Run the Numbers Through Auto-Tune and Maybe They'll Sound Better

Box Office Mojo gives the official word on this weekend's results:

Hailed as the "next masterpiece" from Hayao Miyazaki in its advertising, Japanese blockbuster Ponyo floundered with an estimated $3.5 million, failing to gain domestic traction just like the previous Miyazaki features despite his largest release yet (927 sites).

That hurts. I had far higher expectations for this movie, as did everybody else. So what the heck happened? And who's going to take the fall for this? I'm looking for someone to blame.

One obvious culprit is that Disney Autotune hack-up of the Ponyo song. There has been a genuine backlash against it; indeed, this issue alone is responsible for the surge in traffic to the Ghibli Blog. The reasoning was simple: this is what's required to bring in the Disney Channel kids and the Miley Cyrus/Jonas Brothers fans. Those kids never showed. And in the process, Disney managed to seriously offend the true hardcore fans, the Miyazaki and anime community. How much damage did this ultimately do?

I promise you that John Lasseter never wanted to turn the Ponyo song - a perfect children's sing-along that stays in your head forever - into an Autotuned MC Hammer. This was Disney's pound of flesh. They promised to properly sell Ponyo and deliver its masses of loyal customers/fans. In return, they would cynically use the picture as a promotional vehicle for their product line of manufactured plastic pop stars. And we would grit our teeth and bear it; after all, if this is what it takes to make the movie a hit, so be it. I can sit through the closing credits.

Now the weekend results are in and I'm feeling like a sucker who got sold a lemon. Disney performed plastic surgery on Miyazaki's work...for what?! What the hell did we get out of this?! How would Disney like it if I took Pinnochio, chopped out, "When You Wish Upon a Star," and replaced it Slayer? C'mon, Jiminy Cricket singing, "God Hates Us All?" The teenagers will eat that up! Oh, and by the way, Slayer has a new album out that needs promotion. You'll understand.

This isn't about money or herding in the mindless cattle. This cuts deeper. This is about disrespect. You do not take another artist's life's work and butcher it for your own cynical, commercial ends. Corporatism, bad taste, and stupidity are a deadly mix.

Hunter S. Thompson was right. This business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs.


asuka said...

oh come on - the need to blame is natural, but the song? really?
the obvious response to your suggestion is that the people most likely to be annoyed by the cher-techno version of the song (viz. real ghibli fans) are precisely those most likely to go regardless, in order to get to see the visuals on the big screen.
don't you think?

Tim Maughan said...

Glad you're getting some well-deserved traffic - I subbed the Ponyo song post to reddit last week and it seems to have gone done well there:)

Keep it up man!

Tim Maughan said...

Oh, and you might be interested in this quote from Miyazaki about theme tunes I stumbled across in Starting Point:

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@Tim Maughan - Ah! Were you the one who put that blog post on Reddit? That's what started this whole ball rolling! The traffic surge is entirely due to Reddit, which immediately forced me to add "Share" buttons to all the posts.

This is really amazing. It really lifts my spirits, because this shows how much difference one person can make. I never think of this Ghibli Blog as "my website." I believe it belongs to all of us, equally. It's a community where every person has a role. And you've proven this perfectly. Thank you so very much.

I did read your Miyazaki quote, from his proposal paper for My Neighbor Totoro. I'll throw that on a post sometime today.

@Asuka - Hah! You are probably correct. I wrote this post mostly to vent my frustrations; this is only what's on my mind, and nothing more. Did the Autotune have an effect on turnout this weekend? I honestly don't know. I would certainly hope not, that the Ghibl Freaks would turn out in support just as you said. It feels so silly to get upset over; but on Monday morning, it hits me like a hangover and the stink of a bad gamble.

The numbers for Ponyo are abysmal. Maybe I'm seeing it the wrong way, and I would love to hear a more upbeat, hopeful interpretation. But this is what my gut tells me and I have to go with it.

My frustration arises from an exhaustion. What more could we do? What does it take to get people into those seats? We've done everything we could, we bent over backwards to make the stories as accessable as possible, while still maintaining the artists' vision. We build the baseball diamond in the cornfield, and they still will not come.

I'm feeling pretty defeated at this point. Imagine what poor John Lasseter and Pixar are going through. This doesn't feel good and there's no way to wash it down.

Great insights from everybody! Everybody is really chatty today, that's good.

Chris said...

But don't forget Ponyo was long ago a huge money making success in Asia. I mean $183,893,666! That's not too bad. It doesn't need to be successful in the United States.

I understand, though, that by being successful in the United States a door might be opened to more similar films, including those by Takahata and others. But that just isn't ever going to happen widespread in America.

