Greg Singer examines the business considerations for acquiring, marketing and distributing adult-oriented animated features in North America.
For whatever reasons, when people think of animated films here in the United States, they tend to understand them as being family entertainment. For the average moviegoer, cartoons are dismissively or nostalgically assumed to be the amusements of childhood. Even though people visit museums and concert halls to share in the creative spirit of the arts, most people do not consider going to the movies as an experience of something similarly artful.
Within this cultural milieu, studios are tentatively exploring the opportunity to acquire and distribute feature animation outside of the mainstream, family market. There is a growing niche audience for adult-oriented animated stories, and the studios are learning what business practices are conducive to bringing such films to the silver screen.
How is adult-oriented animation being promoted to increase its appreciation and audience? With the release of Spirited Away, Millennium Actress, The Triplets of Belleville, and so on, we are seeing a pattern emerge for how studios will sell their mature animated films to the public.
While the box office numbers dont compare to normal expectations even Spirited Away, honored with an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, did not earn huge theatrical returns there is good enough financial incentive to distribute adult animation, otherwise the studios wouldnt bother. For audiences, it provides an occasion to see animated features that they may not have been able to see; for artists, it provides encouragement to produce independent features, knowing that there is an outlet for such niche films.
In recent months, Destination Films and Samuel Goldwyn Films have brought to theaters the acclaimed Tokyo Godfathers, and Go Fish Pictures, the new specialty distribution arm of DreamWorks, has released the equally lauded Millennium Actress.
During the upcoming summer, Samuel Goldwyn and Go Fish will be distributing other adult-oriented animated films Kaena and Innocence: Ghost in the Shell, respectively.
R.J. Millard, vp publicity & marketing, IDP Samuel Goldwyn
Greg Singer: How did Tokyo Godfathers come to your attention? What about the film, in particular, made you feel it was worthwhile to acquire and distribute?
R.J. Millard: Were always looking out for foreign films as well as American independents and documentaries. A lot of our films that weve done over the past year are through our Sony International partners. We look at everything theyve got coming up. We did a picture for them about a year and a half ago called El Crimen del Padre Amaro, which was the Mexican entry for the Oscar last year. We have a long history with animation, as well anime mostly. We did Cowboy Bebop in May 2003, so were always looking out for new works. Were looking for whats interesting and provocative.
GS: Is the interest in distributing these kinds of features because Japanese animation is so popular, or because of the success of other animated movies that have been released in the States?
RJM: Its sort of a combination why we decided to distribute them. Obviously, there is an audience here in the U.S. for anime, whether its really heavy action-oriented or science fiction-oriented, or now, in the past couple of years, theres been a shift toward more story-driven, character-driven anime. That has given all of us who want to distribute these types of films a little more of a foundation, a little bit more of an audience to build upon.
GS: With respect to marketing and promotion, it seems these films are being approached as art house films, with a limited, platform release. What factored into your decisions in terms of a distribution plan?
RJM: When we did Cowboy Bebop, there was already name recognition of the brand, and so that audience was very easy to find. With Tokyo Godfathers, it isnt your typical anime. Because there are no known stars, and theres not a huge genre you can tap into, its a challenge, because you have to find the audience. Even though [director] Satoshi Kon has such a great following in terms of people who have loved his previous works [i.e., Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress], this is a very different work from his other films.
All three are vastly different in terms of their style and subject matter, so we couldnt go back and tap into Satoshi Kons previous audience and just expect them to show up. [Tokyo Godfathers] is very traditional storytelling. In many of the reviews, a lot of the critics mention that this could easily be a live-action film. But thankfully its not, because of the gorgeous visuals and beautiful animation that was done. So, in that sense, we are starting in art house theaters, trying to find an audience in each individual market and then potentially growing the audience, either in that market or by expanding into other markets.
GS: Do you feel there is a sizeable audience for adult-themed animated stories in the American marketplace?
RJM: I think its growing. The success of Spirited Away, and its Oscar win last year, was incredibly helpful to all of us who love animated films. Its happening again with Triplets of Belleville, so we hope we can continue to build the audience for animation.
GS: Do you attribute not having a larger market share to a lack of interest on the part of American audiences, or is it because the movies are not broadly a comedy or family entertainment?
RJM: Im not sure why these films arent crossing over to a mainstream audience. Even Spirited Away only grossed about $12 million.
GS: Is there a strategy for how you try to promote the films to the general public?
RJM: Were going after a number of different audiences. Obviously, were working within the art house community, so were tapping into all of the local film societies and film organizations. Were working with Asian and Japanese groups in each individual market. Were going after animation or anime film clubs, whether they are online or offline. Were also working with all of the alternative and college weeklies to bring in a college-age audience who might be interested in the film. The critical response to the film has been overwhelmingly positive so far, which has been a great help.
