Thanks to the help of John Lasseter, Hayao Miyazaki/s film "Spirited Away" was finally going to get the US release that fans had been clamoring for. Many were ecstatic. Top notch talent working on the English dub, and with Disney's marketing might, Miyazaki was finally going to roll off the tongue of the average American. But sometimes, things aren't always what they seem.

After months of speculation, the Japanese film "Spirited Away" was finally going to be released in theatres on September 20, 2002. American fans were ecstatic for the chance to finally see Miyazaki's film on the big screen. With a bow in a limited release of 26 screens its opening weekend, many were buoyed by the thought that come the next few weeks, those numbers would rise drastically, as Disney would begin to add theatres in smaller venues.

But the dream never became reality. Within the few short weeks of it's release, "Spirited Away" climbed only as high as #15 on the Top 25 grosses, and steadily went into a downward spiral. The once hoped for expanded release never came to fruition, as the film maxed out on 151 screens and began to disappear.

Many were shocked; how could Disney treat the most successful film in Japanese history, to such a lackluster campaign? Hadn't they learned from their previous mistakes with "Princess Mononoke"'s ad campaign? TV ads were few and far between, and many theatres didn't even bother to attach the few previews for the film onto the coming attractions at theatres. (I found 3 unopened trailers that were about to be "Spirited Away" to the trash compactor.) Disney did distribute posters for the film early on, and released a fold-out standee for theatre lobbies, giving information on the film and its accolades though. On the Quicktime site, John Lasseter (as the US production's executive producer) had a good friend when it came to Steve Jobs. The Apple Quicktime site was quick to post the trailer that theatres were reluctant to attach to films.

There was also a small hype of publications by Viz Communications, who would be handling the translation services for the "Spirited Away" graphic novels, "The Art of Spirited Away" book, and the "Spirited Away" Picture Book. But after part 1 of the graphic novels was released, Viz quietly put the printing of parts 2-5 on a temporary hiatus. Even the "Art of Spirited Away" book and the Picture Book were postponed.

Most people know that when you want to really get the message out, you over-promote your film, book, etc like the plague. When it comes to promotion on a huge scale, you need look no further than 2002's Sony release "Spider-Man." Sony had hyped the film for months ahead, with a final 2 months 'til release culmination where you couldn't turn anywhere in a city with out seeing that webcrawler plastered on an Airport Express bus or a parking lot ad board. The over-hype launched that franchise into a $110 million 3-day weekend tally.

Now that wasn't what fans hoped for with "Spirited Away," but they were hoping Disney would treat the film with the dignity they were affronting to films like "Lilo & Stitch" and the late summer release "Signs."

At the time of "Spirited Away"'s release, Disney was also trying to heavily promote two other September/October releases. A week after "Spirited Away," Disney's Touchstone Pictures division was set to release Reese Witherspoon's "Sweet Home Alabama." Coupled with that, Disney had been in heavy early promotion for the adaptation of Natalie Babbitt's novel "Tuck Everlasting."

I attended a sneak preview of "Tuck Everlasting" several weeks before my friend and I got preview passes to "Spirited Away." On the way out of the "Spirited Away" preview, there were Cineplex employees handing out sneak preview passes to another "Tuck" preview. (They even showed a trailer for "Everlasting Tuck" before the "Spirited Away" preview.) Think of it, "Spirited Away" got only 1 sneak preview, "Everlasting Tuck" got 2. During the "Everlasting Tuck" preview my friend and I attended, there was maybe 35 people in a 170 seat auditorium. At the sneak for "Spirited Away," the theatre was almost 4/5 full.

Another insult to the film was that while it was being released as a presentation of Walt Disney Studios, the average citizen could walk into a Disney Store and find not one promotional item for the film. With the TV screens in the stores showing previews for "Tuck Everlasting," "The Santa Clause 2," and "Treasure Planet," there wasn't a single clue that the film even existed. Disney knows that one of the main rules to get kids to see films is to advertise like wildfire. It's the technique they used most recently for "The Jungle Book 2" and "Piglet's Big Movie."