Yes, the Disney remix was atrocious but I just can't imagine anyone, especially Ghibli fans, not seeing the film just because of that.

asuka said...

this is not a positive spin on the numbers, but...
i imagine ponyo will do quite well on dvd, and end up giving a lot of pleasure and inspiration to a lot of children (and adults!) as a favourite video. (as with totoro).
in fact - and this i found instructive - on the way to the cinema we ran into a couple we know who had their little children with them. we told them what we were going to see, and that it would probably be a nice thing for their little ones. what the parents said was that they didn't usually take their children to the cinema because they liked to watch things before their children did in order to check whether they would be too frightening for them. in this case i think they were mistaken, but i can certainly understand the instinct to protect one's very little children from some of the vulgarity and so on that the movie industry in general does judge suitable for children. it's a response these parents have learned from experience, i guess...

Daniel said...

The fact that Ponyo's opening weekend was 'abysmal' is little cause for concern if you ask me. The confused way the film was marketed, with all that Disney Channel hype mixed with 'the greatest filmmaker of all time' in trailers and whatnot wasn't really going to capture kid's hearts, or anyone who hadn't really HEARD of Miyazaki before.

Perhaps a more optimistic interpretation could be that, despite the 'wide release' over 800 screens, it may yet be a word-of-mouth film, which is nothing bad at all. The people who DID see it are no doubt delighted that they did, and are bound to tell friends. Then people will look into it, see the fantastic reviews and the ball may start rolling a little better from there.

Or, maybe it's just going to suffer the same fate as Miyazaki's other films. As he said himself, his films even having an effect on children outside of Japan is just the icing on the cake for him. Ponyo's box office performance has a lot to say about how children in America respond, en masse, to films. I'm starting to wonder just how much difference it would have made had the song stayed the same. Maybe this is why 'we can't have nice things'.

One of the biggest insults throughout the whole marketing campaign for me was how none of the trailers featured Joe Hisaishi's score for the film, replaced with some cooked-up Disney thing that came from godknows where.

The thing that made me maddest though were odd comments people had tweeted, that included things like 'That damn Cyrus/Jonas Jr. anime looks so lame' or about how genuinely annoying the theme song was.

In conclusion, though, at least we know how good the film is right, and basically screw everyone else who was too stupid to work it out for themselves, or to dare to see an animated film this summer without talking animals and fart/groin jokes.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Good observations from both of you. This movie was fantastically popular in Japan, as all of Miyazaki's films since Mononoke have been. They have 1/3 the population, and 1/10 the number of movie screens, and in a non-Ghibli year, the top domestic gross for movies will be around $30 million.

Seeing Miyazaki routinely break $150-$200 million is astonishing. The American equals are very rare - Titanic, E.T., Star Wars. Imagine if every Steven Spielberg movie was as popular as E.T.

Anonymous said...

I don't know anything about box office revenues but I thought 3 million was pretty decent considering it was only shown on less than half of what most of the other movies were shown on

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Very true, very true. At the end of the day, I'd be VERY happy if somebody wrote me a $3 million check.

Doug said...

I wonder what the Disney marketing team poured into this 3 mil box office take.

I just heard a review on "Fresh Air" on NPR which was David Edelstein's review that had already hit the web last week. Good to hear that sort of review on the airwaves.

I'm very hopeful that the Oscars will treat this film well and give it a dvd sales lift. (btw-when does the Ponyo dvd come out here in USA?).

Sean L. said...

I think I said this in another post, but I'm just happy to see a Miyazaki movie in the box office top 10 at all! That in itself is exciting.

Anonymous said...

I'm willing to bet that the reason why Ponyo didn't do so well has something to do with the fact that it came out on the same day as District 9

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

The optimists are winning out today. That's very good.

I had no idea District 9 would do so well, but it appears to be a really good movie, and it's not part of an endless franchise. Having a surplus of good movies is always a good thing.

David Edelstein's Ponyo review in the NY Times Magazine was an excellent read. I posted it on the blog last week.

The big question now is word-of-mouth. Does Ponyo sustain a slow burn going into weekend #2? Or will the usual sharp drop occur? And will Disney reduce the number of screens? Last time, Howl's Moving Castle was dropped from 202 screens to 37 in its second week. I'm still sore about that one.

Neal said...

If Ghibli fans skipped Ponyo because the song was changed, they are not true fans. Is it despicable the song was changed? Yes. But Disney isn't trying to pander to the art house crowd with Ponyo. They did that with Howl's and Spirited. This time, they were trying to help Miyazaki's name become more familiar in the U.S. They must have felt changing the song would be helpful to their cause. As much as that annoys Ghibli's long-time fans, if they skipped Ponyo for it, they suck.

