In a rare, good old-fashioned rant, Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman takes to task the distribution of indie animation, which makes NYC and L.A. happy, but leaves the majority of the country asking -- Persepolis who?
One good way to make a fool of yourself is to talk about a movie you have not actually seen, but that, dear readers, is exactly what I am about to do. There is at present an animated film that has won eight major film awards and was, or is being, nominated for eight others. Despite the fact that Sony Pictures is handling this film's U.S. distribution, the film is almost completely unknown among those who attend American movie theaters. Because of this unforgivable insult against one of the year's best films, I have been unable to see anything but a few slivers of it via Internet trailers. Has anyone out there not in L.A. or N.Y. -- anyone -- seen Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis?
On the other hand, audiences are treated (on two screens at most multiplexes) to the lowest examples of swill dished out by Hollywood. While Persepolis struggles to be shown in the smallest of art film houses, National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets is smeared like celluloid scum across thousands of screens, insulting the intellect of millions. Oh, this film is good enough if one is willing to profess ignorance of American history and government, European history, Native American history, archeology, geology and geography. This is not to mention ignoring at least three major plot holes that could envelop Mount Rushmore, but why indeed go on? This misbegotten mishmash is presently sitting on a box office gross of $187,000,000, which should be enough to launch a third sequel (possibly subtitled Yankee Doodle Dimwits).
Persepolis, to date, has brought in $540,000 in vastly limited release (30 screens). Teamed up with the gross profits from Paprika ($882,667), this formidable and brilliant team of animated films -- both distributed by Sony -- actually managed to break the $1.4 million mark. Persepolis is up for an Annie. If it were to win, the award would be the eighth major award secured by the picture this year; the film has already won the 2007 Sutherland Trophy presented by the British Film Institute, the Cannes Jury Prize, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Animation, the New York City Film Critics Circle Award for Best Animated Film, and The Most Popular Film Award from the Vancouver International Film Festival, among others. Book of Secrets would be fortunate if nominated for a Golden Turkey.
Imagine the scene on Oscar night when Persepolis is announced as one of the nominees for Best Animated Film. When it is named alongside Ratatouille and Surf's Up, most of America is going to respond with "Huuuunnh?" So, you might ask, what else is Sony up to these days, that Persepolis should remain an enigma to millions? Well, at the time of this writing the distributor had exactly two films in the top 50, First Sunday and The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep. Neither one will ever be considered masterpieces of the cinema, let alone Oscar nominees. Total gross between the films: about $55 million, not counting the take from DVD rentals that they should start accruing in oh, two months or so. Sony had nothing to lose by letting Persepolis loose in wider release for even a brief run.
I know what this sounds like, readers. So far I have focused on box office, profits, revenues and attendance figures. Although the economic bottom line is a strong factor in what gets made, released and distributed, there is far more to it than that. It would be erroneous to say that the only function of cinema is an aesthetic one, yet there is a degree to which this is true. This is where American audiences are cheated by decisions such as the ones recently made at Sony (though they are not the only culprits). There are not enough alternatives to Book of Secrets and clones of Resident Evil when they dominate the multiplexes, save for the occasional independent film that breaks through to the mainstream. Far too often, a mass audience is denied the opportunity to have a special and unusual experience, and this is likely the case with Persepolis.
It wouldn't be the first time that distributors have made grievous errors by not disseminating or promoting excellent animated films to audiences. Was it all that long ago that Warner Bros. decided that Cats Don't Dance was not worth a box of litter in terms of publicity costs? Didn't the studio follow up that dunderheaded decision by giving Brad Bird's The Iron Giant the steel shaft as far as publicity and screenings were concerned? Both films became belated cult hits after being released to DVD, and either one of them could have at least held its own if nominated for an Oscar today. Just because the money earned by Persepolis made The Water Horse look like The Phantom Menace in comparison does not mean that the public should be deprived of a major Oscar contender and multiple-award-winning film. But... the public has a role in this travesty as well.
