For international anime fans, the prospect of seeing our beloved medium on the big screen has always been something of a pipe dream. Outside specialized film festivals, the lonely representative of anime in theaters has been Ghibli for the past decades. Don’t get me wrong, Ghibli studios have put out some decent films… But it has lacked a smidge in variety. 

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it’s not all bad, for sure

Comparatively, 2017 certainly seems to have upped the ante considerably. First with the juggernaut and potential game changer “Your Name”, which technically hit theaters in 2016 in Japan where it made such an explosion that it managed to break out of the domestic market and onto the international stage, finally traveling clear around the world, hitting north american theaters in April of this year.

This success prompted distributors to take chances and release even more anime movies internationally with limited releases for series tie ins such as Sword Art Online and No Game No Life Zero, the very charming Magus ova, and stand alone movies like critical darling Koe no Katachi, which is currently performing quite well. But what does all this actually mean?

The international box office for these movies is still fairly unimpressive in the grand scheme of things. Even domestic Japanese numbers may not be what you’d expect.

I need to see: I Want to Eat Your Pancreas

We all know of course that box office is by no means a reliable indicator of quality. Weirdly, it may not even be the best way to measure popularity. For example, here is the 2017 international box office.

I’m not all that impressed

And for giggles, here’s the US one.

Well at least Pirates isn’t on there

Please note that I’m using box office mojo so salt is needed.

As you can clearly see, Beauty and the Beast stands comfortably at top of the heap. Now it certainly was a successful movie but it wasn’t exactly the one that was most talked about, or the costume every kid wanted for Halloween, or the toy we all want for Christmas. It didn’t catapult stars that weren’t already famous to super stardom and we’re not slated to see 10 more movies of the type. All in all, it didn’t leave that much of an impression compared to even, for example : Get Out, which is 4 pages down but has generated awards talk and secured future projects for its star and writer/director.

So what’s my point I hear you saying with all the patience you can muster.

My point is, that with our dwindling attention spans and our new ways of consuming media, theatrical releases haven’t been studios’ main sources of profit for years. They are more a combination of traditional entertainment, long form advertisement and market research. The popularity of a movie on other platforms indicates the potential for commercial tie ins which is where the real money lies.

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that’s how I always picture studio heads

And how does any of this affect anime. Well it’s a little early to tell. General releases are still rare and distributors have been playing it extremely safe but we can pick up on a few trends.

One of the more obvious ones is that stand alone movies fare better than series spin offs. Since people who haven’t seen the original show are much less likely to attend a movie based on it, this cuts down even further on the limited potential audience of anime fans.

Secondly, the most successful movies of the year all fall into one very specific category: coming of age, romantic dramas (also known as Irina’s least favorite genre). They may have elements of action or mystery, but at their core these are movies that explore growing romantic relationships between two young people. This is interesting because it is drastically different from every other form of media. Movies seem dominated by visually spectacular comedic high action superhero or sci fi. Television does have some more dramatic entries but remains mostly centered on escapist  also visually spectacular and quite violent action based dramas with touches of horror (GoT, Stranger Things, Walking Dead, Black Mirror…)

One would think that the limitless potential of animated features would give rise to unrestrained visual feasts, yet anime fans the world over seem to favour beautiful but relatively tame imagery in realistic, natural settings. Admittedly this could simply be due to a lack of options on the international stage but still it is an interesting break from the mainstream.

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Ok – that is breathtaking

Finally, there’s the inescapable fact that all these titles are “family friendly”. The ever present preconception that cartoons are for children (don’t get me started on the anime aren’t cartoons debate) still permeates the minds of the general public and until that changes we are only going to see a sliver of what’s available in theaters.

After all, for all the success of studios like Pixar, and the praise they’ve earned for creating movies that adults can enjoy too, the operative word is “too”. All of those movies are still squarely aimed at children, and children young enough to be going to theaters with their parents. Even the newly anointed Marvel Studios could only get mainstream acceptance by moving its superheroes to live action. This is because, in general, animation are still very much considered a children’s medium.

A shift in public perception could happen, and might have already started to some degree with the popularity of Rick and Morty (clearly not for kids on any level) but there’s still a ways to go.

And this is where I think the movies based on series come in. The fact is, the movie industry is going through an uncomfortable change at the moment. Studios and distributors alike are scrambling to figure out the best way to weather the years ahead. The idea of getting .huge swaths of people in theaters to supplement profit margins is becoming more and more outdated and the industry is turning it’s attention to niches.

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I never made it past episode 6 of SOA but this poster is cool

We constantly hear about our lack attention span. Unlike the olden days, general audiences have access to a huge amount and variety of media, and as a result are less likely to blindly consume the same content again and again. Sure there are still big Hollywood stars, but a big name is no longer any guarantee of box office draw. Sequels fare a little better but we’re starting to see serious fatigue there too. As a result, the industry is desperate for a particular type of fan. The type that is deeply loyal to their chosen entertainment. That will actively seek it out and go out of their way to enjoy it. The type of fan that has such an attachment to their fandom they will advertise it for free, they’ll buy related merchandise, they’ll even openly celebrate it, paying to attend conventions. Basically, the industry wants US. Sure an AoT movie is going to have a modest draw, but with only a little advertising, it’s going to have as guaranteed draw.

