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Why Can't Anime Get A Wide Theatrical Release?

by Justin Sevakis,

Brooks asks:

With anime movies like Your Name becoming global hits and companies finding success with Fathom Events like Funimation's theatrical releases of the DBZ movies,why is it that anime movies still can't get normal wide releases in every U.S. theater like most American animation can? It just seems like a double standard to me that anime movies still can't get wide releases in U.S. theaters but mediocre movies like The Nut Job 2 or Sing have no problems getting greenlit for wide releases. Is it simply out of out-dated hatred for any movie not made by Hollywood that makes companies less willing to take a risk on an anime movie than they are willing to take a risk on a mediocre Western movie with equally niche appeal or is there some other more complex reason for it?

First, take "hatred" out of the equation. No rational adult just blindly "hates" anime, and if anybody in a position of power really thought they could make money from a big anime release, they'd get excited about it like any other prospective cash cow.

Anime is not that cash cow. It just isn't. Much as some of us would like it to be a giant tentpole event that everyone in the world gets excited about, anime is not that, and probably never will be. There are three major reasons for this.

1. Opening a movie wide is insanely expensive.

A major studio release is insanely expensive. In order for the major movie theater chains to treat your film like a normal big-release movie, they have to see you market the film like a big-release movie. That means spending $20-40 million on advertising nationwide. Even though many anime companies are doing pretty well these days, nobody has that kind of money to spend on just marketing. Heck, that kind of money would produce SEVERAL whole television series! Besides, even if they did...

2. Anime isn't that big of a draw.

While it may seem like everyone in your world watches, or at least is open to, anime... the vast majority of the world still doesn't. If you were to take a sampling of the general population, I'd wager that less than 10% of Americans even know what anime is. Even among anime fans, fandom is so fragmented between so many shows and subgenres, that it's a very rare bird of an anime feature that would attract most of them to the point where they'd go to a theater.

3. Westerners are not that curious about anime.

Anybody who's ever tried to get non-anime fans into anime knows that getting Americans to check out these weird Japanese cartoons is like pulling teeth. Most people just don't care. It's too foreign, too animated, and too not-what-they-like. There's no real curiosity there. If someone normally doesn't watch anime and their friends don't watch anime, it serves no purpose for them.

I've long had a theory about the less intellectually curious: whether or not they like something is contingent almost entirely on whether or not it satisfies a two question binary: is it what they expected when they walked in the door, and does it fit in with their social group? If one of these basic cinema-goers hasn't seen anime, they don't know what to expect. Since most of their friends don't watch anime, it's not something they can discuss with their friends. And therefore, their immediate reaction to anime is "I won't like it," and they go see the latest Transformers movie. It's just like someone choosing to go to Applebees rather than trying that new Indonesian restaurant that just opened.

For years, children's and family entertainment has been the only way around this, because "it's a cartoon" is usually enough to make basic people feel comfortable. (Also, parents are usually desperate for some activity to do with their kids.) And it shows -- if you look at the five top grossing anime movies in the North American box office, it's literally Pokémon, Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh, The Secret World of Arrietty, and more Pokémon. The Secret World of Arrietty is probably the most Western-feeling of all of the Studio Ghibli library, it's based on a well-known English book. It opened in NINTH PLACE. In FEBRUARY, one of the slowest movie months of the year.

Anime is a niche. Even in Japan, it's a niche. Most anime features don't even open in wide release over there. They DEFINITELY aren't suited to a wide release in the US. Far better to release them under low-risk conditions like Fathom Events and four-walling a few weeknight screenings, than spend millions on a release only to have no one show up.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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