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?
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.
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.
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.