Why Do Anime Movies Play On Weeknights?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jake asks:

I have noticed that cinematic anime movie releases have increasingly become more and more popular events here in the US in the last year or two. But the one thing I find unusual is that they only do very limited showings on a Wednesday or Thursday nights, which are considered to be one of the slowest nights for theater attendance. With the growing popularity of these releases, do you think they will ever stretch these showings out to the weekend? I realize Friday, Saturday, and Sunday are considered “prime time” for theaters, but I cannot imagine that they could not free up one screen for a single weekend.

Friday and Saturday nights are the bread and butter days at movie theaters, when 90% of ticket sales occur. Many auditoriums, particularly for dud movies or in slower neighborhoods, run completely empty during the week.

There are two ways in which a movie can play in a theater. The first is one in which the theater management thinks the movie will do good business, and books the film for an engagement. The distributor then gets a majority of the ticket revenues, and the theater makes most of its money at the concession stand. This is how the vast majority of movies get distributed. This is something of a tough nut to crack, though, and in order for a theater to go for it, the distributor usually has to commit to a certain dollar amount of marketing expenses in that city. This is particularly true in larger markets like NYC and LA.

The other way is that the theater gets bought out for a specific night or several nights. The distributor literally rents out the auditorium, and gets to keep the entire cost of every ticket sold (minus, perhaps, some processing fees). This is a practice known as "four-walling," and it's very expensive. Weeknights, specifically Tuesday through Thursday nights, are cheapest, since otherwise those auditoriums wouldn't be selling very many tickets anyway; Friday and Saturday nights are break-the-bank expensive.

Anime theatrical releases are very hit-and-miss. Some of them don't bring anyone out to theaters, while others might bring a bunch of fans on opening night and then nothing thereafter. Extremely rare is the anime feature that warrant an entire week-long engagement at a movie theater. Every movie theater belongs to a service called Rentrak that tracks ticket sales, and allows them to search to see how well previous anime releases have done in their market. Ultimately, most of the time an auditorium will likely make far more money playing the latest mainstream Hollywood feature.

And so, a theater manager can either offer to four-wall a movie for however many days the distributor is willing to pay for, or maybe offer to play the film on an otherwise slow night. Obviously, anime distributors don't have a ton of money to burn on theatrical releases, so they'll book one or two nights if they have to pay out-of-pocket. If the showing does particularly well, they can always add more play dates.

An alternative to four-walling would be something like a Fathom Events screening, which is a networked satellite broadcast in 1080i that's sent to theaters under the Regal, AMC and Cinemark chains. While these don't look as good as a regular theatrical release, it allows a distributor to have a one-night "event" showing in multiple cities without having to go to the expense of marketing a different play date in each city. However, there hasn't been an anime Fathom Events screening in quite some time.

Ultimately, anime doesn't play on weekends because theaters don't believe that that anime will be as big of a draw as a regular film. And given that the hardcore fans will turn out any night of the week, that anime might do better on a quiet night anyway.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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