Anime: It’s Time Distributors Embrace True Wide Release

After the success of Dragon Ball Super: Broly, it's time distributors consider true wide releases for anime films not named Pokémon.

Anime’s presence in North America has evolved over the years, and we’ve come a long way from the days when “Japanimation” was just a morbid curiosity and guilty pleasure. The perceived fringe animation has grown into a genuinely enjoyable and thrilling source of content for Western audiences, and while anime has become much more popular with the mainstream over the past few years, the current content out there has hit new heights. Dragon Ball Super: Broly, the latest chapter in the ongoing Dragon Ball series, has made over $30 million domestically (with a global total of over $100 million), which makes it the third highest-grossing anime film of all-time in North America.

Dragon Ball Super: Broly has found very real success, but its numbers hold even more weight when it’s considered that the film didn’t even experience a true wide release. Funimation released the film to what would ultimately be 1267 theaters for a 23-day window, which is exceptional for an anime title, but it’s still about a quarter of the coverage that a blockbuster wide release sees. Despite these limitations, Dragon Ball Super: Broly still managed to domestically outperform 2017’s The Nut Job 2 and last year’s Early Man, both of which had traditional releases. Accordingly, it finally feels like anime titles such as Broly deserve wider releases because not only is anime arguably more popular and normalized at this point than even a decade ago, but there are now dedicated streaming services that can provide people with content and introduce newcomers to the form in a way that was never possible before.

Additionally, there are now more film distributors like Funimation, Fathom Events, and GKIDS, that all specialize in select anime releases. Anime has always felt like a fascination or oddity to mainstream audiences, but with the increased prevalence and encouraging box office numbers from recent titles, it’s perhaps time to take the medium even more seriously and treat its releases like any other animated feature.

While Dragon Ball Super: Broly’s success is prompting these current revaluations, it’s important to look at how Funimation’s past three Dragon Ball feature films have each been progressively popular. Subsequently, they’ve also each had slightly larger releases to take advantage of that fact. Whereas 2014’s Battle of Gods hit 692 theaters, 2015’s Resurrection ‘F’ increased to 913, and this year’s Dragon Ball Super: Broly has expanded to 1267 theaters. But these numbers could of course be higher. The growth and demand for these films grows at a shocking rate. For instance, Dragon Ball Super: Broly’s opening weekend gross of nearly $10 million was higher than the entire $8 million North American run of Resurrection ‘F,’ which in itself was a milestone by 2015 standards.

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If there have ever been two anime franchises to find a home within the West, then it’s without a doubt Dragon Ball and Pokémon. Dragon Ball Super: Broly may currently hold the number three spot for highest-grossing anime film in North America, but the two titles above it are both actual wide releases from the Pokémon franchise. Pokémon: The First Movie and Pokémon: The Movie 2000 currently hold the records for the top two highest grossing anime films in North America with $85.7 million and $43.8 million, respectively. A major difference here, however, is that WB gave these movies a colossal push where the first movie hit over 3,000 screens and the second reached over 2,750.

In fact, the first three Pokémon films saw wide releases by WB, but the third was the first to show some kind of fatigue. Pokémon 3: The Moviestill brought in over $17 million on 2,675 screens, but it was nothing compared to the $43.8 million that Pokémon: The Movie 2000 brought in before it, which was still only half of Pokémon: The First Movie’s total gross.

Accordingly, Pokémon 4Ever was the first Pokémon movie to get a limited release (but still brought in $1.7 million from 249 screens). As a curious companion piece to this, another major anime franchise from the late ‘90s and early 2000s that made a mark overseas was the popular Pokémon clone, Digimon. Fox released Digimon: The Movie to 1,825 theaters and it brought in over $9.5 million. This may be nothing compared to Pokémon: The First Movie’s total from the same year, but it’s still more than My Hero Academia: Two Heroes or Resurrection ‘F’ made, due more arguably to a wider release than necessarily a greater demand.

On the topic of My Hero Academia, the growing anime series has received a huge burst in popularity in the past year. The fans’ dedicated love and support for the series is clear, and it’s why My Hero Academia: Two Heroes could still bring in nearly $6 million and make headlines, but only hit a meager 535 theaters. If the series’ next film were to receive a release model that resembles Digimon: The Movie’s and still takes a conservative approach, the movie’s numbers would no doubt be exponentially higher.

