Answerman Are Oscar Campaigns For Anime Worth It?
by Justin Sevakis,
How much benefit is there for an American distribution company like Gkids and Funimation to pay money to try an get a film nominated for an oscar? And why don't Japanese companies help in campaigning for their film to get nominated, do they not care?
The simple fact is, getting a film in front of Oscar voters is a marketing process. It involves sending out screener DVDs in huge numbers to the right people, ad campaigns in trade publications, special screenings in areas with a lot of Oscar voters (Los Angeles and New York City basically) and other outreach. This is well outside of what a foreign company would ever be good at. However, many Japanese show biz types dream of being a part of the Oscars, so they pressure the American distributor of that film to do a marketing push for them. Depending on the licensing contract, expenses involved in marketing might be, to an extent, recoupable -- that is, they can make back the money they spent before sending royalties back to Japan.
Oscar nomination, especially for small-release films (as anime pretty much always are), is a huge deal. The attention that a nomination brings can justify a wide theatrical run, boost home video sales by multiples, and otherwise thrust a film into borderline mainstream attention that would normally have a very hard time breaking through. Of course, winning would be a huge game-changer, as it was for Hayao Miyazaki and his win for Spirited Away -- which was quite possibly the first time many Americans had heard of him. Over the years since, sales of his catalog have demolished the rest of the anime world. Even today his films move thousands of units a month, often outselling new releases of other titles.
GKids is very effective at playing the Oscar game. Despite releasing almost entirely esoteric foreign cartoons, the company is run by showbiz veterans who have close ties with celebrity actors, publicists, and other prominent people. They know how to get their films seen by the right people, how to build buzz among academy members, and how to play the Hollywood game. Their films usually get a nomination because a: they're usually good films, and b: they are crafty enough to get the animation members of the academy to take those films seriously. GKids is a small company, however, and can't afford to compete against the big marketing money that major studios will throw at their films.
Funimation has attempted several times to get films nominated, but have never succeeded. While they're the biggest anime publisher in the US, they're pretty much complete outsiders to the general film business. I can't tell how seriously they're working to get their films nominated, or how many resources they're putting behind their push, but clearly what they're doing isn't working.
Unfortunately Your Name. did not get nominated this year, despite accolades from critics. The film has had almost zero exposure in the US so far, and its theatrical release won't happen until April. I don't know if Funimation sent out screeners specifically to Academy members, but I know a lot of people that get awards screeners every year for the other major awards (SAG, PGA, DGA, WGA, etc.), and have yet to hear of a single person getting a copy -- which means that if screeners did go out, they didn't carpet the town with them as is usually the practice. Maybe they were worried about costs or piracy, I have no idea. But you can't win the game if you don't play the game. They might've had a better time had they waited to make an Oscar push next year.
Securing a win for a small publisher is an almost impossible task. The major studios spend millions and millions of dollars on their Oscar campaigns every year, and even orchestrate media backlashes against the perceived front-runners. They enlist major celebrities to get involved in the campaigns in creative ways that keep both them and the films in the headlines for months leading up to the voting. All of this is completely out of the reach of a small publisher.
And with animated films, it might not even matter. While the animation members of the academy might vote for their nominees every year with great interest, the Academy as a whole has a lot of members who just don't care about animated films and don't take them seriously. Every year The Hollywood Reporter runs its "Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot" series, an anonymous commentary from a voting member with their thoughts on why they voted the way they did. These are infuriating to read, especially for animation fans: the member usually completely neglects to watch any of the animated films, and rather than abstain from the category, will just pick whatever one their kids liked. For most kids, that's not going to be the strange foreign cartoon, it's going to be whatever gigantic, heavily marketed and merchandised property the studios pushed the previous year.
As anime fans and professionals, we should probably stop looking to the Oscars for affirmation.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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