Why More Distributors Should Give Anime Films Theater Runs

In 2016, I reviewed The Boy and the Beast. Despite really enjoying the movie, I made note that the film had a shafted theatrical release before coming to video in Canada. I still ended up owning the movie anyway, but given that Toronto, my home city, is home to the TIFF Bell Lightbox, it was really upsetting to have an Oscar hopeful not even muster up the courage to screen in time for The Oscars. This isn't a one-off either, as anime films have a tendency to not make it over here to theaters in droves.

What gives? Why do so many anime distributors overlook theatrical runs? Why do anime films that aren't Studio Ghibli-related get skipped-over? If anime wants to shed its unfair, kid-friendly image, wouldn't that be a good place to start?

I don't have answers, so let's run down why Western theatrical releases for anime films would be beneficial:

1. It'd help with variety.

One of the key reasons for why people I've spoken to ignore non-Studio Ghibli-related films is because, simply put, they don't know where to start. We die-hards, after all, love to complain that Studio Ghibli is unfairly over-praised. We also love to complain that people ignore the high-quality anime films from other studios. But when you really think about it, is it fair to criticize others when they're unaware that alternatives exist? Why slam unintentional ignorance?

I'm one of the fortunate few who keeps up with this sort of stuff, so I know it exists, but I find it difficult to be unsympathetic to this issue when it rings home. Whenever a Studio Ghibli movie comes out here, it gets either a run in Cineplex's artsy theatres, assuming it's under the Disney banner, or a short run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. In some cases, like with The Wind Rises and When Marnie Was There, you even get the choice of watching the movie in dub or sub tracks. This not only makes the purists happy, it gives options to compare and contrast. Everyone wins!

This is all important context for why other studios should follow-suit. I get that American distributors want a piece of the pie. I get that there's an untapped market for these films that could be struck so incredibly easily. I get it, and I want it to happen. But if you won't play by the rules, then why bother?

2. It'd help with movie sales.

It's no secret that Studio Ghibli's oeuvre make up most of the highest-grossing anime films in North America. Spirited Away, for example, has hit approximately $10 million. The Secret World of Arrietty has doubled that. Even lower-end box office, like The Tale of the Princess Kaguya and When Marnie Was There, still hover well-above normal range. And it's all attributable to solid marketing campaigns and proper theatrical runs.

So why aren't other distributors following suit? Why aren't they taking cues from Disney's and/or GKIDS's handbooks and pushing their hot-button films into theaters? Remember, anime isn't a hidden market anymore. Plenty of people know it exists, even if they've had no exposure. By not capitalizing on this, distributors are missing out on potential revenue.

But it still keeps happening. The Boy and the Beast, like I said, barely had a theatrical run here. your name., the highest-grossing anime film of all-time in North America, barely had one too. A Silent Voice and In This Corner of the World didn't get runs at all, or if they did it was out of city bounds. I can afford to drop by my local arthouse theater and pay to see an anime film, especially now that I have a stable job, but I refuse to travel 2 hours to Brampton or Mississauga to watch something obscure. Especially not when I have trouble finding my way around the TTC!

3. It'd help with word-of-mouth.

For as much as reviews might hurt-or-help a film, the best reception is always word-of-mouth. It's one of the many reasons why Black Panther is still doing so well at the box-office, why Avatar had legs in theaters in 2009, and why films like Jupiter Ascending tanked financially. Word-of-mouth is a powerful tool for getting people into seats. Especially in the internet age, where information and news travel faster than they can be fact-checked. So something as simple as a recommendation from friends and family can do wonders.

Though, again, why's it not happening more? The short answer's that distribution companies aren't capitalizing on theatrical runs, which is both lazy and a missed-opportunity. It's lazy because it ruins the chances of getting easy money. And it's a missed-opportunity because it ruins the chances of getting easy money. Essentially, it ruins the chances of getting easy money.

But isn't that what anime distributors want? To get easy money? It's not like Disney hasn't already proven that anime films can sell tickets with the right kind of advertising, no? And don't try and fool yourselves: Disney was no slouch when it came to Studio Ghibli. Not all of their trailers and promos were good, but, as I've stated before, they've managed to get the numbers. If distributors want their anime releases to be taken seriously, they should follow-suit.

4. It'd help with anime's image.

Going back to what I mentioned earlier, anime's reputation's still a little sticky over here. It's still viewed as childish, no doubt a half-life of animation's early history, and that hurts the many times it's tried proving otherwise. The one real exception, so far, has been Studio Ghibli. You know why? Because they've actually screened their movies in theaters.

Anime has the potential to do decently here in the West when the time is taken to screen it in theaters. The philosophy doesn't have to end at Studio Ghibli's work either! The friggin' Pokémon movies did this in their early days too, with the first three entries doing decently despite quality. And your name., arguably the latest hot-button seller, has also benefited from select screenings (outside of Toronto, that is!), with JJ Abrams being rumoured to be remaking the movie in live-action for…when, exactly?

True, anime will always have a stigma attached to it. That's not going to going away completely. But it also doesn't mean distributors can't challenge it by doing their part. Because unless you try, how will you know if you've failed? Aren't calculated risks the backbone of an artistic medium?

5. It'd help with Oscar buzz.

In Mother's Basement's video on this past year's Oscars, he mentioned that it was frustrating that The Academy doesn't consider anime in the same vein as other animation. This is true, but it's not as simple as pinning the blame solely on The Academy's demographic. It's a frustration that needs to also be extended to the anime distributors, after all! Because while they may talk the talk, when it comes to putting their money where their mouths are, guess what? They don't walk the walk.

I even pointed this out when I mentioned that films like A Silent Voice weren't screened in Toronto. I can't say much about other cities, but when you're ignoring the home of The Toronto International Film Festival, an event that has famous actors and actresses coming to promote their Oscar-contenders, then what does that say about the confidence you have in your film? Not much, to tell the truth. Yet it keeps happening, such that I'm quite fed up. It's not like The Academy voters are psychic…

Besides, one of the key factors in an Oscar nomination is financial returns. The Academy likes to keep on-top of hot-button films when they choose nominations. If a film isn't generating a profit, then it's harder to care. And if a movie isn't even given an Oscar-run, then, again, why bother? There's only so much leeway you can give a movie for consideration.

And there you have it: 5 reasons why screening anime in theatres is something more distributors should do! I only hope that someone actually takes this to heart, but I'm not holding my breath…


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