It stands to reason that anime franchises perform better in theaters, but general wider releases for anime would also allow other films to truly blossom. Your Name, for instance, is the highest worldwide grossing anime film of all time at nearly $360 million. It still managed to gross over $5 million in the U.S. alone and it only hit around 300 theaters. Imagine what it could have done, and the level of audience that could have enjoyed it, if it had a release at Pokémon: The First Movie’s scale, or even that of Dragon Ball Super: Broly. Your Name has less brand recognition, but it conceivably could have doubled or even tripled its domestic box office total.

Spirited Away is another title that brought in over $10 million on its original run, and has brought in over $2 million more on domestic rereleases. This was an anime film that happened to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture—the only anime movie to do so—and had major buzz behind it. Furthermore, as far as American audiences go, Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli have become some of the most recognizable names in anime. Spirited Away helped them both gain major recognition in America after the film won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, during which time film had only initially hit 26 theaters. But after the Oscar win, this expanded to to a wider release of 714 theaters—still only about a third as many theaters that played Pokémon 3: The Movie or half of the theater numbers for Dragon Ball Super: Broly.

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In spite of Spirited Away’s critical success, Ghibli’s following films were still not supported with wide domestic releases, even though both Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises would go on to receive Oscar nominations. The stigma around the popularity of anime lingers. Miyazaki’s Ponyo from 2009 has seen the largest domestic release of his films with 927 screens and a domestic box office gross of nearly $16 million. While its performance speaks to the trend of anime’s rising popularity in North America, it’s even more indicative of the continued marginalization of the medium. With films like Dragon Ball Super: Broly showing that a larger release window can be sustainable, hopefully Studio Ghibli’s new projects will earn that benefit of the doubt. 

Akira is nowdebatably one of the biggest and most recognizable anime titles of all time, but back in 1988 the market for anime in the West was even more restrictive. It was ostensibly one of the first anime titles to see a release in American theaters (specifically a handful in D.C. and New York City), with it only being preceded by Warriors of the Wind in ’85 and Robotech: The Untold Story in ’86. Anime was still a guilty pleasure that was largely erroneously equated with “adult animation,” with that being the majority of the material that made it over West. Akira helped disabuse that notion in many ways, but still showed that this was a weird, niche style of animation.

The film was a major influencer and became an instant cult classic, but even after its initial limited run and a re-release back in 2001, the film has just made over $500,000 domestically (although inflation should be considered). Of course Akira’soriginal release was also from a time period where anime streaming services were not only unfathomable, but there also wasn’t even an internet in place to learn about titles. Akira has become a major cultural touchstone within America. It can pop up in a Kanye West music video, influence a South Park episode from a decade ago, or be one of the highlighted pieces of iconography in Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, even if the audience isn’t aware of the source material. If they don’t, now they may seek it out.

Anime has made many strides with mainstream audiences in North America and the medium’s popularity is only on the rise. In spite of this, and how titles stand a chance to genuinely benefit from wide releases, the numbers they pull in are still below how other animated films perform in North America simply due to a lack of screens or time. Movies that are qualified by posterity as duds, like 2018 like Sherlock Gnomes, can still make $43 million within the United States. However, it’s significant that Broly was still able to beat other recent animated flops on a fraction of investment by Funimation. It speaks to this growing acceptance of anime. An acceptance that suggests there is more than a limited or niche appeal to the format than conventional Hollywood industry wisdom might surmise. The point here was never to prove that a Dragon Ball or Sailor Moon film could do as well domestically as the next DreamWorks or Pixar project, but simply that it’s time that anime gets its due and the opportunity to prove how well it can do when given the proper chance.

With another Dragon Ball Super film being only a matter of time, and how it looks like Hayao Miyazaki’s How Do You Live? will have a 2020 release, it should be very interesting to see what level of support and the push that they’re given in North America. Audiences have already shown more support than many distributors. 

Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem, that Psycho II is better than the original, and he’s always game to discuss Space Dandy. His perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.

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