Why Can’t the US Try Japan’s Marketing for ‘The Boy and The Heron’?
by Alex Billington
September 27, 2023
It’s the year 2023 and for the first time in 10 years we’re being graced with the presence of a new Hayao Miyazaki movie. The animation legend has directed his 12th feature, known in English as The Boy and the Heron, originally titled How Do You Live? (or 君たちはどう生きるか) in Japanese. The film already opened in Japan in July right in the middle of the summer, and it’s set to open in US theaters nationwide in December this fall. Described as a “big fantastical film”, it follows a boy named Mahito Maki, who discovers an abandoned tower in his new town and enters a fantastical world with a talking grey heron. The release in Japan was a fascinating experiment – because it opened without any marketing other than one poster and the title. Yet it did quite well – playing #1 at the Japanese box office for two weeks in a row in July. Though the initial reception in Japan was lukewarm with mostly positive reviews (no one called it a “masterpiece”), Western audiences are going crazy for it ever since its premiere at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival. But I’ve been wondering – why can’t the US distributor also open it without any marketing? And why did they cave?
Anyone that has been following FirstShowing for the 17 years we’ve been around knows I have always been super critical of Hollywood marketing, in a brutally honest way that bothers some who don’t dare mess with Hollywood. Sometimes they do brilliant things (e.g. The Dark Knight & Tron Legacy viral campaigns) but more often than not they make some mistakes or stick to the most generic, tried-and-true tactics. Nowadays, Hollywood marketing has relapsed into following some of the most boring, never-take-a-single-risk, follow-every-old-rule strategies. There used to be a time when marketing ideas would be so smart and fresh they’d influence pop culture and establish trends that others would follow, however nowadays they’re all controlled by existing trends and pop culture and mindlessly follow the latest fads like lemmings. Which is why I’m not surprised that GKids, the US distributor of Hayao Miyazaki’s The Boy and the Heron, decided to throw out the original Studio Ghibli no-marketing tactic and go with a conventional campaign. Perhaps they had no choice? Of course they had a choice. It seems they got cold feet, and decided they had to go back to old ways.
About a month or two before the movie’s initial Japanese opening on July 14th, 2023, reports from Japan quoted Studio Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki saying they would release the film without any marketing material or plot synopsis or any images or anything else. Everyone knew about the movie anyway. “Over the years, we’ve done various things to get audiences to come see our films,” Suzuki told Bungei Shunju. “But I thought, ‘That’s enough of that.‘ It’s no fun doing the same thing over and over.” On the same day as the Japanese release in July, GKids in America (who has handled many Studio Ghibli & anime films) announced they will be releasing this movie in the US. Their initial press release included this fairly vibrant statement:
GKids states: “In an unprecedented decision by Studio Ghibli, no images, trailers, synopses, advertisements, or other information about the film have been made available to the public prior to its release in theaters in Japan. In keeping with this policy, GKIDS will not release any further details or marketing materials at this time.“
Something happened between this announcement in July and the movie being selected to premiere at TIFF in September. For months there were dropped a teaser featuring around 60 seconds of actual footage. No longer a surprise… It’s the same standard marketing tactic as most festival films that have a distributor.that How Do You Live? (what it was known by at the time) was going to premiere at Cannes or at Venice. It wasn’t ready for Cannes because, true to their word, Ghibli wanted the Japanese to experience the film first before any international audiences at festivals. After the Japanese release in July, then came more questions – will it be released internationally by the end of 2023 and by whom? When exactly? How long do the rest of us have to wait? Will it show up at film fests? Which ones? It’s showing at tons of other festivals this fall – after TIFF, it’s screening at San Sebastian, New York, Sitges, London, Chicago, Lyon; with around the world set throughout the fall. Of course, the festivals MUST always have at least ONE photo for a film for its premiere. This is standard practice. But a few days before the TIFF premiere, GKids
While reading other articles about the Studio Ghibli marketing decision for The Boy and the Heron, I came across one that couldn’t understand the original Japanese strategy, claiming that “no one would even know about the film?! How would they know it exists?!” 🤦 🤦 Goodness. This is a blatant misunderstanding of marketing and how the world works, how people communicate with each other. Miyazaki’s film is a unique case. Of course it doesn’t make sense to try and open an indie film that no one has heard about without any marketing. But Hayao Miyazaki is a cinema legend! Yes, it’s true, he’s known around the world and beloved around the world. It’s also a complete misunderstanding to claim only Japanese people are familiar with his name and could be excited about a film just because he made one. Especially after Miyazaki announced he was “retiring” after The Wind Rises in 2013, followed by Studio Ghibli (historically one of the finest movie studios to ever exist) announcing they were also shutting down / no longer making anything new. The fact both came back and went into production in 2018 on a new Miyazaki film already put this on most people’s radar. Everyone knows it’s coming, they’re just waiting to see it. Which is why this innovative tactic worked.
