When interviewing brand marketing director of Laika Entertainment, Mark Shapiro, I’ve opted for more marketing-based questions, being curious about what goes on behind the actual production of Laika animation films. This way, I had the opportunity to get a little insight from the man that, when the product is finally done, makes it visible for those who love unique animations that tell playful stories with complex meanings behind them, fascinating children and adults altogether.
Ana-Maria Uluceanu: Firstly, I wanted to ask you: why do you think stop-motion animation is still relevant and interesting today?
Mark Shapiro: I think stop-motion animation remains relevant, especially now, because people appreciate things made by hand, and artistic things that they know that are done specifically for a project. People really appreciate the way this type of art is made. Some people ask: why would you make a movie in stop motion? There’s so many things to do, so many things you need to build, but I see it like this: if you want to create a piece of masterpiece, you don’t take a picture of it, you actually have to make it. So of course, it’s more complicated, but I think people, in this environment day, appreciate things that are hand-crafted.
Ana-Maria Uluceanu: What do you have to say about the fact that your stories in Laika feature films seem to be for children, when actually they hide a deeper, more complex meaning?
Mark Shapiro: I don’t know if you remember when you were little and went to the movies. Sometimes they were scary or sometimes it was something about them that was mysterious. It makes you want to know and understand more and kids have great curiosity and we appeal to that curiosity, but of any age.
Ana-Maria Uluceanu: Next question is about the production, pre-production and post-production included: what does it imply for the production team, because it seems really difficult to put all those things together?
Mark Shapiro: Yes, it is a long process, sometimes even between 8 to 10 years spent in pre-production. Basically, that is the way to understand movies being put together: the plot of the movie, the story, the structure, the visuals. All this takes time to build. So from a production side, you have to plan out what everybody will be doing for the duration of the project, which is usually about 2 years. It takes plenty of time to figure out who is going to do what, how you will do it, having in mind also the limitations of the set or the size of the studio itself. It takes a long time to pull all that together, especially when you’re working with over four hundred people. It really is a challenging role. The production team is a really important group because they are some sort of “navigators of the project”. Think about it like this: if you were to use the analogy of an airplane that is going from point A to point B, you can have the person flying the plane, but if you don’t know the map, then you wouldn’t know where you’re going. So the production team really helps pull all those elements together, not just in pre-production, but during production time and post-production also.
Ana-Maria Uluceanu: I wanted to talk about the way things go after the film has already been made. Concerning the marketing behind these movies, it seems to be really clever. I’m guessing this type of marketing has been facilitated by your distributors, Focus Feature and Universal?
Mike Shapiro: Universal is affiliated with Focus and we work with them closely. We also work with an advertising agency that helps us pull together creative strategies that support the goal of the marketing. The key thing that I keep talking about, especially to students, is that marketing is a really important part of the project and it can’t be ignored. Some students will focus only on the production: they get the voices, they get the script done, everything, but marketing is the final stage. It helps you tell your story and there’s no one better at telling your story than yourself. So, for example, if students are entering a film in a festival, why not create some kind of “behind the scenes” that talks about the movie? People are very curious about how things are made and you can still have fun after the production is done when going into the marketing phase.
Ana-Maria Uluceanu: So you would say that when doing your marketing, it should feature a piece of the way your film is made?
Mark Shapiro: Yes. If you look at marketing through the lens of your production, it’s almost like this: you take a frame from your film and turn it into marketing, if it makes any sense. Sometimes a company will make a great product and then maybe the marketing group will not connect to this product. It will start telling a story about it, when actually it’s separate from it. But if you have people that have worked on that project that explain how things work it becomes interesting. Everybody finds it so. The little piece of your film should be in every piece of marketing, print, radio, TV, on-line, whatever is you’re doing.
Ana-Maria Uluceanu: Your films are commercially and critically successful at the same time and I guess that a bit of that is thanks to the marketing, because doesn’t seem easy to sell this kind of artistic product. You need to have a clever idea in order to put this kind of product on the market and also make it profitable.
Mark Shapiro: You’re right, it isn’t. That is truly important. It really has to come together for the success of the movie. First, you need a good story, you need good people to work on it, you need a good production team and then comes marketing, which is an important component too. I think marketing is about good timing. The trailer of our next movie, Kubo and the Two Strings, is going to be out in a few weeks. Look at it this way: if you take things out there too early, sometimes it will have an adverse on whatever it is that you’re marketing. And you also have to get it in front of the right people. For instance, with Coraline, working with Neil Gaiman and having him talk about our movie is a big deal, because people love what he writes and he has that kind of credibility. So he really contributed a lot from a social media point of view. If you think about marketing, it’s complicated, because you have print advertising, on-line etcetera. So you really have to come back to the core, which is getting people to appreciate what you’re making and, of course, seeing your movie.
Ana-Maria Uluceanu: Now coming back to the idea that the marketing strategy of The Boxtrolls and the other previous film of Laika is really clever, subtlety is a key-element in what you do.
Mark Shapiro: Subtlety is a really good point. It depends on the company, but some of them will say that it’s always good to have your name out there. To me it’s more about three things: right place, right message, right time. You’ve mentioned subtlety, that’s really important. You have to be careful when managing your product, because you’re constantly protecting it. For instance, we have one approved image of Kubo and the Two Strings because of that reason: we’re keeping it under control for now but eventually it’ll go out, just like the previous productions.
Ana-Maria Uluceanu: Well, this is about it. I thank you for answering my questions and also for giving me such good answers. I guess we’ll see you again next year, when screening Kubo.
Mark Shapiro: Oh, that’s nice of you. Of course, with great pleasure. I’m also looking forward to coming back next year, when I hope the 11th edition of Anim’est will be opening with Kubo and the Two Strings. We’re working towards that. I’d be really great.