Few animation studios can boast as passionate and devoted a following as Studio Ghibli - the iconic Japanese animation house behind classics such as My Neighbour Totoro, Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away. Two of the studio’s devotees are Michael Leader and Jake Cunningham - a pair of professional film critics who have been running the Ghibliotheque podcast since 2018.
Starting out as an exploration of Studio Ghibli’s repertoire, the podcast has now expanded to include wider discussions of anime cinema, a series of live screening events and two books. PodPod sat down with Cunningham and Leader ahead of one of their regular screening events to discuss the genesis of the podcast, how it’s influenced their approach to film criticism, and why putting people to sleep is a high honour.
How would you describe your podcast?
Michael Leader: Jake has talked about it as being a film school that you have attended for the last five years; I would talk for 10 minutes or so about everything leading up to the point of watching the film, the context, the characters behind the scenes, the industry movements, why we care about this film on the world stage. Then the review section would be Jake’s take on the film and approaching it as a film fan, but a relative newcomer to Studio Ghibli’s films.
Jake Cunningham: The highest of compliments is that people like to listen to it to fall asleep. That was something unintentional: that people find it really relaxing. We didn't want to be film bros shouting at each other and arguing, getting louder and louder and trying to be funny. We want to have a more relaxed approach and make people feel not intimidated by it.
Why did you start your podcast?
Jake: We worked together: I was host of the Curzon podcast, and Michael was the host of Truth & Movies, the podcast for Little White Lies magazine. Michael, a dedicated Studio Ghibli fan, learned I'd never seen any of them. So we did what two white men in their late twenties do: start a podcast!
Michael: I'd worked with Film4 for several years at that point. [Channel 4] had the full Ghibli catalogue and were about to screen, over the summer in 2018, the biggest, most complete Studio Ghibli TV season ever, and they were looking for ways to contextualise that, to do something different. So we had our feet in both ponds: the newcomer who has never heard of the studio, knew they were important but didn't know why; and the film expert who did. We found out quite quickly there was that audience out there. Because we knew that hardcore anime fans didn't need a podcast like this, but there was a whole film-interested audience.
What advice do you wish you’d been given when you first started?
Michael: Setting up social accounts – we should have done that from the get go.
Jake: I think that's because our work had us on social, and so we were both in the mindset of "I do not want another Twitter login." I still have to ask for the passwords, because I will log in to post something and delete the account forever!What's been really important is learning that the podcast isn't the podcast. It's everything around it. It's an ecosystem. If your podcast exists in a bubble, and you just keep publishing it to a feed and you don't tell anyone, or you don't go in and do other stuff… Not to say you need to be reading Reed Hastings books and marketing the hell out of everything and posting everything on LinkedIn, but realising that you're part of a community and engaging with that community.
How many people does it take to create an episode of your show?
Michael: Actively now it's three: Jake, Steph Watts and I. There's Harold McShiel, who is very much part of the development. We have Anthony Ing doing our music, which is such an important part of setting that tone when you listen in; it’s lulling you into that sense of sleep for the people who are listening before going to bed.
Jake: Various editors have come in. People have done lots of stuff for us, whether that's our work or whether it's the publishers that we've worked with on the books.
How do you monetise your podcast?
Jake: We work with Acast, and so we serve pre, mid and roll ads on the main feed. We also have a Patreon, so Patrons get access to all of those main-feed episodes without the adverts. And we do exclusive episodes for them – that's our library café. If Ghiblioteque is the library, the library café is where we talk about stuff that isn't anime. We had an amazing, dedicated fan on our Discord, which Patreons also have access to, who had assembled a Letterboxd list of every film that we've talked about, including just passing mentions.
Michael: It's hard to really find the dividing line between what is podcast-specific and these other things. Some of the live events have arisen from producers or event producers and managers of these venues knowing the podcast, liking the podcast and bringing us in. So some of those events are almost paying for the podcasts because they are podcast gigs or corporate gigs.
How do you promote your podcast?
Michael: Social media is one thing. But really, it’s now a three-pronged project – the events and the book and the podcast. We'll have a book-signing event where people are coming to see us because they bought the book and didn't know it was a podcast, or they'll be coming to an event because they've seen the film and only just heard it was a podcast. So you have this network of cross-pollination, of promotion.
Jake: There are people that are going back and listening to the whole thing or they're watching along now that all the films are on Netflix. It's perfect that people can go back to episode one and, weirdly, follow that journey exactly as I lived it.
Michael: Of course, we do send out press releases when we do a new miniseries of the podcast. We do have friends on other film podcasts, too. And then the simple thing of emailing the magazines and websites that we know. Sometimes it's that mixture of digital marketing, traditional marketing and the reverberations between the various projects that we do.
What have you learned about yourself since starting your podcast?
Jake: When I was studying film and making stuff I was always jealous of the people who had a thing they loved, like horror. I really wanted something like that, but had never quite discovered it. Putting the work in has helped me have this instant curiosity for anything that is in the sphere of animation. I also think, within film culture, particularly within film journalism, there is a very intense rat race of people who need to have opinions on everything all the time, instantly. I've been happier to take my own time and form my own thoughts and not jump out of a screening and immediately tweet absolute nonsense. If we sit down together with a microphone in between us, we'll formulate something that will have far more meaning.
Michael: What I've learned about myself is a sense of competence. I've tried to develop this allegory or metaphor for how I view myself and what I can do as a film critic – and currently hit on 'concierge', which is the person that meets you when you walk in the door and shows you to the room.
Who listens to your podcast?
Jake: Well, people that want to fall asleep, apparently! Beyond that, you don't get a whole lot of demographic insight. I would say that it's a surprisingly global podcast. We were thinking we're serving a UK crowd here, but over 20% of our listeners come from America. We have even been featured on the carousel homepage of Apple Podcasts Japan, and became the number-one TV and film podcast in Japan. I'd like to imagine that they're people that are on a similar wavelength, are film-curious and are looking for a more relaxed but not entirely academic approach to their film education.
Michael: The age range is probably longer and broader than some people may think.
What was the last podcast that you listened to?
Jake: Al Horner's Script Apart, which interviews screenwriters and filmmakers, and gets them to send their first draft of a famous script. They will interview them about that first draft and how it relates to the final film that we see. It's a really great selection of guests and it's a nice format, and also not too long. They trim them down and they're very accessible. I'm a sucker for writing podcasts.
Michael: I love conversation podcasts. So usually I'm listening to the interview-based ones or conversation podcasts where there is maybe a gimmick behind it. Music is my passion and I have not yet turned it into a job, so I listen to a podcast called The Rockonteurs. It’s Guy Pratt and Gary Kemp. They've been around the block, they know everybody and they often get guests on and they have those conversations with that shared experience.
Also, my friend Al Kennedy has a podcast related to my other passion, which is comic books. This is House to Astonish, which is one of the longest-running British comics podcasts. They've just celebrated their 200th episode.