Why Isn't More Anime Shown in US Theaters?

by Justin Sevakis,

Before we get started, a quick correction. Some time ago, I wrote about how back in the bad old days, many American editions of manga were literally photocopied from a Japanese tankoubon. None other than Carl Horn emailed me to let me know that, while that was true, it was really only true at the smaller manga publishers (which I was more familiar with). The big guys of the late 90s, namely Dark Horse Comics and Viz Comics, would go to great trouble and expense to obtain the original film elements from Japan that were used for printing the manga. These film elements were then reproduced and retouched to be in English. Which is probably why their output looked so much better than that of other publishers of the era. As the process was still mainly analog, there was still some loss of detail and boosted contrast, but nowhere near as bad as with the photocopying method.

Anyway, onto today's question.

"Princess Alice" asks:

why is it that in the US, Anime is so very rare in theaters? I mean, I remember there was a time when Pokémon, even Digimon was showing in US theaters, more recently Yu-Gi-Oh! 3D: Bonds Beyond Time ( a 5 yearish gap from now). Even more recently was Dragon Ball Z Battle of Gods and soon to be released dub wise is Dragon Ball Z Resurrection 'F' there's also Studio Ghibli's When Marnie Was There which is still showing in select theaters throughout the US but even then, more so now a days if an anime movie does air in US theaters, it's only big city theaters or somewhere with a lot of people.

There are a number of obstacles to bringing more anime feature films to American theaters. To begin with, there simply aren't that many anime films released every year that have enough buzz to bother with a theatrical release. Sure, the Naruto films might get enough traction, especially for one-night-only screenings. Ghibli films command enough respect from mainstream audiences to warrant an occasional local screening from an interested theater now and then. But the vast majority of anime features are either short films strung together as double- or triple-features (which usually don't end up sold together to overseas markets), or are non-franchise films that most anime fans have not heard of.

Anime fandom usually does a great job educating itself about new and upcoming anime, and usually acts as its own hype machine. But that phenomenon is mostly limited to TV shows, and those are now so plentiful that nobody can even keep up with them all. Since movies aren't immediately available to Western fans, legally or illegally, they often go ignored. How much buzz have you heard about Seiji Mizushima's Expelled from Paradise, or Mizuho Nishikubo's Giovanni's Island? Those both came out last year, but very few Western fans are talking about them. You could put them in American theaters, but nobody would go see them. Few people even buy them on DVD.

Booking a movie into theaters is a very expensive proposition. A large-scale theatrical release like a Hollywood blockbuster takes tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing expenses -- well out of the realm of possibility for any of the anime companies. Making subtitled or dubbed film prints isn't so hard these days, now that everything is digital and hard drive-based, but actually getting it into theaters is another story. The vast majority of American theaters are controlled by massive chains like AMC, Regal and Landmark. Getting films played in those theaters requires connections, and convincing their management that the film won't just play to an empty theater. The distributor has to commit to a marketing plan and budget. The vast majority of anime simply won't make the cut. And if the anime has been released in any other form before, be it streaming, VOD or on video, the answer is an automatic no.

The alternative is to "four-wall" a release, which means to just rent out the theater screens outright. That gets insanely expensive. Lastly, you can release the film via National Cinemedia's "Fathom Events" program, which broadcasts the video to the theaters via a private satellite transmission. Selected theaters show the broadcast in one of their auditoriums on a slow weeknight. Unfortunately the video gets shown on the cheap projector the theaters use to show ads before a movie (using the good DCP projector is difficult/impossible for a live broadcast), so it's not an ideal system. Several of the anime companies used Fathom Events for a handful of releases years ago, but the program hasn't revisited anime in a while. I've heard that the program wasn't always the easiest thing to deal with, seeing as how it brings in comparatively little revenue next to the big Hollywood movies, and so it tends to get treated as low priority.

Most smaller, independent theatrical releases lose money. It's a difficult business to be in, and few anime theatrical films are broad enough in appeal to bother with a proper release. However, occasionally, Funimation, Viz, Aniplex of America and now even NIS America will give it a go. They're booking the broadest-playing anime they can find into whatever theaters they can get to take them -- usually small, independent ones. It's never going to happen very often, so when it does, be sure and support it. And if there's an indie movie theater in your area, make sure you let them know that you'd love to see some anime playing there. It really does help.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on real, strange stories from the anime business, Tales of the Industry.

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