There's two routes Disney may take here. A) They change details like the song, and get good box office numbers, so they continue to change future films believing success is hinged on Americanizing Ghibli. B) They change details like the song to familiarize American movie-goers to Miyazaki, and once he's well-known, they stop making edits.

We can only hope for the latter.

Either way, they put this film in more theaters than any previous Ghibli film.

And they put the most into marketing of any Ghibli film.

Changes be damned, Ghibli fans should have gone to this movie to support Disney's distribution of Ghibli, to help ensure future Ghibli works get theatrical release here.

Again, any fan who skipped Ponyo for a changed song shouldn't call themselves a fan because they are only hurting the future of Ghibli in America.

BionicVapourDude said...

I truly believe that there is some weird aversion to quality in this country...

People have simply acquired a taste for shit.

How else can you explain stuff like Transformers making so much money?

I mean I watched the first 15 minutes of it on HBO a few months ago, and I had to turn it off it was so bad... I actually had more pleasure cleaning my apartment than suffering through that awful, awful film.

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

I feel a degree of frustration towards the fair-weather fans out there. Who turned up and who didn't? That's what I'd like to know. I know that all the Ghibl Freaks here turned out to see Ponyo, or, if they couldn't make it yet, plan to see it this week. We're dedicated and we show our support for these big events. This is our chance to come out of the shadows.

I've read a lot of "I'll wait for the DVD" comments online, and I don't know how large a segment of the community that is, but I do hope it's very small.

Apathy is the great enemy. At least that's the case from my direct experience here. I'll continue to sell Ponyo to others, and insist on that second and third showing. Twice is the absolute minimum.

chrisyeoh said...

I seriously doubt it was the Disney-Pop Theme Song. I made sure I went to support the weekend numbers, and see the movie on the big screen. Got my DVD from Japan even, but HAD to go to support it. My guesses: 1. District 9 had more word-of-mouth support. (Remember how Iron Man destroyed everything else for weeks). 2. There was no screening in the original Japanese audio with English subtitles. Turns off a lot of Otaku. Spirited Away had screenings in both languages in San Francisco. 3. The DVD has been out in Japan for a while now, and many Ghibli fans in the US have bought it already. And 4. The screening in the US was listed as 86 minutes. In Japan, its listed as 101 minutes. Was it cut?

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

Don't worry, nothing was cut. That is Rule #1 in the Disney/Ghibli contract. The Warriors of the Wind debacle saw to that. My guess would be that the US time is an error. The running time is roughly 1:40.

It's good to see that Autotuned hasn't kept anyone from turnout. But there's still the flip side of the coin - what happened to all those Disney Channel Tweens the Autotune was sold to? Where were they?

If there was no harm on our side, great. But this only shows that Disney had no sound reason to put us through that pop song debacle.

BionicVapourDude said...

Was the movie sufficiently marketed? I really don't watch much tv, so I don't know if there were a lot of commercials for it...

Were there a lot of trailers for it in front of other films? I saw Harry Potter a few months ago, and there was no Ponyo trailer... I would've thought that would have been a great place for one.

Also I would've thought the Cyrus/Jonas thing would've brought in a lot of kids, since they tend to eat that stuff up...

Or is it just that people in this country don't like hand-drawn animation anymore, and just want to see CGI?

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

All we have right now are questions. No answers. Fortunately, the hard numbers for the weekend are in. We can take a closer look at the first three days and see where we're going.

Congratulations to everybody! We've passed 20 comments on this post, since 10:00am. Great hustle, help yourself to some cake.

Rooanne said...

Well let me add another one - comment, that is. Here's one fan that hasn't seen the movie yet - but I'm definitely looking forward to seeing it next weekend. Didn't know about the song controversy but I'm just happy to have ready really positive reviews (an A from Ebert).

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@Rooanne - You'll have a fantastic time. There are still many who haven't made it to the theater yet. Just bring a few other faces with you and all should be fine.

C.McKane said...

I got to say, just got back from seeing it for first time (how horrible is it that I overslept when I had people meeting me last weekend!). Two of my sisters came with me and giggled along with all the kiddies at the movies.

There were a lot of kids and for the first show of the day was surprisingly full.

Afterwards, I hounded a movie man and he told me that even though the first few days it was relatively quiet it's been picking up and now they're getting good crowds for every show.

Although the ending song was interesting and so was the dubbing-It's Miyazaki at the movies!!

Yes, I can't wait until I get my hands on the DVD but in the meantime I'll be going back.