Anime is more popular than ever before, with a market topping over $25 billion in 2022 globally. That number is expected to double in 10 years, largely due to its U.S. growth, accelerated by merchandising, streaming and events held here. The Japanese animated artform, as seen in films, games, events and collectables, has nearly as many fans in North America as it does in Japan. Los Angeles in particular has played a significant role in this growth thanks to Crunchyroll, the popular anime streaming network based here, which was acquired by Sony Pictures Entertainment Inc., in 2020.
Crunchyroll has been a major player in anime and manga (Japanese comics) culture since it was created back in 2006 by a team of Berkeley graduates who launched the online channel and helped it expand with over 100 million registered users and 5 million paying subscribers at the time it was purchased. Since the Sony merger, it’s nearing 10 million paying subscribers globally, with availability in over 200 countries. Its quarterly seasons have doubled over the last three years, with 40-50 new and returning titles. And the crunch keeps getting louder, especially after the success of this Summer’s Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, its first-ever global release (outside of Japan).The film played in 100 countries, with 13 dubbed and 29 subtitled languages, and did extremely well at the U.S. box office, earning $21 million in its opening weekend alone.
Clearly Japanese animation is no longer a nerdy niche form of entertainment. It’s permeated all facets of pop culture and everything indicates it’s only the beginning. LA Weekly caught up with the Crunchy Roll crew to learn about its latest phases of promoting, expanding and redefining anime with a focus on satisfying longtime fans and engaging newbies.
“It’s important to recognize that [it] has decades of conventions, culture, influence, and extremely dedicated fans under its belt,” says Crunchyroll host Lauren Moore. “But it’s definitely more on the mainstream surface in the West than it ever has been. People who never understood my job or the things I worked on are now saying, “Oh, I recognize that!” when they pass a movie poster or see a piece of merch, and that’s really cool to me. It makes me excited to see what new stories and characters we’ll get to fall in love with, and what new ideas we can come up with to create cool experiences for other fans.”
For non-fans and very casual ones, recognition usually doesn’t go beyond Sailor Moon and Pokémon; Naruto and Dragon Ball also have broken through somewhat. There are hundreds and hundreds more titles with avid followings to match. Conventions – from S.D. Comic Con to L.A. Comic Con to the recent Anime Expo at the Downtown Convention Center to its own Crunchy Roll Expo – have helped these fandoms take hold, as like-minded followers connect, collect and cosplay their favorite titles, characters and stories. Anime has officially transcended the cartoon world and become a very real lifestyle. Though the majority of anime fans are millennial men, the consumer profile is changing with more women and more ages getting into the art, fantasy, dress-up and storytelling aspects.
“It’s common for hip-hop artists to make anime references, anime art to show up in the latest fashions, or see athletes impersonating their favorite character on the field. One way Crunchyroll has leaned into that is by partnering with icons like Lady Gaga and Megan Thee Stallion on exclusive product collaborations,” shares Travis Page, chief financial officer at Crunchyroll. “What we are most excited about is our ability to bring so many things together for the anime fans. We have to deliver a great streaming product, but we also want to be great in commerce, mobile games and theatrical. We think the best way to serve the fan is to tie those all together and create more of a feeling of membership, not just a streaming subscription. “
As with most successful subcultures, community is key. “Anime has played a very big part in my life,” Moore adds. “Attending conventions led to friendships and great networking opportunities. It was nearly a decade ago when I was working in the gaming industry that I was first approached about applying for a marketing and hosting job in anime. There was no way I was missing that chance. I went from attending my local cons religiously, to hosting panels on some of the biggest stages in the industry and being part of some of the biggest events in the US. And this job keeps getting bigger.”
Being based in L.A. keeps Crunchyroll close to the heart of entertainment, which allows them to host anime movie premieres at locales such as The Academy Museum and LA Live, and to cultivate a major presence at conventions. Page says it also keeps them close to their parent company, Sony Pictures, which will become more significant as they expand cinematically in the coming years.
Beyond conventions and social media, “there is nothing like the experience of being in a dark theater, watching your favorite films with friends on the big screen,” states Mitchel Berger, SVP of Global Commerce at Crunchyroll. “That’s a big part of why Crunchyroll is bringing anime to theaters globally.”
Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero became the fourth top grossing anime film of all time in the US and Crunchyroll has distributed 10 of the top 20 anime films in US box office history. Next up, the company is excited to release award-winning director Makoto Shinkai’s newest film, Suzume, due in April 2023. “Theatrical is just one of the ways we create connection for the anime community,” Berger adds. “Anime fans are collectors and want to wear their fandom on their sleeve as a badge of honor, literally. We’re excited to keep meeting fans where they are, and attracting new fans into the colorful world of anime. “
Until the next big theater release, Crunchy Roll’s focus remains online. The Crunchyroll app is available on over 15 platforms, including all gaming consoles and digital devices, with different pricing and platform options. The free version is ad-supported, and has limited programming (basically a sampler of its most popular anime for a limited time, including the first three episodes of new content, as well as a limited selection of manga titles to read). Crunchyroll’s premium plan gets you new episodes one hour after they air in Japan, and offers unlimited ad-free anime content, plus hundreds of manga titles.
Sony’s acquisition of another anime company, Funimation Global Group in 2021 and its unification under the Crunchyroll banner, only added to its volume of anime and manga. The combined catalogs increased its offerings from 30,000 to 40,000 episodes equaling more than 16,000 hours of content. Current stats indicate Crunchyroll now has the largest anime library in the world: 18,000 hours, 44,000 episodes of series and films, and new series being added daily in various languages subtitles and dubbings: including English, Spanish (Latin America and Spain), Portuguese, French, Russian, German, Arabic, Italian, and, of course, Japanese. This year they also launched dubs in Hindi, Italian and Castilian Spanish.
Right now, popular titles include Chainsaw Man, following the adventures of a “devil hunter” named Denji; and SPY X FAMILY, about a spy, a telepath and an assassin who pose as a family to fight evil. Crunchyroll is also home to faves including My Hero Academia. Demon Slayer, Attack on Titan, and JUJUTSU KAISEN.
Beyond competing with other streaming services, Crunchyroll, which has a social footprint of 150M+ fans worldwide, is incorporating an experiential approach to promotion. Now that society is resigned to living with COVID-19, moving the fandom beyond the computer, phone and TV screens to facilitate in-person interactions is the next step. Theatrical releases are a big part of it, but so is gaming (popular titles include My Hero Academia: The Strongest Hero and anime RPG Princess Connect Re: Dive!) and events. From musical experiences like the Second Sky festival, which took place in Northern California back in October, to its celebrated annual Anime Awards show, which will take place in March next year in Tokyo, the profile of Crunchyroll and anime continues to expand, evolve and engage.
“It’s been pretty extraordinary seeing the industry blossom in such a massive and fruitful way,” says Ryan Colt Levy, lead voice actor on Chainsaw Man. “For far too long, it wasn’t the popular or “cool” thing to enjoy or be able to celebrate among friends or peers without getting confused responses or worse. And now, we see anime celebrated everywhere from art to music and clothing culture, and now entire families share these experiences together. It’s truly a beautiful thing. I would love to see it further grow into a place where more people can see themselves in these stories and feel more connected to the real world and people around them.”
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