GS: Have theaters been receptive to exhibiting the film?
RJM: A lot of them have been very positive in their response, because of Satoshi Kons name, and because of the fact that the audience for anime films in the U.S. has been building steadily over the last couple of years.
GS: Is it a safe return on investment to market and distribute these kinds of films?
RJM: Theatrical distribution is always a risk. You can only do it with pictures that you really believe in. The challenge is that you are constantly spending the money before you are earning it. Its not like other industries where you can gauge, where you can spend money at the same time that youre making money. You promote a product and then sales start to come in, and then you continue promoting. With us, we have to front load, so a lot of the P&A [prints and advertising] budget is spent even before we get into theaters.
GS: Do you get to do the video and DVD release, as well?
RJM: The video and DVD is owned by Columbia TriStar. So, theyll take over as soon as were done with theatrical.
GS: Do you have any other movies that youre looking to pick up and give a run?
RJM: In terms of animation, we do have another project that were going to be doing in June called Kaena. Its a French film, with the voice of Kirsten Dunst, about a young girl trying to save her dying planet. Kaena has already opened in France, and its doing very well.
Mike Vollman, head of marketing, Go Fish
GS: What was the reasoning behind establishing Go Fish, a separate arm of DreamWorks, and getting involved in distributing these kinds of films?
Mike Vollman: DreamWorks has been around for 10 years now, and weve had great success. We found that we were being offered acquisition rights on films that didnt have distributors. We kept looking at these opportunities and passing on them, because they werent right for the DreamWorks brand. So, we decided to open a specialty division. Thats how Go Fish came about.
GS: Are you distributing these movies because Japanese animation is so popular worldwide, or is it based on the success of other animated movies that have been released in the States?
MV: Actually, Go Fish will release all types of films. Japanese anime was one of our first ones, and I think that comes from Jeffrey Katzenbergs love of animation.
GS: Is there something in particular about these movies, either Millennium Actress, or Innocence: Ghost in the Shell that makes you feel theyre worthwhile to acquire?
MV: Its all about the film whether its a documentary, anime, drama or comedy whatever the genre, its about whether we think its a good film that has a chance of finding an audience on both theatrical and home entertainment levels.
GS: Do you find that there is a potentially big audience for adult-themed animated stories in the American marketplace, outside of family entertainment?
MV: I have watched as Beauty and the Beast, which was a fantastic, incredibly smart movie, went straightforward to a family audience... but it eventually made itself as a big Broadway hit it had that sensibility. Still, at that time (1991), you couldnt get anyone but parents and little kids to go see the movie. It was a really difficult sell. As time has moved forward, with movies like Toy Story, Shrek, Finding Nemo Antz was also a big step in that direction, as an animated Woody Allen movie it slowly made it okay for other audiences to go to animation.
Finding Nemo and Shrek could not have earned roughly $300 million on just parents and kids. [Families] are definitely the primary audience for animation, but I think that more and more people (young adults and teens) are starting to see that animation can be for them, as well. Add into that the fact that The Simpsons is in its 15th season; South Park did really well against a specific audience. Also, you cant discount the success of Cartoon Networks Adult Swim block. Thats a solely adult audience, 11:00 pm to 2:00 am.
GS: So, you dont attribute it to a lack of interest on the part of American audiences, its just a question of...
MV: I think its a slow, educational process. Look at whats going on with Triplets of Belleville right now. Its a very smart film thats doing decent box office against an adult audience.
GS: Is there a safe return on investment, or are you sticking your necks out, taking a little risk, because you believe so strongly in these kinds of films?
MV: Theres always risk. With the explosion of DVD and home entertainment, I think it makes it a little bit less of a risky proposition. This is an audience that is very niche-able. People who like anime go to the specific anime Websites, they go to the anime conventions, they read the anime books its an audience that you can market to in a relatively effective way.
GS: Have theaters been receptive to exhibiting these films?
MV: I think so. For example, Millennium Actress was one of the best reviewed films last year. Our phones started ringing off the hook once those reviews broke, because people wanted a piece of it. We were able to keep the film in theaters all the way up to a date when we felt we were getting too close to the DVD release to make it worth anybodys while.
GS: What has been your strategy to promote these kinds of films to the general public? Is there a way to market these films to widen their appeal and draw in a bigger crowd?
