Mixed Industry Reaction To Theatrical Anime

V is for Victory!
Misty, from Pokemon, celebrates her movie's success.
Well, the results are in and they are both good and bad.

First, the good news is that "Pokemon: The First Movie" has performed even better than Warner Bros. hoped for. As of the weekend before Christmas, the feature had taken in over $83,000,000 in box office receipts. Industry analysts expect at least another $1,500,000 (even with the competition from "Stuart Little") during the busy Christmas to New Year's week.

After theaters have taken their cut and Warners pays for advertising & prints there should be the biggest profit ever made from an anime feature in the United States.

Ooh that burns me up!
Lady Eboshi (standing) and Ashitaka (superimposed) smolder with ire at their movie's turnout.
Now the bad news. "Princess Mononoke" has been disappointing. As comparison, the Miyazaki movie has been in release longer than "Pokemon" (52 days vs. 40 days), lavished far more attention from Miramax films (which tried to do everything right) and yet grossed less than $3,000,000 total. Disney, Miramax and Ghibli were hoping for a lot more. Because of the expense of the release there will be no profits from this release until the film goes into Home Video.

Hopefully the theatrical release will help the Home Video release be more successful. Usually, the advertising from the movie resonates with the public in time for the Home Video. In other words, commercials for the movie help plant the seeds for consumers to buy the video--regardless if they saw the film or not.

Disney will be thinking twice before releasing anymore Ghibli features theatrically in the near future. At the very least we would expect "My Neighbor Totoro" to go to theaters (whenever 20th Century Fox's window expires).

While some in the anime world may believe that the release of "Princess Mononoke" was not truly supported (like having more advertising & more theaters), they may not be aware of some of the realities of today's marketplace.

First, that a major release costs at least $30,000,000 in advertising and prints. Unless a film can recover that amount and pay for (in this case) the rights, dubbing and overhead and make a profit there is no point in having a major release. No one in the business expected a major release of "Mononoke"--the question was, how much of a limited release would it receive?

I'm hiding... we didn't expect THIS many fans!!
The ever-popular Blair Witch "eyes" shot
Miramax is the most successful distributor of limited releases. (If you considered only this year [1999], the winner has to be Artisan with "The Blair Witch Project.") Miramax is well known for taking cheap or foreign or oddball or all of the above movies and turning them into word-of-mouth money makers.

The distributor gave "Mononoke" a careful but not new or innovative release. (Like Artisan with "Blair Witch") The distributor tried to create word-of-mouth through a terrific Internet site and (unlike Artisan with "Blair Witch") a deluge of critical acclaim. Miramax attempted to get the film into the best art houses predispositioned to anime, animation and/or Japanese films and succeeded--offering to switch the film with their concurrent release, Meryl Streep's "Music Of The Heart" if "Mononoke" should bomb. (Although it made more money [over $14,000,000] "Music Of The Heart" is seen as the bigger disappointment. Meryl Streep used to command a much larger percentage of the box office.)

And, like all distributors of limited releases, Miramax bought television ad time in certain markets to see if commercials would have any appreciable affect on box office. Distributors compare markets with advertising against markets with no advertising. In Los Angeles (which has an unusually large amount of commercials for movies) Miramax's media buyer bought air time on non-network owned stations primetime and on all stations during late night (after 11pm) slots. The commercials were slanted to attract adults with the message that [although animated] here was a movie that wasn't meant for kids.

The results from cities with TV ads versus those with none? Almost nil affect. On a per theater screen average, TV ads added almost nothing. In other words, Miramax could advertise all it wanted and it still wouldn't have appreciably affected the box office. This was in complete contrast to "Blair Witch"--where television advertising propelled the feature beyond the art house crowd where it started and out into the mainstream.

In a bizarre coincidence, "Mononoke" had more in common with "Pokemon" in this regard. "Pokemon" too was unaffected by television advertising--but this is because it didn't need any, it sold itself (for so many reasons).

Anime News Service also reported of how Miramax went as far as to test a wide release in Minnesota. On their site they posted three stories which covered news of the test, a list which included the additional theaters in the state and a small but important post from a newsgroup. (We used none of their sources for our story and instead relied upon our own contacts.)

Disney & Miramax were also led to believe that there was a huge Internet following for Studio Ghibli and "Mononoke" which would turn out for this film and/or get the word out. The companies held some high hopes that what helped make "Blair Witch" a success--might also work for "Mononoke." This support never materialized in any recognizable numbers. We apologize to Disney (which regularly visits our pages) if we helped contribute to this mistaken belief. (And for reasons we're not sure of, there now appears to be a greater reaction between "Sailor Moon" fans making "Sailor Moon" related purchases than from other anime groups or combinations. If given the choice today, we feel fairly certain that Buena Vista Home Entertainment would have rather picked-up the "Sailormoon" features than some of the Studio Ghibli features. Pioneer has gotten a much better return on its investment than Disney has.)

And although it is somewhere inbetween "Pokemon" and "Princess Mononoke" we now have no expectations of any of the "Sailormoon" features to get a theatrical release. The public has made it very clear to Hollywood that they will see highly rated TV series in theaters but not something serious (at least, for now).

Meanwhile, in Japan, production has started on the third "Pokemon" feature. Though, it should be noted how the little pocket monsters have been fading in popularity. The first feature grossed Y4.2 billion in the summer of 1998, the second grossed Y3.4 billion just this last summer (1999) and the third feature is expected to do even less. However, the features help propel the toys which have been estimated to gross over Y600 billion (US$5.8 billion) in sales. The third feature is to be called, "Pokemon 2000." Warner Bros. has the rights to the second feature which it plans to release in the summer of 2000.

Not all anime loses popularity with time. "Sailormoon" grew more popular with time in Japan and in English speaking countries (but for very different reasons).

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