Have you seen the trailer for Studio Ghibli’s upcoming film, How Do You Live? Of course you haven’t — the film has zero promotional material released for it save for a couple of posters, and even then, the posters barely tells us anything, with one of the posters only featuring an illustration of a bird and maybe another bird underneath its beak.
The deliberate absence of any promotion for How Do You Live is certainly a remarkable move, and even Hayao Miyazaki has stated worries over the title’s lack of publicity. From an outsider’s perspective, let’s discuss: Is this move a genius one or a misstep?
If there’s any film that can pull a stunt like this off, it’s one directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Even cinephiles who aren’t all that into anime recognize his name because of how synonymous it’s become with quality family anime entertainment. There’s also the fact that this is his first film in 10 years, the film that pulled him out of retirement, and this is claimed to be his swan song.
Considering all that, you’ve got a guarantee that diehard Miyazaki fans are going to come flocking to see this film, regardless of whether they know its premise or not.
There’s also the fantastic allure of going into a movie blind, which these days is pretty much impossible if you’re a cinephile. Movie theaters play trailers, YouTube shows film ads, and pop culture sites have banner ads for the newest releases. There’s something so exciting about not having any preconceived notions about How Do You Live, save that it’s meant to be a “big, fantastical story.”
The story of zero promotion will also follow this film wherever it goes, assuming they decide to stick to it and not release any promotional material for its entire run. This is especially beneficial if the film is critically acclaimed as people can claim that the story works because it never caters to marketing.
As How Do You Live producer Toshio Suzuki said, “[…] Ghibli has wanted people to come to see the movies we’ve made. So we’ve thought about that and done a lot of different things for that purpose — but this time we were like, ‘Eh, we don’t need to do that.’”
Finally, if this film does turn out to be a masterpiece, it’ll be a gigantic and welcome surprise since Studio Ghibli’s last film, 2020’s Earwig and the Witch, which was critically panned and has a 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, the lowest score ever received by a Ghibli film. This film being a surprise hit could be seriously beneficial for Ghibli’s reputation, as the lack of promotion signifies serious confidence in the quality of the film from the studio.
In this age of instant information, there is no way Studio Ghibli can maintain the secrecy of the film’s plot past its premiere date. After July 14, dozens of reviews, articles, and social media posts about How Do You Live are going to be published and readily available for anyone interested in what it’s about. Even people still interested in going in blind are going to have to tread carefully online, lest they accidentally read a spoiler.
This is especially a problem considering Studio Ghibli caters to a worldwide audience, which means by the time this film releases outside of Japan, the mystery of its story will be long solved and the critics’ scores and reviews will be easily accessible. While a summary from a review is different from actual promotional material, one can still gain preconceived notions from them.
Secrecy can also give people the wrong preconceived notions about your film and filmgoers might not even realize this is a Studio Ghibli or Miyazaki title. The film Blair Witch tried a somewhat similar tactic of secrecy in its marketing, with it being promoted under the title of The Woods during its marketing run. Lionsgate wanted to keep it secret that it was a Blair Witch sequel, as even key staff and crew members were unaware of this. The film was only revealed as such in July 2016, the same month as its San Diego Comic-Con premiere.
This secrecy ended up harming Blair Witch. While it grossed $45 million against a budget of $5 million, the original 1999 film grossed $248 million against a budget of $60,000. It certainly didn’t help that Blair Witch had terrible reviews, scoring a 38% on Rotten Tomatoes. Had this been known as a Blair Witch sequel from the very beginning, it might’ve garnered a far bigger theatrical turnout.
Speaking of critics, there’s the big concern of this not being well-received by either critics or audiences. How Do You Live can’t just be good but great in order to be a success. Viewers need to love this film so much, they’re compelled to spread the word about it so even non-anime fans will be motivated to see it.
If How Do You Live is fun but ultimately forgettable, that might even be worse than if it was outright bad. At least people are still talking about Earwig and the Witch, if only to discuss and analyze Studio Ghibli’s first big misfire, or even if it is their first big misfire.
Earwig and the Witch also pretty much broke the myth that Studio Ghibli can do no wrong, a myth already previously broken by 2006’s Tales From Earthsea. Studio Ghibli was predictably able to recover from the mixed reviews garnered by Earthsea, but they may find it difficult to recover a second time, the same way Pixar is currently having difficulty recovering after having recovered from Cars 2.
How Will How Do You Live? Do?
Releasing How Do You Live? with virtually zero marketing materials and right after Earwig and the Witch is both a bold move and an incredibly risky one for Studio Ghibli. With the premiere date fast approaching, really only time will tell how successful it’ll be, and in this movie’s case, that might not even be right away. Even if this title ends up being a box office disappointment, it could still find later success during awards season should it get nominated for award shows.
I, for one, am wishing Studio Ghibli only great things for this project. Not every film can pull such a stunt off, but How Do You Live seems incredibly likely to be able to, even if it means waiting a while for the hype to catch on.
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