The latest Crunchyroll release opened with $10.1 million even alongside the boffo debut of Michael B. Jordan’s Japanese animation-influenced ”Creed III“
“With ‘To the Swordsmith Village’ we had a unique theatrical opportunity,” Crunchyroll SVP of Global Commerce Mitchel Berger told TheWrap. “Not only did fans get to pay tribute to the last story arc, but they also got to experience a sneak peek of the upcoming story arc — all in 4K.”
Crunchyroll is the latest example of a streaming service that’s finding success at the box office. Founded in 2006 as an American subscription video-on-demand service focusing on Japanese anime and drama, Crunchyroll sold itself to Sony in 2021 for $1.175 billion, merging with the studio’s rival service Funimation. It has become the dominant force in anime, with subscribers growing from one million in 2017 to 10 million in 2022.
“Crunchyroll has found a perfect niche and an opportunity,” Comscore senior media analyst Paul Dergarabedian told TheWrap. “In the current marketplace, [Crunchyroll] delivers international cinematic gems in the form of Japanese anime to eager North American audiences hungry for a unique movie theater experience.”
It’s been a long time since a feature-length anime theatrical first broke big at the box office. Warner Bros.’ video game-based “Pokémon: The First Movie — Mewtwo Strikes Back” earned $86 million domestically from a then-stunning $51 million Wednesday-Sunday debut in November 1999.
For the next 15 years, that animated offshoot of the television cartoon was an exception to the rule. However, the tide started to turn in the late 2010s, as kids who grew up with anime as a comparatively mainstream entertainment option became teens or young adults with spending power.
For Crunchyroll, anime has a built-in audience that makes marketing relatively easy. “If we have a new film [like an installment in the ‘Demon Slayer’ or ‘One Piece’ franchises] coming out, we know there’s this massive community ready,” noted Berger. “It’s not us having to go try to find them and look under a rock and discover somebody.”
“To the Swordsmith Village” was essentially the last two episodes of the second season of “Demon Slayer” along with the season three premiere rejiggered into a 110-minute feature.
In 2019, Sony’s Funimation earned an impressive $22 million from “Dragon Ball Super: Broly” during a Wednesday-Monday Martin Luther King Jr. weekend debut. It would top out at $30 million domestically and $120 million worldwide.
“Anime has been a blessing to exhibitors during the pandemic recovery era,” said Boxoffice Pro chief analyst Shawn Robbins. “It was already on the rise beforehand.”
“Jujutsu Kaisen O” opened with $18 million and legged out to $34.5 million domestic this past March, supplying desperately needed theatrical product after Disney’s animated feature “Turning Red” skipped theaters for Disney+ and Jason Statham’s “Operation Fortune” was delayed. It was a rare bright spot that month between “The Batman” and “The Lost City.”
Likewise, amid a distributor-caused theatrical slump between “Bullet Train” in early August 2021 and “The Woman King” several weeks later, “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” pulled a $21 million opening and $38 million domestic total.
Drawing the anime audience
The domestic gross of these often continuity-heavy action fantasies showed that playing strictly to the fans of an anime IP could still pull good-to-great domestic earnings.
“The medium commands loyal fan bases across different IP, and is a clear growth driver in the specialty market of theatrical content,” said Robbins. These films generally play to a fan base that would otherwise stay home. They have been, especially over the last few years, specifically scheduled to juice the multiplex during slow weekends or portions of the year otherwise lacking in tentpoles.
“Fans love these opportunities to come together and share their love of anime on the big screen,” Berger said.
These recent anime successes suggest that the sub-genre is becoming mainstream enough that a $10 million-$20 million opening weekend is no longer a surprise. That may be because its visual language is filtering out into mainstream cinema
Michael B. Jordan recently admitted that his lifelong anime fandom served as a visual and narrative inspiration for “Creed III.” The previous decade saw an upswing in films like “Sucker Punch,” “John Wick,” “Hardcore Henry” and “1917” dabbling in the language of video games. Likewise, these next several years could see various action or fantasy flicks helmed by up-and-comers raised on the visual and narrative language of anime.
If anime continues its mainstream arc, then a performance like “Jujutsu Kaisen O” could become par for the course. If Crunchyroll and like-minded distributors continue to shrewdly schedule during off-season frames or slow periods, they could become a strong ally for theaters.
“Our anime fans will come out to theaters, they will come to see these films,” Berger said. “We work really hard [with exhibition] to find those right moments to give our movies a chance to breathe.”
So far, this seems to be a mutually beneficial arrangement, if a limited ambition. One day, though, the genre might grow strong enough to contend with the tentpoles it’s inspiring.
Before joining The Wrap, Scott Mendelson got his industry start in 2008 with a self-piloted film blog titled "Mendelson's Memos." In 2013, he was recruited to write for Forbes.com where he wrote almost exclusively for nearly a decade. In that time he published copious in-depth analytical and editorialized entertainment industry articles specializing in (but not exclusively focused upon) theatrical box office. A well-known industry pundit, Mendelson has appeared on numerous podcasts and been featured as a talking head on NPR, CNN, Fox and BBC.