animefringe may 2003 / editorial
Anime on the Big Screen

After more than a year of anticipation, I was finally able to see Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door at a local theatre last month. I went on opening night, and while there are some particularly eccentric fans that attend the first screening of a film, the crowd was very well behaved. I'm not going to review the film here, (though I'm certain one of us will cover the DVD release this June) but trust me when I say that any fan of the show is obligated to see this movie.

I watched the entire TV series on DVD using a relatively nice setup, but nothing can match the overwhelming sensory assault that a movie theatre can provide. The music sounded richer, the characters were bigger than life, and I even felt that the uniformly positive crowd response enhanced the experience even more than if I had viewed it with just a few friends.

I've been extremely busy lately (and more strapped for cash than usual, as well) and so I've not gone to the theatre nearly as much as I used to. In years past, I've averaged about 50 trips to the movies annually. This year, I've seen perhaps three films. However, Cowboy Bebop was one of the must-see films I absolutely had to experience.

Yet, it was inexplicably hard to see the show, despite my overwhelming desire to do so. Here in St. Louis, there are at least 22 theatres within 30 miles of my house. Cowboy Bebop was playing at one. By the time you read this column, it will have ended its run here (unless something magically extends its stay). At first, it was scheduled to play for only one week, but it managed to keep going from April 4th to April 24th. For each of the three weeks it played, it was only shown two times a day (three on weekends).

If the times were more convenient, I'd have seen the movie more than once. However, thanks to a crazy work schedule, I didn't have a single other opportunity to see it again.

So, after that incredibly long introduction, what I'm getting to here is that something is not quite right with the theatrical releases of anime movies. Spirited Away, a film that received positive reviews from an inordinately large number of critics, has barely made $10 million domestically, despite being the highest grossing film ever in Japan.

What is wrong with domestic theatrical anime releases? Why do such excellent films only squeak by in theatres but sell so well (as I'm sure both Spirited Away and Cowboy Bebop will do) on DVD?

I don't believe that there is one single answer to those questions. Rather, I think there are a lot of tiny issues that add up with each other to impede the success of what should be popular films.

First of all, there's marketing. Or, rather, the lack thereof. If any given anime release received half the commercial airtime as, say, the latest cookie cutter teeny bopper film did, then perhaps fans would actually notice when a movie was released. I don't really watch much TV, and I managed to see two ads for Cowboy Bebop (both on networks that show anime) and one for Spirited Away. The print campaign for Spirited Away was much stronger, but only in magazines that anime fans already read. If Disney had pushed Spirited Away as strongly as one of its own films, there's no reason why it wouldn't have performed at least as well as Treasure Planet (which pulled in about $38 million domestically).

There doesn't seem to be much of a push to sell these films to a mainstream audience. Many people have seen Kiki's Delivery Service, and yet they have no idea where it came from. If Spirited Away had been advertised as a film "From the maker of Kiki's Delivery Service," then perhaps a few more viewers would've been nabbed.

Of course, advertising means nothing if potential moviegoers aren't able to find a theatre that's actually playing the film. As I mentioned before, Cowboy Bebop was in one local theatre, and it wasn't run too many times throughout the day. When Princess Mononoke was released, it was also in one local art theatre. Before winning the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, Spirited Away played in an impressive three theatres here. After the Oscar, it exploded into four theatres.

Now, this isn't only a problem caused by the distributors. As much as I claim to desire a wider release of anime movies, I also have to concede the point that film reels are extremely expensive. And, while the anime industry is expanding at breakneck speed, it's still probably not a major demographic. It has the potential to be huge, but it's not quite there yet. Thus, for a theatre manager to gamble hundreds of thousands of dollars - not just for the cost of the reel, but the potential loss of a more profitable movie in place of some anime flick - it takes some guts. Either the buyer doesn't know what he or she is doing, or is a very large anime fan.

Another problem stems from the fans. Ironically enough, the hardest of the hardcore fans tend to snub theatrical releases of anime. Perhaps they refuse to actually pay for anime, only taking the time to download bootlegs. Or, maybe they can't bear to watch anime in any language save Japanese, and couldn't be forced to sit through a dub even if you threatened their plushie collection. Instead of not wanting to see it because they have a bootleg, perhaps they don't want to see it because they've already paid for the legal imported version of it. Since those devoted fans have already seen it the way they like it (in Japanese, and unedited), there is no need to see an inferior version in theatres.

Thus, one can see how fragmented the fanbase for anime becomes when restrictions are placed upon it. Of course, we're not even factoring in the huge group of people that doesn't like anime in ANY form. They won't see it no matter what.

Something important to note here is that anime is really taking off now that many shows are out on DVD. Personally, I believe it's because of a number of very significant reasons.

First of all, it's become widely available. No longer do we have to go to specialty shops and pay exorbitant fees to get our anime fix. No longer must we buy shoddy bootlegs to fund some far-off scumbag's nefarious plans.

Secondly, releases are far more timely than they used to be, with some series enjoying nearly a simultaneous video release here and in Japan.

It is possible to apply both of these advancements in the industry to anime in theatres. Disney certainly has enough money and sway to release a movie widely from the start and quickly after its release in Japan, so that the real fans haven't already seen it ten times before it finally gets here.

However, the one feature of DVD that theatrical releases simply cannot match is its ability to cater to every type of fan at once. Not every producer or distributor takes advantage of this, but each DVD has the potential to be in English, Japanese, unedited, and essentially just as good as the original version of a film or series.

In a theatre, this just isn't possible. It's hard enough to get the dubbed version of an animated film in a theatre. There is no way any theatre company will risk showing two versions of the show at the same time, and it's almost equally rare to find a theatre house that will play a movie subtitled. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave me great hope for the future of anime releases in their native tongue, but so far all I have is hope.

So, is that all there is to the fate of anime released domestically in theatres? Are movie distributors just going to give up because of the apparent hopelessness of the endeavor?

Even with all of the factors against anime in theatres, I'm still inclined to say no. While Spirited Away and Cowboy Bebop didn't perform exceptionally well (the latter film has only recently broken $500,000 at the time of this writing), awareness of anime is constantly growing, and the American animation industry is falling further and further behind. The next Miyazaki film is already in the works, and it could potentially be the first truly big domestically released Japanese film to hit this continent.

Rather than just trust that anime fandom will grow enough to support these films better in the future, there's also the fact that digital theatres are becoming more and more common. While they cost a lot of money up front, the cost of getting a film digitally (via disk or network) is far less prohibitive than buying the clumsy, fragile reels that films traditionally have been released on. Perhaps with the advent of digital theatres, movie houses will be able to show a particular movie throughout the day in either Japanese or English by simply toggling an option on the digital film.

We can always dream. Until then, if you'd like to see more anime in theatres, then there's only one sure way to help make that happen. When anime comes to your town, go see it. Support it, whether it's subbed, dubbed, or whatever. Show that there's a market for the stuff and maybe the bigwig distributors will start to listen to us. Tell your friends to go, tell people you don't know to go. If a company isn't advertising a movie well enough, advertise it yourself. That's how films like The Ring and The Blair Witch Project earned so much money - word of mouth.

And if those movies could be successful, there's no reason why the latest Miyazaki film or Cowboy Bebop can't be.

If you're curious about the current box office gross of those two films, check out the following links for more information: