First of all, don’t panic. Nothing has been decided yet.
That said, an interview with Ghibli’s Hayao Miyazaki published in the September issue of Japan’s Cut magazine included some rather disturbing news. Here are some of the translated quotes that appeared on GhibliWiki:
“Suzuki-san (Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli’s CEO) is making a dissolution program for Ghibli. No joke, we talked about it the other day.” This dissolution program changes if Arrietty succeeds.”
“For example, Ghibli should be able to continue with about five staff members as a copyright management company even if we smash the studio. So, Ghibli can say ‘We stop film production. Goodbye’. I do not have to be there.”
“Arrietty” is Studio Ghibli’s latest film The Borrower Arrietty, based on Mary Norton’s children’s novel The Borrowers. The odd thing is that Arrietty already premiered in Japan back in July. So from everything I’ve read, the success that Studio Ghibli is looking for is at the U.S. box office.
Although a distribution deal with Disney has brought many Studio Ghibli films to U.S. theaters and DVD shelves, big money at the box office has remained elusive. To date, the studio’s most successful U.S. release was Miyazaki’s Ponyo which played in over 900 theaters nationwide and grossed around $15 million (out of $200 million worldwide). It’s certainly nowhere near the totals for Pixar’s Up, which played in over 3,800 theaters and made just over $293 million domestically that same year. But Ponyo‘s U.S. performance was a huge success when compared with Tales From Earthsea, Studio Ghibli’s latest film to get a U.S. release. Earthsea played in a mere five American theaters (no wonder I couldn’t find it) and made less that $50 thousand, an amount accounting for less than .1% of the film’s worldwide earnings.
This announcement raises many more questions than it answers. One of the big ones is what Studio Ghibli would consider a successful theatrical run for Arrietty in U.S. theaters. Numbers in the range of what Ponyo made might be possible, especially if knowing that the studio’s future rests on how well Arrietty does drives U.S. fans to see the film in theaters. But if Studio Ghibli is hoping for earnings comparable to a Pixar or DreamWorks film, they are facing very tough odds. I’ve seen some fans complain that Disney doesn’t promote Studio Ghibli’s films well or get them into enough theaters. But the fact is that anime just doesn’t do very well in American theaters. According to Box Office Mojo, the most successful Japanese animated film ever to be released in the U.S. is Pokemon: The First Movie with a domestic gross of over $85 million. That’s enough to beat out South Park – Bigger, Longer, and Uncut from the same year, but well below the earnings of Pixar’s Toy Story 2 and Disney’s Tarzan<. Also notable is the fact that four of the five top U.S. released anime films are based on television shows that are in turn based on games – two more Pokemon films and a Yu-Gi-Oh! movie.Arrietty does have several things going for it in U.S. theaters: it’s based a a book American audiences may be familiar with, it’s presumably kid friendly like Ponyo, and it has the cache that comes with the Studio Ghibli name. But at the same time, it isn’t associated with a TV show, card game, or video game, it’s not actually directed by Hayao Miyazaki – the name most people know, and it’s still fighting the trend of anime underperforming in American theaters.
Another unanswered question is why the U.S. theatrical release of Arrietty has become the deciding factor in the studio’s future. Even Ponyo‘s U.S. earnings made up less than 10% of its total worldwide gross. So why aren’t Arrietty‘s potential gains in other countries being factored in to this decision? And what about home release? Surely the bigger money for a film like Arrietty comes from DVD and Blu-Ray sales, not ticket sales. So why put everything on the theatrical release in one country that traditionally hasn’t accounted for much of a Ghbli film’s total take?
The only translation of the Cut Miyazaki interview I’ve seen is the selected quotes on GhibliWiki, so I’m gleaning additional facts from the interview from coverage of it on other sites. It could be that the idea that everything rests on Arrietty‘s performance in U.S. theaters is a misunderstanding. If anyone has additional information, please let me know.
The final question is how a beloved and world renowned animation studio like Studio Ghibli could end up in a position where changing over to a purely copyright management company is a possibility. I haven’t found a definitive answer (if you have, please share it in the comments), but this 2009 article from The Japan Times suggests that Japanese anime is suffering an industrywide decline caused by the bad economy, outsourcing, and filesharing, among other woes. I have yet to see any specific data on Studio Ghibli’s current financial state, but if they are seriously considering ceasing producing on new animated films, I’m guessing that they’re suffering under the same problems facing other anime studios.
I hope Studio Ghibli doesn’t close. Several of their films number emong my all-time favorite animation. Their continued commitment to producing beautiful, hand-drawn films is important as so many studios worldwide are dumping drawn animation in favor of computers. Hayao Miyazaki is approaching 70 and I’d much prefer he spend whatever time he still wants to devote to animation actually creating new films rather than trying to get a new studio off the ground. Part of the silver lining in the Cut interview is that Miyazaki want’s to make a sequel to his 1992 film Porco Rosso. While I’m a little puzzled about what new storiy could be told after the ending of the first film, Porco Rosso is one of my favorite Miyazaki movies and I’d love to see what a follow-up would look like. If you’d like to see Porco Rosso: The Last Sortie get made or you just want Studio Ghibli to keep making films, please make an effort to catch The Borrower Arrietty in theaters. It’s currently scheduled to be released in August of next year. I’ll keep you updated as the date grows closer.