Silly Otaku, Cartoons are for Kids

Oct 30th 2001

Silly Otaku, Cartoons are for Kids

Lessons Learned from the Spirits Within

By Christopher Macdonald

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within may not be Anime, but the film has taught us a lesson with very important ramifications for the world of Anime.

Not too far in the recent past, Princess Mononoke was released in North American theatres and brought in a pathetic two million dollars. Here we have not only the biggest grossing Japanese film ever, but the biggest ever grossing non-American film of its time (it has since been surpassed by Miyazaki's latest film, Sen to Chihiro). Mononoke brought in $163.5 million worldwide and all it could make in the United States is two million dollars.

Many Anime fans have suggested that Disney had bungled it, that Disney failed to properly publicize the film ("If people knew about the film they might have gone to see it,") and that it was in too few theatres ("Well, maybe if it had been in a theatre in my city I might have gone to see it.").

They have a point. No one will argue that more people would not have seen Mononoke had it been better publicized and had it appeared in more theatres. But if Disney had spent $10 million more on publicity, would they have made $10 million more in profit? Probably not.

Sony spent a fortune publicizing FF: Spirits Within. It was one of the most hyped films of the summer, and it failed big time. FF: Spirits Within cost over $100 million to make and only brought in $32 million at the box office: you do the math. It lost so much money during its theatrical run that Sony and Square decided to close Square USA, which was probably the most advanced animation studio in the world.

So why did FF: Spirits Within fail, and why did Mononoke earn over $150 million dollars world-wide but merely two million in the United States, and why won't we see our favorite Anime in a full fledged American theatrical release?

Because cartoons are for kids.

That's how most North Americans feel. But if that's so, why did Shrek earn $266 million at the box office? Cartoons like Shrek do well because despite being entertaining for adults, and maybe even created for them, they look like they were created for children. While many adults did go see both Shrek and Final Fantasy, the box office difference between the two movies are the families that go see the movies with their kids. Even those parents who knew in advance that Shrek wasn't written with children in mind felt assured that their children would enjoy the big goofy ogre and the talking donkey.

A couple of weeks ago my father-in-law came over to my house and my wife decided to show him Cowboy Bebop… his reaction? "I come over to your house and you want me to watch a cartoon?"

Cartoons are for kids, that's what people think.

Slowly, they're finding out otherwise, but for the time being the only people who will pay to see an animated theatrical feature are cinephiles, animation fans, otaku, technophiles (if it's 3d animation), and a few open-minded and curious people. That might sound like a lot of people, but it isn't nearly enough to warrant a wide release.

It bites, but it's a fact.

What's really unfortunate is that I was on the phone with Hironobu Sakaguchi a little while ago and I asked him about what Square USA would be doing next. Suffice it to say, they had plans… but only two days later it was announced that Square USA had lost too much money and would be closing its doors.

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within really is a good movie. Maybe not as good as Princess Mononoke, but it was worth the price of admission and it's more than worth the price of a rental. If you haven't already seen the movie, go rent it. If you have seen the movie and you liked it, think about buying the DVD. This DVD has so many extras on it that you'll probably never see them all, but so far I've enjoyed all the ones that I've checked out.

And, speaking of extras, Anime distributors could learn a thing or two from this DVD; the extras on Anime DVDs tend to be on the pathetic side. North American Anime distributors will typically tell us that the rights to a particular extra weren't included in the contract and would have cost more money to license. Some of the simpler extras wouldn't have taken long to make, and would improve the DVD by a lot. Extras like narrated character bios and technical files featuring footage from the movie could easily be added to Anime DVDs.

Of course some of the other extras were probably a bit more complicated to produce. My particular favorites include the "outtakes", the hidden Thriller video (not that hidden) and the very detailed "making of" documentary.

Unfortunately we won't be seeing another movie like Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within for a while. Along with all the computer animation lessons that we've learned from Square USA, we've also learned that a $100+ million dollar animation is just not profitable.


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