We seek out any and all news on anime so you don’t need to flood us with trailers. We’re so grateful for the option to see it that we’ll travel a bit further, you don’t have to have your movie open on every single screen in town. Our dedication will eventually win out…just not in 2018. I expect more of the same family friendly fair will eventually make its way to North America. Maybe an eventual MHA movie could bridge the gap melding western and eastern animation trends.

I hope I’m wrong and something completely unexpected crops up. I’ve been in the mood for a thrilling mystery for instance. What would you like to see?

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I looked it up: I want to eat your pancreas is a romantic drama – great!

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Day 2 of 12




25 thoughts

  1. To get anime into theaters, there’s three parts to the equation. You need a distributor who’s willing to license the movie for theatrical release, you need theaters that are willing to screen it, and you need an audience. The audience has always been there, even if it’s a small one, and arthouse/indie theaters will show anime films if they know there’s a local fanbase for them (shopping mall multiplexes are a different beast). But until recently there weren’t many theatrical distributors willing to license anime movies in the first place. Disney had the Ghibli license, of course, but that was about it. Now, though, you have companies like GKids, Eleven Arts, and Funimation actively distributing and promoting theatrical anime screenings, and that’s making the biggest difference IMO. This was already happening before Your Name, although it’s success may help to accelerate the trend, but I first noticed anime films starting to pop up in American indie theaters around 2013/14, about the same time that seasonal streaming really started becoming a thing. The first time I ever attended a sold-out screening of an anime film outside a convention was Expelled from Paradise (a sci-fi/mecha movie) at my local indie in 2014.

    1. I believe the US may have been getting more animes for a while now but the rest of America has been a bit more barren in that respect. It is slowly changing.

  2. I feel like we are moving more towards these types of movies being popular definitely. I would love to see it happen.

    Now, this is me being nitpicky, but in my area when beauty and the beast came out it made a huge splash in my area. While it didn’t grab everyone’s attention a lot of people, self included, went to see it three or four times. Then, in the fall every other school out on the play and sold out. I saw so many belle costumes in October. So the numbers might not be that inaccurate.

    1. Really, most people in the movie industry I spoke to were very surprised by how large the box office gap it had. I myself haven’t seen it or know anyone that has (except ou I guess.)

  3. Anime is in the mainstream consciousness, and that’s more than I ask for. Since comic book movies are losing their sheen, anime seems to be that next vehicle. Have you seen the Battle Angel Alita trailer? Pretty sure it’ll suck, but it’s a step in the right direction. And is it true Ryan Reynolds will play Pikachu? i hope that’s a rumor, lol.
    As for animated movies being “for children”, you can’t blame them. mass appeal means going for every member of the family, and Disney is a titan thanks to that.They own so much sh8t now, and its all thanks to children focused movies. The money is there, so why not get a slice of that pie. It’s not like effort is lost though, have you seen Coco? omg, Pixar knocked that out of the gate. haha

  4. Well, I think I have mentioned this before, but here in Holland we never get an anime release in theatres. There was one exception recently and that was Your Name, but even that one only got a very limited release in just a few select theatres. I think this will never change here. Anime just isn’t very popular here in Holland. It is at least a bit more popular than it used to be, and we do an occasion get an anime release on dvd and luckily there are also some great cons where you can watch things. So there is that 😊 Great post as always Irina 😊

  5. I mentioned in my award post I got to see Black Butler: Book of the Atlantic. What I didn’t mention was that there were only about 10 people in the cinema I was watching in (including myself) because I saw it on the second-last day of the limited screening period…so imagine what it would’ve been like on debut night…

    I guess half the problem is that anime fans have expected to be antisocial because of how niche their works are and have been in the “mainstream” world, movies were just never an option for the big screen. Now that there’s somewhat (arguably) of an acceptance for anime as a viable product, I wonder if this will change the entire expectations of what it means to be an anime fan.

  6. “Basically, the industry wants US.”

    Yep. Otaku/anime fandom is about the last unexploited niche, I’ve been saying this for about a year now.

  7. I’m always in the mood for a good mystery. And it’s funny that you mention the box office here—for one of these 12 days, I was planning on talking about how enjoyable anime films on the big screen have been. Anyway, it is very interesting to see where things go from here. I only wish that more original anime films were created, as several of the film-follow ups to larger franchises go unwatched by me simply because I don’t follow the parent story. I like to remain hopeful that there is still a public want for these kinds of works, and that box office success won’t dictate whether they fall off the face of the planet or not.

  8. My theatre brought in an anime movie once for one night and it was a night I couldn’t make it. I hope they do it again, but then they might not have had a large turnout on a Tuesday night.

    1. I’m with you there. Theaters near me always do the “anime movie night” for just one night, usually on a Tuesday or Thursday night, so I usually end up missing out on the movies. I missed Your Name, as well as Koe no Katachi, and several others, and it’s quite irritating, to be honest.

        1. Count yourselves lucky – Where I am you can’t show movies unless they have a french version too (unless certain special dispensions are met) so we only have a few theaters in the entire province that show animes at all and even then very rarely. (For reference said province is a bit more than twice the size of Texas).

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