MV: Specifically for anime, I dont know that there is a bigger crowd to be had. Unless you have something that has really universal appeal, I think its better to focus on that specialty market and not distract yourself, at least not at first, with crossover dreams. Everyone says, Oh, this movie is going to play to this quadrant, or this group, but then were going to cross over to this, this and this...
You know, anime is like an indie rock band. The people who like it really like it. For Ghost in the Shell II, its a great, powerful, visually exciting film. Younger males who like action films will get a kick out of it. People who like police dramas, or who liked The Matrix, will get a kick out of it. But you have to be willing to go sit in a theater showing Japanese language animation.
Joan Filippini, head of distribution, Go Fish
GS: Do you think that perceptions are changing about animation, and that its not just family entertainment?
Joan Filippini: I think its generational. A lot of twenty-somethings are interested in videogames and manga [Japanese comic books]. I think they view animation as more adult depending on the theme. As these kids get older, and then the younger ones come in, more and more people are becoming interested.
GS: Studios seem to be handling the release of anime films along the lines of an art house film, with a platform distribution. Is that the case?
JF: Im not sure you can really qualify anime as art house. They do play in some art house theaters, but you wouldnt categorize it as an art film. Certain movies play well in certain theaters. It really depends on the demographic area. When I determine which theaters well be using, I really look at where anime has played and not just anime, but a particular kind of anime.
If you look at Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, those two films were marketed more as family childrens films, and movies like Millennium Actress and Ghost in the Shell II are different. Therefore, the strategy for distributing them is different. I have been researching markets for slightly older audiences, and thats where I will be targeting. Ghost in the Shell II will have a very limited distribution in the beginning, maybe the top ten theatrical markets where I think it will do well, and then I will target college markets, such as Ann Arbor and Boston.
GS: Are theaters receptive to exhibiting these kinds of films?
JF: My experience has been that everyone is happy to play these films, but Im only calling people where I want the film to be, where I think it will do well, because there obviously has been a history. There is certainly money in these kinds of films. Once anime has become established, were going to see more and more. Its a great market, and the art is extraordinary. Most of the public does not appreciate the art behind the traditional, hand-drawn films. Ghost in the Shell II, for example, the way its drawn, the way its put together, Ive never seen anything like it. Its gorgeous.
GS: Are you trying to widen the appeal and broaden the audience beyond the college or fan-based crowd?
JF: Im not sure the audience is that wide yet, so Im not pushing for mainstream distribution. One day, maybe. But right now its more of a niche market for anime fans, and the college and older high school crowd. Cowboy Bebop, for example, was rated R. It was a somewhat violent film, and it did over a million dollars. Thats actually a very good number for that kind of movie. Now, if you look at Spirited Away, which did $12 million, its not a fair comparison... because Spirited Away was marketed differently, having spent a tremendous amount of money to promote the film. But still, theres a reason to spend that money. Even though you may not get the return in the theatrical market, the return is in the DVD market.
Naturally, I want the theatrical release for our movies to do well. But you can depend on the DVD market. Manga Entertainment, who distributed the first Ghost in the Shell, on 10 screens, did $500,000, which is incredible. Until a few years ago, it was mostly smaller distributors trying to get these films out there. Now, of course, Buena Vista has made a deal with [director] Hayao Miyazaki to distribute eight of his films. Sony has gotten in on the game, and no doubt other studios will follow.
GS: Do you think that having subtitles dissuades people from going to see these films?
JF: No, not at all. The audience, theyre purists. They want to hear the Japanese voices and read the English subtitles. In the translation, some of the cultural nuance of the original film gets lost. In reviewing history, where Spirited Away was playing in one theater with subtitles and the English dub, the subtitled version did better.
GS: What have you learned from Millennium Actress that will help in distributing Innocence: Ghost in the Shell?
JF: Its a learning process. For Millennium Actress, we only opened in six theaters. We knew, going in, that it would be very limited. Because of the great reviews we got, I didnt have enough prints for how many people wanted to play that film. But I bicycled the prints out, and kept it alive. So, the excitement is out there. In fact, even though the DVD release was in October, I just had another booking in January.
Millennium Actress did well even when playing in small towns. It did what we expected. Theatrically, it earned, in total, $53,000. With six prints, we didnt have expectations for a $10 million movie, or even $1 million, or $150,000.
For Ghost in the Shell II, Im going to try something different. This is a bigger film. Its more commercial, in that theres a built-in audience. I look at the history of all anime that has been released domestically, and sci-fi in general, and see where they played and where they performed well. Then I will choose theaters based on where titles have done well.
The bottom line is, these movies are beautiful and I hope that the public, one day, will see this is really a beautiful artform.
Greg Singer is an animation welfare advocate, eating in Los Angeles.