Is Japanese Anime Finally Making Money Abroad?

'Stand By Me Doraemon'

A dedicated global fanbase hasn't translated into paydays in the past, but recent successes are promising.

Japanese anime has attracted a cult following around the globe for decades, but has long struggled to parlay that dedicated fandom into revenue.

Complex rights holder arrangements in Japan, slow international releases and pirated versions with fan-created subtitles have all contributed to restrict the financial rewards for both anime TV series and movies in the global marketplace.

However, the latest Doraemon movie brought in nearly $100 million outside Japan, while Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection 'F' is nudging $50 million in the middle of a 74-country release.

Meanwhile, TV anime series are getting faster international distribution, including day-and-date releases on some platforms. With a shrinking home market, the pressure is on to better leverage the global fan-base that has helped make anime one of Japan's most recognizable cultural symbols.  

The most successful Japanese anime film to date is Hayao Miyazaki's 2003 Academy Award-winning Spirited Away, which scored around 85 percent of its $275 million global tally in its home market. To put that in perspective, Stand by Me Doraemon took nearly double Spirited Away's overseas total over the course of 11 days in release in China alone.

Read more Japan Box Office: 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' Scores Biggest Hollywood Opening of 2015

Nevertheless, Toho, which handled its domestic release and international sales, thinks it's too early to say that the overseas box-office conundrum for anime has been cracked.

"I think it's the strength of the film itself. And the Doraemon brand is very strong, especially in Asia," Takemasa Arita of Toho's international business department tells The Hollywood Reporter. "It's not like any animation from Japan is going to automatically succeed overseas now."

Stand by Me Doraemon was no slouch at home, clocking up $70 million last year before landing $3.2 million in Italy, $3 million in Indonesia, $2.7 million in South Korea and $1.2 million in Thailand. It was the $5 million-plus, record-breaking take in the small Hong Kong market though that was a harbinger of its performance on the mainland.

Released on May 28 - due to political tensions, the first Japanese film in Chinese theaters in nearly three years – the cat-type robot racked up $86.9 million in less than two weeks. Although the rise of China as a box-office giant is a game changer across the global film industry, anime is getting paid elsewhere, too.  

Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection 'F' is the 19th installment in the franchise and not the first to get a wide release internationally. 2013's Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods did approximately 40 percent of its $50 million global box office outside Japan, and Resurrection 'F' is on course to surpass that. Co-produced with Fox International, the anime feature's world premiere was held in Los Angeles in April. Still performing well in South and Latin American markets, it has U.S. and China releases to come.  

Read more China Box Office: Foreign Movies Have Upper Hand

Toei Animation, the company behind Dragon Ball, is one of five studios, along with two ad agencies, that launched the Daisuki online anime platform in 2013, aimed at overseas fans of TV anime. At the end of last year, the private-public Cool Japan Fund invested around $8 million in the venture, forming the Japan Anime Consortium, to boost its worldwide presence.  

"Many Japanese anime content holders are small companies, and it's difficult for them to breach the global market, with all the costs of localizing productions," a Cool Japan Fund spokesperson told The Hollywood Reporter. "Piracy has also been a major problem, and the plan is to release some anime series simultaneously with their broadcast on Japanese TV."

In addition to pay-per-view offerings and original content, the Daisuki platform also sells anime merchandising, though it doesn't disclose its viewing figures.

Japan's population fell by more than 260,000 last year and is rapidly aging. Under-25s, the key demographic for anime fans, now make up only around 20 percent of the population, and their numbers are set to continue falling.

Amid those trends, the industry will have to learn to tap more of the global market if it is to survive in anything close to its present form.   

Twitter: @GavinJBlair

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