Tales Of The Industry The Disastrous Premiere of Tokyo Godfathers
by Justin Sevakis,
Welcome to “Tales of the Industry,” a new column where we will share stories from real working professionals in the anime business. These stories will be anonymous, and told in the first person. Names will be changed to protect people's jobs. They might've taken place last year, they might've taken place a decade ago. They're the things that the pros wish they could tell you.
Some of the stories will be heavily redacted, to the point where it'll be nearly impossible to guess who the story came from. This first one isn't like that, though – it obviously comes from the author.
Are you a current or former member of the anime business or convention staff? Do you have a story you've been dying to tell, but just can't tell it the normal way? Get in touch with Justin Sevakis through any social media you like. His Twitter account is @WorldOfCrap, if you aren't acquainted.I've never been an on-camera or on-stage kind of guy, so my image doesn't pop up in very many places. But one of the most unexpected places my face has ever turned up is on the DVD of Satoshi Kon's classic film Tokyo Godfathers. There's a making-of special on that DVD, and I'm in it, right at the beginning. You see shots of New York City, namely Times Square. It's where the world premiere of Tokyo Godfathers took place. Satoshi Kon was there. And there I was, playing host, sharing the stage with one of the most important anime directors that ever lived.
This should've been a proud moment. Getting to share the stage with such a luminary should, by all rights, have been a career highlight. And yet, when I look back on it now, all I can do is shiver and roll my eyes a little bit. Because it is, frankly, one of the most embarrassing, disastrous events I've ever been a part of.
The year was 2003, and it was the final year of Big Apple Anime Fest, the anime convention/film festival that was the brainchild of Central Park Media boss John O'Donnell. After a successful first year and a weird second year where we shared the convention with Anime Expo, we were back to running everything. The convention was to take place in Times Square, at the gigantic Marriott Marquis hotel, with events such as autograph signings and screenings happening in other nearby places.
I was the official interviewer and emcee for the event, and was especially excited because our big headliner guest for the year was none other than Satoshi Kon. Millennium Actress had just come out a couple years earlier, and Perfect Blue was already quite well known. I was really, really stoked to meet him. I was even more stoked to see Tokyo Godfathers, which he had literally finished only two weeks earlier. We were literally going to be the first people in the world to see it.
Kon seemed completely pleasant, if a little jetlagged. He was also probably exhausted from having just finished a movie. I got to meet him briefly at the hotel as he checked in on Friday. The screening was to take place the next night, across the street at the AMC 3-screen theater underneath the giant Virgin Megastore.
As I got to the theater, one of the camera crew (who were also my CPM co-workers) filled me in about an incident that had happened earlier. Kon, presented with postcards and DVD covers for Millennium Actress, had refused to sign them. Dreamworks had replaced his artwork with their own, obviously American-drawn, imagery, and he was simply not OK with it. “That's not Chiyoko,” he said. The sudden refusal left a lot of people in an autograph line without anything for him to sign, causing some amount of panic for the BAAF staff.
I definitely didn't blame Kon for that. That Dreamworks poster WAS pretty terrible, and that movie was his baby. But the fact that Kon didn't give into pressure and put his foot down about a pretty minor thing meant, to me anyway, that he was not exactly an easygoing guy. I was already nervous about meeting him, and now I was even more nervous. I had just graduated from film school, and here I was about to meet one of my idols… and he was already in a shitty mood.
The screening obviously was sold out. In attendance were not only animation producer Masao Maruyama of Mad House, but several executives at Sony Pictures International. The crowd was enthusiastic. My nervousness went away, and as I came out on stage with the microphone, I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear as I introduced one of my favorite directors ever. The crowd went wild.
Kon said a few words of introduction, then we all sat down and the movie began.
And then… at around the 20 minute mark, it all went very, very wrong.
First, a little background: 35mm film projection doesn't happen very much anymore. It's a very low-tech thing. Each movie gets split up into multiple reels, each one twelve inches in diameter and fitting about fifteen to twenty minutes of film. 6 or 7 of those are shipped around in these heavy, cumbersome metal canisters, which, together, way about 65 to 70 pounds. In years past, a skilled projectionist would use two projectors, and carefully switch between them every time there was a reel change, trying to make it as seamless as possible. Theaters would splice the reels together into two big ones, and automate the changeover process with a machine that would turn off the bulb in one projector and activate the other. These machines were triggered with little metallic stickers that the projectionist would put on the edge of the film. Film labs started putting these stickers on each new print as they left the lab.
