The (Mis)Marketing of Feature Animation

The FPS MAGAZINE blog has a thought-provoking piece by Marc Hairston about how Disney – not having learned anything from their clumsy release of Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY in 2002 – again bungled the release of Miyazaki’s HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE last year. This points to a more serious problem with feature animation in the United States: no studio understands how to market intelligent animation. I’m not necessarily talking about rated-R adult animation; intelligent animation is simply any type of animated film that doesn’t fall into the conventional formulas of mainstream US studio animation.

Studios become confused if an animated film doesn’t have big-name voices like Will Smith, Halle Berry or Robin Williams. They begin scratching their heads if there aren’t dozens of fart and puke gags scattered throughout the film. After all, how can you create an advertising campaign for an animated film that doesn’t have fart and puke gags in it? What about an animated film that has a strong point of view yet doesn’t have instant generic appeal to both 5-year-olds and 50-year-olds? Preposterous! Studios have proven time and again that they are unable to design marketing campaigns specific to a film’s needs; they have one cookie-cutter marketing formula for animated features and they try to fit every animated film into that scheme. If a film doesn’t fit, they simply don’t release it.

The cruel irony being that there is more variety in animated features today than at anytime in the history of this art form. Unfortunately, the average moviegoer isn’t aware of this fact because most of the distinctive animated films aren’t released in the US, and the ones that do secure releases are rarely marketed beyond their wrongly perceived “niche audience.” With HOWL’S MOVING CASTLE, Hayao Miyazaki produced one of Japan’s all-time top grossing films. It’s shameful that CASTLE didn’t find its way into more than 200 theaters in the US, especially with Disney’s marketing and distribution muscle behind it? Puerile incompetent garbage like HOODWINKED can infest thousands of multiplexes, but Masaaki Yuasa’s MIND GAME (2004), one of the greatest animated films I (and many others) have ever seen, is unable to even secure a US distributor. What about the upcoming French anthology film PEUR[S] DU NOIR or the kooky Norwegian feature FREE JIMMY. Will they find their way to the US? If so, it’s doubtful they’ll receive more than the perfunctory art house release.

Bill Plympton’s strongest feature to date, HAIR HIGH, stilll hasn’t been released theatrically two years after completion. I’m not personally a fan of Satoshi Kon’s films – MILLENNIUM ACTRESS and TOKYO GODFATHERS – but they certainly were capable of making far more than their pathetic US grosses, $37,000 and $108,000, respectively. Incidentally, Satoshi Kon’s films were mismarketed by two completely different studios – Go Fish Pictures (DreamWorks) and Samuel Goldwyn Films. One interesting possibility is the upcoming French animated noir, RENAISSANCE, which Disney partially bankrolled and can distribute in the US. It will also be interesting to see how Warner Independent markets Richard Linklater’s A SCANNER DARKLY, slated for release this summer.

The development of the animated art is hampered not by a lack of vision from artists, but by shortsighted film studios that are unwilling to think outside of the box when it comes to animated film distribution and marketing. There’s the perception in the industry that only one type of animated film can succeed at the box office, and all other animated films are expendable “art” films that have no moneymaking potential and deserve to be seen by as few people as possible. With the glut of virtually indistinguishable animated films being released in 2006, this lack of variety will become even more noticeable and is guaranteed to have serious consequences on the ability of all animated features to succeed at the box office.