Studio Ghibli, Disney, and The Range of Their Brands

Both Disney and Studio Ghibli have very strong brands in their respective home markets. Both are famous for their animated feature films. However only one can be said to be more truly representative of the dramatic range that animation is capable of. That entity is Studio Ghibli, who release all their material under one brand. In contrast, Disney uses multiple brands for their releases, restricting the core one for family-friendly content exclusively. Why does this perplexing situation exist?

Economic Reasons?

The Disney brand is extremely strong and is guarded with a zealousness that is the envy of every business. The company actively pursues any attempt to dilute it and is well-known for the degree of control it exerts over anyone looking to use it.

The problem is that the Disney brand is now synonymous with being family-friendly, and the company feels that it cannot, by virtue of its fiduciary obligations to shareholders, engage in any kind of activity that will potentially reduce its value.

One of the things that could potentially reduce this value is to release a film that would damage the family-friendliness that it is known for. (They could also release a bad film, but that’s a different story.) This fact became a real concern for the company who realised that they’re growth was stymied by the small nature of the kiddie market relative to the market as a whole. Attempts at more adult-oriented material however, caused a bit of a backlash amongst the public.

The end result was the formation of Touchstone Pictures; a brand with no apparent connection to Disney in the eyes of the consumer. This enabled the studio to release films more suited to adults (the first to come out was Splash.)

However, the studio only released two animated films as a Touchstone picture: Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Today, even though the nature of the company’s business has changed, it continues to rely on other brands and subsidiaries to release films that are aimed at older audiences.

In contrast, Studio Ghibli has had no problems releasing films like Grave of the Fireflies or Princess Mononoke; films that make not bones about their nature or graphic content. Both films were also commercial success in Japan.

The financial concerns for Studio Ghibli are quite similar to those of Disney, yet the former sees no harm to their brand if they release a film that’s better suited to adults.

Paranoia?

While cultural differences undoubtedly play a role in all of this, the reality is that Disney have painted themselves into a corner in regards to their namesake brand. While many brands stake a claim on a particular image, movie studios have proven mostly reluctant to follow the same route. The exception is, of course, animation studios (at the feature level.)

The reason is pretty clear, they all produce the same kinds of films and Disney is head of the pack. It’s safe to say that their utter reliance on the image of their brand as being family-friendly has led them to be somewhat paranoid about alienating that segment of the market.

Other studios don’t seem to have that problem, releasing films for both kids and adults under the same brand. Studio Ghibli of course has no problem either.

The Difference

Studio Ghibli differs from Disney in that they built their brand on the basis of offering superior animated content. In contrast, Disney’s brand is built on the concept of being a safe choice for parents.

This post isn’t advocating one particular approach over the other, but Ghibli has the upper hand when it comes to brand flexibility; they don’t have to start a new one just to make a film for an older audience.

Ghibli’s approach is better in regards to animation as a whole though because it de-emphasises the idea of animation as a genre as opposed to a technique. In the States, Disney is synonymous with animation and the narrow range of their output has long affixed the notion that animation is a genre.

Newer studios are breaking away from the Disney mold, but it will take time before we see an animation studio being comfortable releasing a full breadth of animated content.

10 Comments on “Studio Ghibli, Disney, and The Range of Their Brands

  1. Seeing the way that Studio Ghibli releases their films solely for the sake of providing animation that you would otherwise not find anywhere else makes me wonder… can other animation studios do this?

    Or rather, are they capable of even doing so?

      • Risk is a big deal for studios that are often months away from closure. US content businesses are rather unhealthy—Journey took down thatgamecompany, despite its success; vfx woes were in the news circa Oscar time…

        In the end, Disney is hampered by financial concerns due to the strategy of strongly identifying as a producer of genre content, and what we see is the same pattern repeated across the US media landscape. It’s also not specific to Disney’s animation business: their live-action fare is held to the same standard.

        Discovered this blog recently and have really been enjoying the content! Great work 🙂

        • Was the media landscape (regardless of what country it comes from) always like this?

          Also, if we never took risks, how advanced would any country be if they went that route?

          Sure, not every risk taken may lead to something good. But, it’s good to try something, at least.

          • No. The (US, in particular) media landscape has certainly changed, and arguably for the worse. A big part of the problem—and this is across the landscape, not just in animation—is the hubris of producers believing they can reproduce previous results if they crunch enough numbers, so they make bigger and bigger bets that fail to pan out, then they overreact to their own hubris by flocking to “safe” themes and genres. The result, however, seems to be a combination of viewer fatigue and worn out genres…

            A record producer once said that back in the 1950s and ’60s, “nobody had any clue,” so they’d put stuff out there and see what worked. That spontaneity and risk-taking are absent from today’s media landscape, in general (though, ironically, television is now the place for complex narrative), and it has fed a vicious cycle of ever-rising production costs and ever narrowing margins on most projects.

            Yes, it’s good to try something, but these aren’t artistic statements. These are nine-figure enterprises, and those sorts of sums make for skittish investors. :-/

          • Well then, there needs to be more people like Walt Disney. People who are more than willing to take risks and be spontaneous with the animation genre while also measuring those risks as well as the rewards.

            I know that cartoons aren’t always artistic statements. But, there’s no excuse for the state of the industry as it is now.

            Besides, you can be spontaneous and a risk-taker and be grounded within reality when it comes to business.

            It has worked before with various people in other industries.

            Look at people like Keiji Inafune or Shigeru Miyamoto.

            They’ve done this for a long time and it worked well for both Nintendo and (formerly) Capcom.

  2. This speaks true not only for studios but individual cartoonists or animators.

    When I was in college, I told a professor how I wanted to tackle numerous genres, but he advised I stick with one or I’d risk alienating audiences.

    • “Alienating the audience” is a phrase that’s bandied about by lots of people who don’t really know what it means. There’s a big difference between actually alienating the audience and making a poor film. My gut tells me that audiences see too many of the latter and the former is the excuse that’s put forward regardless of whether it’s true or not.

      • There are a lot of phrases that people use to excuse almost everything nowadays. In cases like this, most (but not all) studios and the majority of executives that run them would use that phrase to justify a lack of creativity and squeamishness on their part.

        To them, it’s better to go with something safe than to try new things and wonder whether they will succeed or fail. There are times where this style of thinking works and it even can be justified.

        But, it does not mean that it always works out this way.

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