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It's Too Bad That Audience Pictures Like Ultraman: Rising Will Barely Be Seen in Theaters

The term "crowd-pleasing" doesn't make sense without a crowd. 

I thought about this a couple of days ago while watching a well-attended press screening of "Ultraman: Rising," a meticulously crafted animated film that its distributor Netflix is giving a customary perfunctory theatrical run to before consigning it to its streaming vault, where it'll likely get swallowed up and forgotten. (It opens nationally today.)  It owes a lot to Brad Bird's classic 1999 debut feature "The Iron Giant," as well as to early Pixar movies ("Finding Nemo" especially) and certain Hayao Miyazaki films (more so the film's attitude towards good and evil than anything visual or sonic). 

“Ultraman: Rising" is what the old-time studio bosses used to call "an audience picture." The audience for which it was designed has two main components: young children who like watching baby creatures act like misbehaving baby humans; and adults who can appreciate a film that celebrates both the wonderful and terrible aspects of being a parent. 

Of course, the big problem here is that Netflix, the film's releasing studio, has made it difficult to watch "Ultraman: Rising" with an audience by releasing it only on a small number of screens, and only for a week—just a little more than the minimum theatrical exposure required for it to be considered for the Academy Awards. (More on this in a moment.)

Co-directed by Shannon Tindle and John Aoshima (seasoned animators who worked on "Kubo and the Two Strings"), it's a movie that jumps straight into its premise and forces viewers to catch up and infer their way through any plot confusion. Professor Sato (Gedde Watanabe), the original Ultraman, defends humanity against rampaging kaiju until he disappears while fighting the dragon Gigantron. His wife The story flashes forward 20 years as the professor's son Kenji "Ken" Sato, a professional baseball player, impulsively decides to relocate from an American team in San Francisco to a team in Tokyo. Turns out Ken has inherited the Ultraman duties from his father, who's a non-presence in Ken's life even though he's the reason Ken took on the Kaiju-battling job. 

Ken defeats Gigantron but, in the process, comes into possession of one of Gigantron's eggs, and it's here that the film reveals its early Pixar heart. Ken is an arrogant, selfish, narcissistic person (for psychologically explicable reasons that make you not hate him). Like his father before him, he doesn't understand the concept of "balance" in one's life. Baseball and being Ultraman are all he's got room for. 

The movie's middle section is in the vein of "Mr. Mom" or "Raising Arizona" or some other slapstick comedy where adults get a crash course in parenting, but with monsters and robots added. Baby kaiju does the same things that all babies do. She poops, she cries, she throws up, she drools, she falls down and breaks things, she gets into all kinds of trouble. She doesn't know her own strength or her own weaknesses. And she turns Ken's life upside-down and inside out. Ken starts messing up at work (i.e., playing baseball) because of sleep deprivation. He can't say why he's so exhausted without blowing his cover as Ultraman. 

Storm clouds gather around the edges of this adorable movie as Dr. Onda (Keone Young), the head of the Kaiju Defense Force (KDF)—who gave Gigantron the metal-shelled egg that Ultraman acquired—plans to track the baby back to Kaiji Island and eliminate the monster problem in one fell swoop. One of my favorite things about this movie (and probably the only thing about it that made me think of Miyazaki, aside from the way that characters keep making little physical mistakes that humanize them, like bumping into door frames or embarrassing themselves at dinner) is that there aren't any outright bad guys in it. Dr. Onda comes closest. But it turns out that he's just like everyone else in the movie in that he's got his own tragic backstory and is at the mercy of his conditioning and issues. The big question is whether he'll overcome all that in time to prevent further tragedy from befalling himself and the other characters (and the people of Japan). 

You can tell when a movie is conceived as a thing that is supposed to be screened publicly because it leaves a little bit of air in the cutting for reactions: laughs, tears, "awww!" at cute stuff. Which is to say, it has rhythm. It can dance.

