How Studio Ghibli Went From Streaming Holdout to HBO Max Star

How Studio Ghibli Went From Streaming Holdout to HBO Max Star

How Studio Ghibli Went From Streaming Holdout to HBO Max Star

How Studio Ghibli Went From Streaming Holdout to HBO Max Star

HBO Max kicked off Wednesday with an abundance of noisy hit Warner Bros. movies (like “Wonder Woman” and the entire Harry Potter franchise) and heralded television shows (“Game of Thrones,” “Friends”). Yet tucked inside the platform’s 10,000 hours of programming is a jewel of a film catalog from the Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, which has garnered both accolades and critical reverence in its 35-year history but whose work has remained elusive to the many streaming services that have come calling over the years.

Founded in 1985 by the filmmakers Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata and Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli has made 21 animated features, earned five Oscar nominations and one statuette for Miyazaki’s 2002 “Spirited Away,” Japan’s highest-grossing film.

The studio and its celebrity director, Miyazaki, have long been subjects of cult adoration. Collectors have hunted down DVD releases for decades. The Studio Ghibli Museum has been a prominent tourist attraction in Mitaka, Japan, since opening in 2001, and the three-year-old Studio Ghibli Fest, held annually in theaters across the United States by its North American distributor, GKids, and Fathom Events, sells out instantly. (The museum is currently closed because of the pandemic, and plans are still in the works for a 2020 edition of the festival.)

Yet, despite the adoration, Studio Ghibli has never been able to cross over into the mass market. Now, these elusive titles will all be housed in one place, prominently displayed next to HBO Max’s better-known properties, in a move that could transform Studio Ghibli from bespoke manufacturer of beautiful hand-drawn animation into the mass-market mainstream.

“Ghibli films have been seen by a wide range of audiences worldwide,” said Suzuki, the architect behind the creation of the studio. “However, in the States, it wasn’t really working as we had expected. People would come to the theaters to watch Ghibli films on the East Coast and West Coast, but in the Midwest region, it was hard to get people in the theaters. We thought this would be a great opportunity.”

The GKids president, David Jesteadt, had been urging Studio Ghibli to go digital for years, only to be repeatedly shut down by the three founders. Digital was antithetical to Studio Ghibli’s philosophy of care and mindfulness. “There is a strong emphasis on presentation and less focus on finances in terms of trying to maximize revenue like other film companies,” Jesteadt said.

Plus, he added, there was little need. “Ghibli’s catalog is so legendary in its own right that the home video sales have really been fantastic for 20 years,” he said. “Even as the rest of the industry was looking at declines and finding ways to offset revenue with different streams, they weren’t experiencing that same impact.”

So what changed?

For one, Studio Ghibli has undergone a transformation in the past few years. Miyazaki announced his retirement in 2013 after finishing the Oscar-nominated “The Wind Rises” and soon after closed the studio. Five years later, Takahata died and the remaining founders began discussing how to preserve Studio Ghibli’s legacy.

Miyazaki’s son Goro began work on Studio Ghibli’s first computer-animation project, a still untitled film centered on a young girl, a character Suzuki called “the wisest person on Earth.” That work prompted the elder Miyazaki to begin plotting his own return to moviemaking with the hand-drawn “How Do You Live?,” which follows a 15-year-old boy’s journey of spiritual growth following the death of his father. “The boy, the protagonist, is very similar to Hayao Miyazaki,” Suzuki said. “The film reflects on Miyazaki contemplating how he’s lived his life up until now.”

The remaining founders were also influenced by a number of artists who were eschewing theatrical distribution for the ubiquity of streaming. Suzuki pointed specifically to Woody Allen and what had been a lucrative deal with Amazon. (Amazon severed its relationship with Allen in June 2018 after allegations resurfaced that he sexually abused his daughter, accusations he has denied.)

Suzuki recalled that what Allen “said was very interesting.”

“He said there should be numerous outlets for films,” Suzuki explained, “not just movie theaters but packaging and also streaming. There should be multiple outlets. And I thought, ‘Well, that makes sense.’”

All this new thinking was timed perfectly for the start of HBO Max. Impressed by both the HBO pedigree and the curated approach to content by WarnerMedia, the parent company of HBO and HBO Max, the two parties were quickly able to seal a deal.

“It was a serendipitous moment,” said Kevin Reilly, chief content officer of HBO Max, who admitted to being surprised by the rapturous response to the deal.

“I knew it was revered,” Reilly said of the news that the Ghibli films would be streaming, but he also noted that the announcement signaled to industry insiders “what we were reaching for, what kind of things we wanted to bring into the fold.” He added, “When we were closing the ‘South Park’ deal, Trey Parker and Matt Stone said, ‘Hey man, that really meant something to us when you brought in Ghibli.’”

Reilly said that he had seen the library’s effect on his own household. Quarantined with his three sons — ages 21, 21 and 16 — he gave them access to the beta version of HBO Max in the weeks leading up to launch. Where have they gone first? Studio Ghibli.

“It’s been a Studio Ghibli film festival over here,” he said with a laugh. “Of all the things they could watch on HBO Max, these big, loafy men are sitting on the couch watching these beautiful, sweet animated stories. That’s the magic of these films.”

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