for mainstream acceptance of anime in America.
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