Anime On The Big Screen: The Growth and Limitations of Anime Films in North American Cinema

Next week marks the limited theatrical release of the DragonballZ Resurrection F movie in North America. While a limited release means not all theaters will be gifted with the film and it will only run for a few short days (Aug 4-12) it is still a big deal that an anime film is making it to American Big Screens. This comes almost a year after the limited release of another Dragonball Z Movie: Battle of the Gods which did remarkably well on its own while in theaters, making nearly $296,414 on US opening.

Dragonball Z is just the latest in a long line of successful Anime-Films appearing in North American Cinemas. Where Anime Movies were once considered items that could go straight to DVD they are now earning valuable time in American theaters. So what’s changed?

North American Cinema and Anime

We’ll have to start by looking at the highest grossing anime film ever released in the States. Try to remember what you were doing November 10, 1999. Do you? I can tell you exactly what I was doing- standing in line with hundreds of other children waiting to see the first Pokemon Movie. That’s right, making nearly $31,036,678 on opening weekend Pokemon is the highest grossing Anime film shown in the US.

Nothing was held back when the film was released in nearly 3000 screens. Even my small town theater in Kansas had a showing. It was magical- despite the fact that Warner Brother scrapped a lot of the original script and score the movie’s appearance (and success) in international theaters marked a change for American Theaters.

Nearly a year later the Digimon film was also released to theaters. Again, Small-Town Kansas got the film, though it was released to half as many theaters as Pokemon. Still, the film did reasonably well and is still on one of the Top Ten grossing Anime Films released in North America.

Of course, these films were still considered movies for children or lesser Disney Films. But North America reevaluated their assumptions of Anime-Films after the 2002 release of Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away. While the film wasn’t nearly as successful as the films listed above, running a limited release in only 700 theaters, its artful storytelling and depth wowed film critics. It won the Berlin International Film Festival’s all-around top prize – and it was the first anime to ever be awarded an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Despite the Oscar Award, Spirited Away still only made $10,055,859 during its North American run time. Since then two Ghibli films have succeed the amount: Ponyo and Secret World of Arriety, both films that could be marketed to children found their way into double the theaters as Spirited Away and made more. While Howl’s Moving Castle and The Wind Rises, films geared towards an adult audience, received the same results as Spirited Away. Although Ghibli films have accumulated a cult following in North America, they are still subjected to limited releases, with the Secret World of Arriety receiving the most screen presence in only 1,500 theaters.


Two Different Worlds

These less than stellar performances in North America are the complete opposite of Japan, where Ghibli films are smash hits. Spirited Away is the top grossing film in Japan to this day. Many attribute this difference to the fact that while Disney owns the distribution side of Ghibli it is unable to make merchandise off of it. Thus the Ghibli presence is something that is firmly planted in Japan where they have Ghibli inspired cafés, items, stores, and even a Ghibli Museum. This gaping hole in merchandising also means Disney does not see the benefit of mass marketing new Ghibli films.

This is not the only difference though. As far as anime is concerned, animated movies aren’t treated with limited releases and often are the top of Japan’s box office the weekend they are released. DragonballZ Battle of the Gods was one of the first animated films to be shown in IMAX HD and was the top of the box office three weeks in a row! The recent Resurrection of F film did even better selling  27.4% more tickets on opening weekend and beating out Furious 7. Japan was the only place in the world where Fast and Furious 7 wasn’t the top of the box office that weekend.

Dragonballz is a franchise that has been a solid presence in Japan just as long as Studio Ghibli. Looking at other anime films though, we see a similar pattern. The K-On Movie, released in 2011, was number two in the Japanese box office on its opening weekend. In 2013 the One Piece Film: Z  was one of the top ten highest grossing film in Japan (behind studio Ghibli and Pokemon movies). Other famous anime franchises such as Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist, Madoka Magica, and Naruto have seen similar success in their home box offices.

While the audience of anime (and geek culture as a whole) has expanded the last couple years it is still not enough to carry the same weight in North America, the home of some of the largest grossing films in the world. But it is because of the increasing interest in Anime that distributors are bringing these films to the big screen.

If the demand wasn’t there there’s no doubt we would be buying the Resurrection F DVD at Walmart on release day rather than sitting in a theater with popcorn in hand. The need for limited releases of animated films doesn’t seem to be going away. Already two more Japanese films have been picked up for release in North American theaters,  the latest Yugioh and Naruto movies will be gracing the screens in the next year.


What Appeals to American Movie Go-ers?

Limited Releases are the norm now for any anime film that can not be marketed to younger audiences, while movies that can be marketed for larger appeal (kids and families) get major theaters. It is nothing personal, it is just business. We can also see this reflected in the surge of turning classic anime into live-action films. Speed Racer, released in 2008, made nearly $43,945,766 and got a nationwide release.  

Also look at the Transformer’s franchise; which started off as a children’s cartoon and toy and turned into a live-action box office success. Whatever thoughts and feelings you may have towards these movies, there is no denying that live-action is a keyword that appeals greatly to North American audiences, both young and old.

It will be interesting to test this theory with the recent announcement of the live-action Attack on Titan film that is scheduled to release this August in Japan, with a North American release being planned by Funimaiton. The number of theaters and the success Titan has in those theaters leaves room for Funimation to expand screen time if needed and maybe we’ll seen American Cinema change it’s prospective on foreign films once again.


  1. Spirited Away and the Emerging Presence of Anime in the American Market 
  2. When Pokemania hit Hollywood: Looking at the First Pokemon Movie
  3. : Top Anime Films 
  4. Live Action Attack on Titan Movie to be Released in US Theaters
  5. 2013 Dragon Ball Film Sells 1.8 Million Tickets for 2.2 Billion Yen”Anime News Network.


Senshi Study is where Cara Averna looks at anime, fanculture, and movies with squinty eyes and tries to gleam the deeper meaning. These articles are her own opinions based of self-research. 



4 thoughts on “Anime On The Big Screen: The Growth and Limitations of Anime Films in North American Cinema

  1. POKEMON! I had to go back FOUR TIMES to see that movie. It was always me, my brother, and one of our parents. But every time we’d buy tickets, we’d walk into the actual theater to see that there weren’t three seats together and since we were little my parents wouldn’t let us split up. And that kept happening no matter how early we went! Upside though is we got a bunch of those exclusive Pokemon cards that came with your ticket…because each failed attempt we’d go back to the ticket seller and ask for a refund, and they let us keep the cards. Oh memories ❤


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