“Ultraman: Rising" can dance. Just about every reaction it seemed to want to evoke, it got. Kids absolutely loved the lowball physical humor (what's not to love about a giant baby spitting up on a guy in a robot suit?), and you could hear murmurs of recognition amid the adult guffaws at the montages of Ken trying to learn how to be a dad and keep his day job without going bonkers. 

I've seen a lot of movies that can dance but don't get a chance to show it on a big screen in front of a crowd. Sometimes, it's because Netflix bought them as one of thousands of streaming menu options and wouldn't put them in even one theater if they weren't required to do so to qualify for Oscars and certain other awards. 

The second "Knives Out" movie, "Glass Onion," was my go-to example for a while. I saw it on Thanksgiving weekend at a theater in Dallas. It made $15 million in seven days, despite being screened in a much smaller number of theaters than its predecessor, "Knives Out," a theaters-only release from Lionsgate that made $45 million in its first seven days. Screenings for the sequel were packed all over the US despite the limited window. I think it would've done as well as its predecessor if it had as many screens (3,641 for "Knives Out" versus only 600 for the sequel, and it was exclusive to AMC Theaters). 

Richard Linklater's "Hit Man" might have done very well had it gotten more than a minimum rollout; it was a sensation at festivals and has gotten great word-of-mouth on social media from people who saw it in public venues. Netflix paid $20 million for it, but seemingly more as a menu option than a cultural event. I suspect David Fincher's "The Killer," a Netflix original, might have made bank had it gotten a proper release in theaters rather than a few straggler bookings nationally. I was fortunate to get to see it with a crowd. It really played, in that art house/sardonic "should I be laughing at this?" way that made Fincher's last theatrical film, "Gone Girl," so much naughty fun. ("Gone Girl" was Fincher's highest-grossing film, earning $360 million internationally on a $60 million budget.)

Every molecule in my moviegoing-industry reporting body tells me that "Ultraman" is the kind of film that would prove to have legs and make an unexpectedly huge amount of money at the box office if it were (a) properly screened and promoted by its distributor and (b)  kept in theaters for more than a few weeks, to get that sweet, sweet word-of-mouth money that's belatedly going to make a hit out of "IF," which supposedly opened "soft" but is still in theaters as of this writing. Similarly, look at what happened with Pixar's "Elemental," which was written off as a bomb opening week but went on to make half a billion dollars. Both films gained value by prolonged theatrical exposure. "Ultraman" won't get that chance because it's not part of Netflix's playbook-- a playbook that they seem bizarrely invested in sticking to, even when it means they're leaving money on the table.

Sony, meanwhile, just bought the Alamo Drafthouse chain, which has a tight relationship with Neon Releasing (founded by the same people). In turn, it has relationships with other important distributors of indie and import films, including Bleecker Street. Neon also happens to have purchased the distribution rights to the last five films to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival, all but one of which ("Titans") went on to be nominated for Oscars. 

Sony is the only major studio putting out feature films that hasn't created a money-pit streaming service. I think the two things are related. I think Sony understands what Netflix and a lot of other major "content producers" refuse to admit: that the only sure way to make money in the movie business is through theaters. Movie theaters have existed in some form for about 125 years, and if they are indeed dying, it's an American thing; we've lost five percent of our screens since 2019 while theater construction overseas rose by the same percentage.

Every feature film does better in the long run if it plays in theaters. If it's a hit in theaters, so much the better -- but it doesn't have to be a hit. Just playing in theaters for more than a week gives it a sense of gravitas and permanence, not to mention lots of free advertising from people who still go to the movies and go on social media to talk about them, plus all the publications, platforms, newsletters, and Letterboxd accounts that (out of nostalgia, possibly?) still feel obligated to review every new release that plays in theaters.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. Keep an eye on what happens to Sony versus what happens to Netflix, and let me know if I called it right.

Matt Zoller Seitz

Matt Zoller Seitz is the Editor at Large of RogerEbert.com, TV critic for New York Magazine and Vulture.com, and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism.

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