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The Making of Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" -- Part 5

The Making of Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" -- Part 5

In the previous installment, I detailed how Disney released Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" as part of the studio's already crowded Fall/Winter lineup. Which causes this highly acclaimed film to become buried under such Mouse House titles as "Tuck Everlasting" and "Sweet Home Alabama." With a 151 screen maximum release, Disney chairman Richard Cook and Disney spokespeople said that a re-release could be feasible if the film were to clean up at upcoming awards and Critic's top 10 lists.

At the end of November 2002, most studios are already looking to magazines like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Why? Because these are a few of the prime entertainment magazines that the studios will use to begin touting their films. First come the "For Your Consideration" ads, to get Academy voters to consider certain pictures for various categories.

Of great consideration for nominations for the Walt Disney Studios was going to be in the category of Best Animated Feature. Many people will remember the ordeal that occurred almost a year ago when the final 3 nominees were narrowed down to "Shrek," "Monsters Inc," and "Jimmy Neutron". Both Disney and Dreamworks had been lobbying furiously for the honor of getting the first Animated Feature Oscar. When all was said and done, the evening belonged to Dreamworks, and caused many to question the state of the industry. The three nominees that night had all been 3D animated films. Was 2D finally going to die?

With the coming Oscars, there were over 17 possible animated features for consideration (5 of them hadn't even had the 151 screen maximum of "Spirited Away"). With this many possibilities, the Academy could expand the nominee list to 5 instead of the three from the previous year if they chose to do so.

All the studios were jumping in to try and take a swipe at the little gold guy. Dreamworks launched a major Oscar campaign for "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimmaron" and Sony began to tout "Stuart Little 2," utilizing the Animated Feature stipulation that the lead character must be animated for a good ¾ of the film. Disney was already pushing hard for "Lilo & Stitch," "Spirited Away," and "Treasure Planet." But as many fans began to suddenly peruse their copies of Variety, they could swear that Disney was leaning hard and heavy on promoting "Lilo & Stitch." This makes perfect sense. After all, that film is Disney's originally created property, and they were only distributing "Spirited Away." Disney's marketing staff insisted that the Oscar ads were being equally distributed among their 'children.'

As 2003 loomed on the horizon, it was also time for the Film Critics societies to begin to give their awards for what they considered the Best of 2002. With the minimal showing of "Spirited Away," some felt the likely contender would be "Lilo & Stitch." But the shock came when "Spirited Away" began to clean up at several of the film critics awards from New York, LA, Phoenix, Florida, and Dallas. Even Boston's critics approved, but as they did not have an 'animated feature' category, gave the film a 'Special Commendation for 'Achievement in Animation.' "Spirited Away" also was commended by the Online Film Critics Society, and won 'Best Animated Feature' from the National Board of Review.

Also approaching were the Top 10 lists of the major critics. The one factor that Richard Cook and Disney spokesmen said would probably determine a re-release. In a matter of weeks, the film had found its way onto over 99 Top 10 lists, including those in The New York Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, and The Village Voice.

As January of 2003 came and went, Disney began to tout a release for "Spirited Away." Not in theatres, but as part of a 3 disc release in April. Finally acting on their distribution deal with Tokuma Publishing, they were going to release 2-Disc DVD sets of Hayao Miyazaki's films "Spirited Away," "Kiki's Delivery Service," and "Castle in the Sky." Some felt ecstatic about the deal, while others held that it was another way for Disney to cover-up their marketing flaw from the fall.

Word was building for "Spirited Away" as its screen count continued to dwindle. Disney had begun to hold screenings for those who would be voting in the 'Animated Feature' category who lived in LA and New York. But some felt that with three other contenders already on DVD ("Lilo & Stitch", "Spirit," and "Ice Age"), that chances were slim to none.

The publication Animation Magazine held a poll on their site, listing all 17 of the possible Oscar contenders. When the votes were tabulated, the top 5 contenders based on votes were (in order): "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," "Lilo & Stitch," "Spirited Away," "Ice Age," and "Treasure Planet." (Note: on several talkback forums, such as AnimationNation.com, some feel there may have been vote tampering with the forum. Some claimed that they could ONLY click on "Spirit," but no one has been able to confirm website tampering.)

A few weeks before the Oscars, the Annie Awards were announced. The Annie Awards are given to feature films, animated films and shorts, and TV productions, as well as artists, writers and voice talent. This year, "Lilo & Stitch" was nominated for 10 annies, and Dreamworks' lobbying had gathered 8 nominations for "Spirit." "Spirited Away" held only 4 nominations in the major categories, but by the end of the night, it had won for all 4 of its nominated categories for Animated Feature, Director, Writing, and Music. "Spirit" ended its evening with 4 wins, mainly in the technical areas of Storyboarding, Effects Animation, Character and Production design. "Lilo & Stitch" ended off the night with only one win, for Daveigh Chase's performance as Lilo.

Finally, on February 11, 2003, the Oscar nominations were announced. As hoped for, 5 nominees took their places. The final 5 were (in alphabetical order): "Ice Age," "Lilo & Stitch," "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," "Spirited Away," and "Treasure Planet." The lineup definitely changed the tune from last year, as only one of the features was completely 3D.

