Trisha’s Take: How do you make a Miyazaki film more profitable?

ponyocliffseaThere really isn’t much meat to this old story Variety posted about the U.S. production team of Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea, but there’s an interesting tidbit in there that I’ll get to in a bit.

Joining previously announced producers Frank Marshall (the fourth Indy movie, the upcoming The Last Airbender) and Kathleen Kennedy (Persepolis, Tintin) is Pixar president John Lasseter, and was it honestly a surprise that he’d be involved?

In November 2008, the English voice cast was announced with such names as Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, and Noah Lindsey Cyrus—the eight-year old sister to Miley Cyrus and my pick for the lead character of Ponyo (since IMDB doesn’t have that info yet).

What is interesting is the second paragraph of the Variety article, which contains this line from writer Mark Schilling:

The goal is to boost both the number of screens and the box office take beyond [Studio] Ghibli’s record for a U.S. release set by Spirited Away, the [Hayao] Miyazaki toon that earned a little more than $10 million on 714 screens in 2002 and 2003.

However, as much of a Miyazaki fan as I am, I think that goal is doomed to failure.

I’ve been an anime and animation fan for quite some time, and I have always thought that one of the common problems of the medium is that while fans can appreciate the art and artistry of a film like Persepolis or Steamboy, the general public has traditionally thought that any movie that was animated was going to be a movie for children—and the box office numbers have reflected this.

Back when I was writing for Anime Insider, I remember we did an article on the comparative box office grosses for the top 10 anime films that have been released in the U.S. Unfortunately, I can’t find that article right now—and besides, it would be five years old—but I did find something similar online that was written for the Associated Content website (a sort of clearing house for freelance writers to get noticed).

North Carolina screenwriting graduate student Will Wright took a look at the 15 highest grossing anime films of all time, and he discovered that out of the top five anime films, the first four slots were taken up by kiddie franchises Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! and Spirited Away has the fifth slot.

When you click through to the Box Office Mojo page, though, you notice that figure of “a little over $10 million” represents only 3.7% of the total gross that Spirited Away achieved. In contrast, Pokemon: The First Movie (which I did see, and yes, I did enjoy it at the time) has a domestic gross of over $85 million which represents 52.4% of its total gross.

Kinda makes that $10 million dollar figure for an Academy Award winning movie look kinda paltry, doesn’t it?

Here where I live in the U.S., we have made some great strides towards creating cel or cel-like animation that audiences other than children can enjoy, but those strides have been almost entirely in the sitcom form, lead by “The Simpsons” and continued by “King of the Hill,” “Family Guy” and even “Drawn Together.”

The only animated show I can think of in the last 20 years that is sophisticated enough to be more than just a sitcom was “The Boondocks,” but that’s not very surprising considering its source material was the left-leaning, politically-minded comic strip by Aaron McGruder. Other people will probably chime in and say that “Avatar: The Last Airbender” is a show that adults can (and do) enjoy, but I’m actually not counting it in my list because it’s a show aimed squarely at the kid audience.

The bottom line is, the mainstream U.S. audience still isn’t there enough to get behind a cel-animated film that isn’t by Disney, which is something that even Disney knows because the last time they made a full-length one was 2004’s Home on the Range which grossed only $50 million on a estimated budget of $110 million. And to get that Disney-like audience might require a whole bunch of changes that would piss off the already existing fanbase.

In any case, I’m definitely waiting to see what Lasseter has up his sleeve and praying that it will be enough to help justify the idea of re-introducing 2D animation back into our film lexicon.

Posted on March 15, 2009 at 20:48 by Trisha Lynn · Permalink
In: Columns, Movies