Yesterday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Studio Ghibli’s The Secret World of Arietty will screen in over 1,200 theaters across the country, beginning on February 17. The film will be Ghibli’s widest release in America to date, topping 2009’s Ponyo, which ran in 927 theaters.

Historically, Ghibli films have been well-received by critics and viewers alike, to the point that Spirited Away won an Oscar in 2003. However, they’ve never been able to deliver that same impact in theaters, nor have they delivered the desired financial punch in the DVD market. Ponyo, for example, grossed $15.1 million in its theatrical run which, broken down, amounts to $16,341.99 per theater. Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, the co-producers for the film’s English dub, revealed that they will be taking a different attempt at marketing the film. Rather than appeal solely to kids and anime fans, the company will cast a wider net. Disney will make attempts to snare fans of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers the novel that the film was based upon.

Does this sound familiar to you?

Disney is attempting to swim into the Blue Ocean, in order to tap into a market that wouldn’t even know about the film, under normal circumstances. They’re attempting to bypass the first tier of refusers, and instead are going straight for the second and third tiers. These are people who don’t know what anime is, nor do they care. They don’t care that Studio Ghibli made the film, they don’t care if Hiromasa Yonebayashi directed it, or that Hayao Miyazaki himself wrote the script. In fact, knowing these things at the outset would probably be more than enough to discourage the third tier from even wanting to see the film to begin with.

To say Disney has their work cut out for them is to speak lightly. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the third tier of non-customers is a moving target. These are folks that cannot be directly marketed to, since they don’t know the product exists to begin with. To reach this group, one has to take alternative means. These alternative means are through the second tier of non-customers or, in this case, the fans of the original novel. Disney hasn’t elaborated on just how they plan to reach this market just yet. However, marketing other Ghibli films as anime fell flat, as did attempts at selling them as simple kids’ flicks. So, I wouldn’t be surprised if they change direction in marketing for Arietty. Ideally, they’ll take the failures of the previous two films, and build a strategy around not repeating the mistakes they’ve made with them. It will be incredibly easy to alienate second and third tier non-customers, to the point that a potential ticket or DVD sale becomes a lost cause. Ideally, the company would do the following during the film’s major advertisement run:

  • Avoid references to anime, Japan, or Miyazaki
  • Highlight the American talent – Amy Poehler, Will Arnett, and the like
  • Emphasize the connection to The Borrowers
  • Downplay Ghibli’s presence, aside from the token “From the people that made Spirited Away”

Furthermore, Disney would be wise to throw some advertisement to non-traditional channels. YouTube, daytime television, and off-networks will be Disney’s friend in this, as will sites that focus on literature and general animation.

Of course, this is mere speculation at this point. The film doesn’t open for another ten days, and the ad machines are just beginning to ramp into full gear. How Disney will pitch this is still a bit of a mystery, though the official trailer seems to be on the fence as to just who they want to sell the product to. It will be interesting to see if Disney really does try to grab at this difficult, yet rewarding market or if they will play it safe (which, as we all know, is the riskiest choice) once again.