Once the final 5 had been announced, the hard marketing campaigning began. Dreamworks SKG was taking no chances. Having won the year before for "Shrek," they launched a campaign where kids in LA could meet "Spirit" animator James Baxter, as well as all sorts of full-page ads -- not only in the trade papers -- but in the LA papers as well. Disney followed suit with "Lilo & Stitch." But where were the ads for "Spirited Away?" Disney had begun to occasionally slip an ad here and there into Variety, and one even turned up in the winter issue of the special effects magazine Cinefex.

As the Oscar clock began its countdown, many Oscar predictors began to hedge bets on the outcome. Some felt that sure bets could be seen in "Ice Age," noting the $171 million gross from the previous March and the overwhelming DVD sales. Roger Ebert predicted that "Lilo & Stitch" would be the big winner of the night. The website Oscarwatch.com was in a toss up between "Lilo & Stitch" and "Spirited Away." Of course, some still harbored that with the blitzkrieg campaign that Dreamworks had mounted, "Spirit" could gallop out of right field and take the award.

Finally, Oscar night came, amid the cacophony of distress over war. The evening was a solemn one, and host Steve Martin was doing the best he could to hold it all together. The first category of the night was for Best Animated Feature. Actress Cameron Diaz strode onstage and read the nominees. When she opened the envelope, the Oscar was awarded to: "Spirited Away." However, Hayao Miyazaki was not present to receive the award, and due to Oscar policy, not even John Lasseter (as US executive producer) could accept it on his behalf.

Across the world, Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli staff had heard the good news, but Miyazaki opted to stay out of the spotlight. He felt that -- what with the current state of the world -- a celebratory event was not the best way to go about certain things at the moment. Producer Toshio Suzuki and Miyazaki's son attended a press conference and told how proud they were that their film had received the critical acclaim by winning the Oscar. Suzuki even remarked how interesting it was that the film had originally been rejected for distribution in the US, and had gone on to win such a prestigious award.

When all the cacophony died down, many fans eyes were now shifted on Disney. Even Jack Mathews. After all, "Spirited Away" had performed under all their stipulations: it had made it onto more than enough Top 10 lists, and had not only been nominated for an Oscar but had won it. Within 24 hours, Disney issued a press release, saying that they were planning to re-release the film! Fans were overjoyed, hoping now people would have the chance to see the film. Some predicted the rerelease would encompass over 800 screens, but Boxofficemojo.com listed the screen count as closer to 711.

This time around, Disney put more of an effort into the promotion of the film. Some claimed of finally seeing television commercials, and in some papers, half to full-page ads were showcasing the film's accolades.

Jack Mathews displayed a follow-up column in the New York Daily News, where speculation ran that a solid opening would cause a delay in the April 15 DVD release, but Disney claimed that the DVD release would go as planned.

Opening on over 711 screens, the film broke back into the Top 20 at #15, giving it an extra $1.7 million. However, within a few weeks, word began that as soon as the DVD was released, the screen total would diminish rapidly.

And that brings us to today, as the DVD is now available for release, as well as 2 other Miyazaki titles that Disney has graciously given us to discover. Early word is that the 3 Miyazaki DVD's are selling well, with "Spirited Away" being a solid front-runner (although sales of the April 11 release of "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" will probably draw more attention).

With the rerelease of "Spirited Away," I have read some interesting comments about the film on several different message boards (I'm as addicted to message boards as my email). Some appeared to be mesmerized by the film, while some felt that even a tall cup of coffee couldn't have kept them awake. Some even considered the Oscar win to be 'un-American,' claiming that the win would do nothing to help the now-struggling American animation market. But like most things, you can't win everyone over. My sister's boyfriend liked it but still prefers "Lilo & Stitch," and my old animation-hating roommate will probably never give it a second thought.

With such a long a drawn out path, one has to ask if it would be necessary to blame Disney for the distribution. Sure, the film did not make it onto 3000 screens. But -- even so -- there are those who were able to give the film a chance. And -- by doing so -- found a form of animation different from what they had been led to believe. A film that could almost stand alongside such Disney classics as "Snow White" and "Pinocchio." In an age where the animated film is slowly catering as a kid's medium, Miyazaki proves that there are still enough stories in the world that parents, children, teenagers, and even 10-year-olds can enjoy.

Currently, Miyazaki and his staff at Studio Ghibli are hard at work on his next project: an adaptation of Diane Wynne Jones' story titled "Howl's Moving Castle." With a scheduled release date for July of 2004, many are waiting to see if Disney will take another chance, and release the Master's film here in the states. Only time will tell.

Do you want to buy this great DVD as well as help support JimHillMedia.com? Then order your copy of "Spirited Away" from Amazon.com by clicking the link to the right.

Your cost will (unfortunately) remain the same (though it is currently 25% off!) But - if you go there through us - we get a tiny cut of what you spend. So if you're planning on picking up the DVD, help keep Jim Hill behind the computer where he belongs and order a copy of "Spirited Away" or the three-pack featuring "Spirited Away," "Castle in the Sky," and "Kiki's Delivery Service" (at 29% off!) through the link to the right.

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