These unhappy scenarios do not take place because we are stupid, unappreciative, or rejecting; it is because too many of us have been trained to respond to blockbuster CG animated releases from certain studios with major budgets and imposing brand names. If Disney, Pixar, Dreamworks or Blue Sky didn't make the film, the public probably doesn't know it (and won't see it). Except for the fanatics like those of you who belong to ASIFA, visit this website and read this column, most will not even care. It also happens because the distributor has estimated a bottom line and made a decision that Persepolis is a continent away from it. Therefore, Satrapi's opus will remain (mostly) unseen until the DVDs roll out.
Ours is not a quiet culture; we talk a good fight. We complain that movies just aren't very good anymore, that the comedies aren't all that funny and the dramas and action flicks are too derivative. We always want something different, challenging and imaginative. We are hip multiculturals, avatars of diversity, always eager to absorb new ideas. In fact, we aren't noisy enough and have been far too reticent to complain to the source of the problem, the studios and distributors themselves. When a film as important and unique as Persepolis shows up, we seem to settle for Mad Money. Two things need to happen in order for really good animated films to be given a wider audience. The first is that we must demand to see them. The second is that distributors and studios need to have the courage to put them out there and see whether the demand justifies the release. It seems to me that there is a failure of nerve on both sides, and a surfeit of blame to go around.
Cry out for Persepolis. There is nothing to lose by doing so. If you don't believe you have the power, think again. Witness the latest fight waged by those who did not have satellite TV; through their protests and harangues, the NFL (owners of the NFL network) relented and decided to simulcast the season-ending tilt between the New England Patriots and New York Giants on standard broadcast networks. The game was of intense interest to fans who wanted to see if the Patriots could complete an undefeated season, and the fact that many around the country were originally shut out of the broadcast led them to revolt. A similar situation occurred with the Big Ten Network, in which hundreds of thousands of college football fans took on the satellite channel. If we can be so roused by a few football games, can't we protest the fact that award-winning films are passing us by because of spineless corporate decisions?
Having audiences educate the distributors is certainly no crime. Perhaps the Sony executives believe animated films remain box office anathema, despite the success of many of the recent CGI hits. Perhaps they were too leery to release an Iranian film at a time when the Bush administration has incessantly rattled the saber towards that nation. Perhaps Sony believes that the public just won't support this film. I admit that Sony may have a minor point here: I read a blog entry written this summer by Studio Ghibli aficionado Daniel Thomas MacInnes in which he recalls Paprika playing to an audience of four or five in Minneapolis after it had been released to an art house theater. Still, I challenge almost anyone to go to an evening showing of The Water Horse right now -- tonight -- and find more than three times that number in attendance. Would Persepolis have found a better audience? The only answer I can give is -- we'll never know.
Yes, because of Sony's failure of nerve and our own passivity, we'll never know. What can be done about this? The answer is not a complicated one. The coming year will doubtless produce some very fine animated films, several of them not produced between Maine and California. India, Korea, China, and other nations have entered the awards fray. Japan is a perennial contender, and these are just recent examples. When a film outstanding enough begins to pick up awards, generate Annie/Oscar buzz, or finds a worldwide audience, clamor for it. If you have friends who are not animation buffs or fanatics, have them demand the film as well; this is a wonderful chance to educate them and enrich their cinematic experiences. A film doesn't have to be shown on 2,700 screens in order to get good exposure and provide viewing pleasure for many; less than half that many would still put a film within reach of most, and likely still turn a profit for the suits.
In the final reckoning, this column is not about Persepolis alone. My rant concerns countless instances of fine animated films, many of them good enough to contend for and win major awards, going unseen. It is impossible to ascertain who deserves the greater share of blame for this, but let's put that aspect aside for the moment and consider this instead: It really doesn't have to be that way. If we want change, we can work for it. If the studios and/or distributors still want to make a profit (albeit a smaller one), it can still happen. We can, if we wish, vote with more than our wallets; that sort of voting gets us another dreary sequel to something that made some money. Next year, when a major distributor or studio gets hold of a truly deserving animated film, don't settle for a blank screen. We should not become passive consumers. We can vote with our keyboards, our voices, and ultimately, as animation fans, our hearts.
Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.