Within a matter of weeks, the glowing reviews on Rottentomatoes.com (that tabulated over 130 reviews with over 129 positive and 1 negative) couldn't turn the tide, as Disney began to unleash their fall lineup onto the USA.

If you go to Boxofficemojo.com, the staff does a good job of keeping theatre tallies, and indicating the maximum of each film's run. Here are the numbers -- from August through December of last year -- of the films Disney released under theirs and the Touchstone Pictures banner:

Opened August 2nd - "Signs" - 3453 screen maximum
Opened September 20th - "Spirited Away" - 151 screen maximum
Opened September 27th - "Sweet Home Alabama" - 3313 screen maximum
Opened October 11th - "Tuck Everlasting" - 1468 screen maximum
Opened November 1st - "Santa Clause 2" - 3352 screen maximum
Opened November 27th - "Treasure Planet" - 3227 screen maximum

Kind of sad when you look at all those other numbers, isn't it? "Tuck Everlasting" had an average screening outlook and was promoted in smaller city markets as well. If you were to ask an average parent at the time about films that were in theatres, they probably would have told you about seeing ads for "Santa Clause 2," "Treasure Planet," and of course the non-Disney "Harry Potter." But when you mentioned "Spirited Away," they would either not know what you were talking about, or thought that you were referencing Dreamworks' "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron."

Recently, I read through some of the discussion on this article here on JimHillMedia.com, and read a post by a fellow called Instidude. In his post, he stated "I live in the Midwest, and let me tell you, there was absolutely no interest in seeing this film released in this area." Also being from the Midwest, I can sympathize with the guy. I currently reside in one of the larger Midwestern metropolis, but I come from humble beginnings in a small town of 65,000 (it is located in the state in which Stitch looked at a book of roadmaps of in "Lilo &Stitch"). Back during Christmas Break, my friend Lucas told me how the film had shown up in a theatre in the neighboring city of Cedar Falls. Doing research, I got a sad case of what the marketing situation was there. "Spirited Away" came and went in only a week. There was no newspaper ad, just the word that "Spirited Away" started Friday. It wasn't until the next week, on the eve of the film leaving town that the newspaper "The Waterloo Courier" published a short summary of what the film actually was. Too little, too late.

Some critics were also rather taken aback at what Disney had on their hands. Here was a film that people had been hoping for: something that was a surefire cure for the Hollywood "quick fixes," and Disney had locked the film in the attic as if it were Cinderella.

One of the film's most vocal critics was "New York Daily News" columnist Jack Mathews. In one of his articles, Mathews scolded Disney for not pushing what they had. He even asked that Disney chairman Richard Cook give him a call to discuss the matter. (Mathews was reported to have played golf a few times with Cook.) Surely, Mathews contented, this gem deserved better than just a 151 screen release. Soon word reached Mathews from Disney.

Richard Cook eventually did return Mathews request, and said he would support a re-release. In fact, Cook said that a budget was still in place for a 1,000 screen release, IF there was a reason to put it out. Mathews' call for a re-release was a big if in the minds of Disney's spokespeople. "Well, we could give 'Spirited Away' a re-release ... if 1) it were to make it onto several critics' Top 10 lists, and 2) it could possibly garner an Oscar nomination."

Surely, there must have been some in the Mouse House that probably chuckled at the notion of an Oscar nomination. Some probably thought that their summer hit "Lilo & Stitch" would be the big contender. After all, one thing some people look at for a film's quality are the box-office numbers. "Ice Age" made $171 million that previous March, so didn't that prove people loved it? And when you compared "Lilo & Stitch"'s $146 million next to "Spirited"'s $5 million gross, didn't that mean people loved "Lilo" more?

Disney felt sure that "Stitch" would lead the way in their contenders, but if there's one thing you should always remember is this: never underestimate the little guy.



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