Many movie fans are tired of trailers that show too much, and marketing overload that leads to exhaustion before a movie even arrives in theaters. This is all too common to encounter these days… Despite entirely bogus Hollywood marketing research claiming that “most” people are only interested in watching a movie (that isn’t some major franchise/IP they’re already familiar with) if they show them most of the movie in the trailer to hook them. I’ve never met or talked with a single person who agrees with that. Most cinephiles are tired of trailers like this. Even casual moviegoers will say, oh now they don’t need to waste their time/money watching a movie because most of it was shown in the trailer already. Why does Hollywood ignore all these voices and instead rely on some random market research they wasted money on? This is a common mistake within the Hollywood marketing system. Thankfully, Ghibli picked up on this vibe with audiences in 2023. Explaining why they made this no-marketing decision for the release, this is the quote that Suzuki provided:
“So, no trailers or TV commercials at all. No newspaper ads either. Deep down, I think this is what moviegoers latently desire. In my opinion, in this age of so much information, the lack of information is entertainment. I don’t know if this will work. But as for me, I believe in it, so this is what I’m trying to do.” –Toshio Suzuki
He’s right. Most importantly, it did work. Miyazaki’s highly anticipated new movie opened at #1 at the Japanese box office. I will letreport the facts: “In Japan, The Boy and the Heron grossed $13.2 million (1.83 billion yen) in its opening weekend, becoming the biggest opening in Studio Ghibli’s history and surpassing Howl’s Moving Castle’s 1.48 billion yen debut in 2004. The film earned $1.7 million from 44 IMAX screens, setting a new 3-day record. It attracted 1.35 million viewers and exceeded 2.14 billion yen ($15.2 million) in box office revenue in its first four days.” It stayed in the #2 spot at the box office in Japan throughout all of August, only dropping to #4 after it had played for 7 weeks. That’s quite an achievement for a movie that had no marketing. Which is the point. It wasn’t their goal to maximize revenue, it was their goal to release a new Miyazaki movie and let fans experience it fresh, without anything guiding them before they go in to watch. This is an exciting experience. (It’s what I love about watching films at festivals, too.) Hollywood could & should learn from this, and I thought GKids would follow suit. Though apparently not… I guess fear took over and led them back to the safe comfort of their old tactics, which I think is depressing.
This is when someone usually exclaims, “well, Alex, that would never work outside of Japan! It only worked there because they know Miyazaki and Ghibli and love them already.” Yeah, not true. Not at all. Miyazaki is absolutely adored worldwide just as much as he is in Japan. No question about it. Ever since the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes took over Hollywood earlier in 2023, I’ve been lamenting how Hollywood has generally refused to try different marketing. They’re stuck on this archaic notion that actors doing interviews is the only real way to market a movie (or at least turn it into a box office hit). I was hoping some studios would try something new, try some clever ideas that might still get moviegoers’ attention. Every movie is different, and some require different campaigns, but Suzuki is right: “in this age of so much information, the lack of information is entertainment.” Even if it didn’t turn out to be a good movie in the end, the bold marketing tactic of releasing a surprise trailer for The Cloverfield Paradox during the Super Bowl (in 2018) at the same moment the movie is available on Netflix worked well (“According to Nielsen, nearly 785,000 viewers watched on the night of Super Bowl LII; by three days, over 2.8 million watched, 5 million after a week.”)
Why is Hollywood so afraid of doing anything different with marketing? Where have all the bold marketers gone? Why is doing something unique and innovative so scary nowadays? Especially if it has a proven track record of working. And why is GKids going against their own claim that they will follow what Studio Ghibli did and not release any info or marketing material? Maybe they were pushed by the festivals and by other distributors trying to release it worldwide. Maybe they got afraid that “no one would know about it” without marketing (which, for the record, is complete & utter nonsense, especially with these festival premieres). Whatever the case, I’m disappointed to see them give in and go back to the usual ways. Indiewire posted an article with the headline “” featuring quotes from GKids’ president of distribution, Dave Jesteadt, who claims “he’s not worried about the economics of the film and is confident audiences will show up.” The rest of his quotes sound like a stodgy old professor reading from his dusty textbook in Marketing 101 class at university, while students are trying to jump in with “but” & “well”, he just waves them off with his hand and points to the book. “This is the way, and we will never try anything different.” At least that’s what it sounds like from his quotes there…
I’m just tired of Hollywood never, ever having the courage to try something different, to do something new, to take a risk, and to let it pay off in the long run. There’s a simple strategy they could’ve followed – release nothing but one or two images during the festival run, create one new poster for the US release, let it open first in early December as they have it scheduled already. THEN release a trailer, THEN kick in marketing, THEN let the movie build to become a hit through December and January. This is even the perfect time to use that post-release buzz to get young generations who are not as familiar with Studio Ghibli to watch more of their films. They’ve already done this for years with . This is where real innovation in Hollywood marketing can come from – making bold choices. But I guess 2023 is not the year they want to try anything new. Suzuki’s quotes are still the best. He knows moviegoers want to watch good movies: “They’ll want to see for themselves what the film is about. And to do that, they’ll have to go to a theater.” Yep.
#Japans #Marketing #Boy #Heron #FirstShowingnet