Walt Disney Pictures has achieved great critical success distributing the fanciful, inventive works of the legendary Japanese anime filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki.
His "Spirited Away," which was released in the U.S. in 2002, earned the Academy Award for best animated feature -- Miyazaki is the only anime filmmaker to have won the animation Oscar -- and 2005's "Howl's Moving Castle" received an Oscar nomination in that category as well.
But financially, the films have fizzled. Though "Spirited Away" made $264.9 million internationally, the hand-drawn 2-D animated film barely made $10 million in America. "Howl's Moving Castle" did even worse domestically, with just $4.7 million, as opposed to the $230.5 million it grossed internationally.
Veteran producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy ("The Color Purple," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") are hoping to turn the trend around with Miyazaki's latest creation, "Ponyo," which opens in the U.S. on Aug. 14 but is closing the Los Angeles Film Festival with a special screening on Sunday night.
The loose adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" -- about an enchanting female goldfish who wants to become a human -- has been receiving a lot of attention. For the first time in his career, Miyazaki will be appearing at Comic-Con in San Diego in July showing clips from "Ponyo," which has made $182.1 million internationally.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will also be showing "Spirited Away" on July 17; Pixar's John Lasseter, who has executive produced the American-language version of the last three Miyazaki films, will be interviewing the master animator at the academy on July 28 (the event has already sold out).
Since their first screening of "Spirited Away," Marshall and Kennedy have been big fans of Miyazaki. "We have always been struck by his imagery and imagination and the world he created," Marshall says.
When Miyazaki and Ghibli producer Toshiro Suzuki came to the couple to ask them to produce the American version of "Ponyo" and raise the awareness of Miyazaki and his Studio Ghibli where he makes his films, they jumped at the chance to work with them and Lasseter.
Because "Spirited" and "Howl's" were relegated to the art-house circuit, it gave the films a "certain air," says Marshall. "The challenge for us is to bring people to the movie. We have been through a lot of these family-oriented movies. Hopefully we have an idea of how we can get attention and awareness created."
One way to increase attention was to line up a strong voice cast, which includes Matt Damon, Tina Fey, Cate Blanchett, Liam Neeson, Betty White, Lily Tomlin and Cloris Leachman. Miley Cyrus' kid sister, Noah, supplies the voice of Ponyo.
"We wanted well-known people," says Marshall. "A lot of them are friends and lot of them have kids. For example, Matt Damon didn't know about Miyazaki. When I sent him a few of the films, he said, 'I'm in.' They wanted to be a part of it."
When it hits theaters this August, "Ponyo" will play on more than 800 screens. "It's going to be opening in almost four times more screens than any other Miyazaki film has in the U.S.," says Marshall.