This worked well enough, but the changeover systems failed often enough that they had to be babysat. In the 80s, theaters in the US upgraded to a new system, where the ENTIRE movie, including trailers and promos, were spliced together and built up onto a single, giant rotating platter. The metallic stickers were still used, but now the automation system only got triggered at the end of a movie. All it had to do, upon sensing the little metal sticker, was turn off the projector bulb and bring up the lights.
What nobody seemed to know, however, is that Japan had never switched to the platter system. Perhaps projection booths there were too small to accommodate the giant turntables. Regardless, film labs were still putting those little metal stickers at the end of each reel. And the projectionist at the little basement AMC didn't seem to notice them as he built up the film onto the platter.
And so, there we sat, in the darkness, watching the most highly anticipated movie ever, with the director and the animation producer and the bigwigs from Sony Pictures RIGHT THERE. And then, at the 20 minute mark… the bulb turns off and the lights come up. Everyone looks around, startled. The movie is still running through the projector – we can still hear the audio. One of the executives from Sony shoots me a glance that says, “You are in the secret service and this is the JFK Assassination. NOW DO SOMETHING.” I bolt out of my seat and tear up the isles in a panic.
I try the projection booth door. It's locked. I see a theater employee and I scream “WHERE IS THE PROJECTIONIST?!” She points over to the lobby, where I see the guy, a short, middle-aged Indian guy with a thick accent, quietly sipping coffee.
I approach him. “THE PROJECTOR SHUT OFF AND THE FILM'S STILL GOING, FIX IT!” I bark at him, about to hemorrhage. He gets up and walks – WALKS – over to the booth and swings open the door. By this time the Sony executive is standing there, hovering. He's as panicked as I am. “You have to rewind it!” he says.
I would have loved to do nothing more than to rewind it. But it was on a platter. You can't rewind a platter. You'd literally have to cut the film apart. Resigned, the guy walks back to his seat. The house lights come down and the projector bulb switches back on, after what seemed like an eternity but was probably actually only about 3 or 4 minutes. I sat back down, rattled, but trying to get back into the movie.
But 15 minutes later, there was another reel change. And it all happened again. I bolted out of my seat, found the projectionist, got him to turn the picture back on, sat down, trying not to make eye contact with the Sony Pictures dude, and quietly wanting to die. The third time, I told the projectionist to STAY IN THE BOOTH, because this would obviously happen at least three more times before the movie ended.
And the movie ended. The credits rolled, people clapped. And I then had to get up there, in front of the audience, and apologize for all that had happened. For a minute, all seemed fine. People still had a good time, and the film was good enough that, to the audience, all was forgiven. I took a deep breath. And then I had to say what came next. “And now, please welcome back on stage, the director, Satoshi Kon!”
Visibly let down, Kon walked up and took a seat in the interview chair. After a second I asked him a few questions about the background of the film and its inspirations. Then we opened the floor up for audience questions. I held my breath. Audience questions are always unpredictable: later that weekend, after a Millennium Actress screening, someone in the audience had told him that they didn't like the ending and asked him to make a new one.
Luckily, the question we got was a softball: “What was the best and worst thing in making this movie?”
Kon thought for a minute, and said, through our interpreter: “The best thing about making this movie was being here with you all tonight to share it with you.” Cheers.
And then he said, “The worst thing about making this movie was being here tonight for the screening.”
Years later, shortly after the release of his film Paprika, Kon was back in NYC for a retrospective of his work, and I got to interview him again. We met at Lincoln Center, and accompanying him was the same dude from Sony Pictures, who remembered me. Luckily, Kon didn't seem to. “Do NOT remind him!!” the Sony dude instructed me. I was happy to comply.
If you are a current or former anime industry professional and have a story to share (we can keep everyone anonymous), get in touch with Justin Sevakis via social media.
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