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Anime stays niche

Japanese pic's sun fails to rise in U.S. megaplexes

If anime was ever going to be the kind of mainstream cultural phenomenon in the U.S. that it is in Asia, 2003 sure seemed like a good year for it to happen.

Early in the year, Disney’s English-language release of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” captured the Oscar for animated feature amid big-budget competish from the likes of “Ice Age” and “Lilo & Stitch.”

“Spirited Away” was subsequently released wide on more than 700 U.S. screens, but it only managed to take in $10 million in domestic box office.

This has caused some to wonder if anime would ever catch on with U.S. theatrical auds in the same way that, say, CGI-animated pics have.

“I would never have guessed (anime) was going to become as popular (in the States) as it is, just within the animated fan group and homevideo sales,” says Fred Patten, author of “Watching Anime, Reading Manga” and who’s now-defunct Streamline Pictures was among the first to distribute anime domestically. “But I don’t know whether American adults can be persuaded to go see more anime theatrical releases.”

That’s not to say the genre hasn’t found an audience in the U.S.

Homevid distributors including ADV Films and Geneon Entertainment have built thriving businesses in the U.S. distributing anime DVDs to niche auds of primarily young adult males. Others, including Anchor Bay Entertainment, are aggressively entering the anime market.

Meanwhile, TV Japanimation hits such as “Pokemon,” “Digimon” and “Yu-Gi-Oh!” have translated well into kids TV ratings. Feature adaptations such as “Pokemon: The First Movie,” which took in $85 million in domestic B.O. in 1999, have been just as successful at bringing kids (and purists) into theaters.

Hope still springs eternal among anime enthusiasts that a U.S. theatrical release will catch on in the same big way that, say, “Shark Tale” did.

In any event, there are two anime-style pics that could contend in this year’s Oscar race :

  • “Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence,” from Japan, is a PG13-rated follow-up to the 1995 cult classic, and was released by DreamWorks’ indie division, Go Fish Pictures.

  • “Sky Blue,” from South Korea, combines cel and digital animation as well as live-action footage and miniatures to tell a futuristic sci-fi adventure story with an environmental message. It will open for a qualifying run in Los Angeles on Dec. 31, barely squeaking through the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ year-end eligibility window.

Even if one of these two produces another Oscar win for anime, their U.S. distribs don’t expect them to produce big revenue at the box office.

Production budgets for anime, which are dwarfed by those of big-studio CGI fare, allow for far more modestly scaled distribution models. “We did the movie for about a tenth of what other studios spend to make (animated) movies,” notes Sunmin Park, who produced the English-language version of “Sky Blue.” The pic came in at under $15 million.

With only 30-35 prints active at any one time, “Ghost in the Shell 2” is on pace to earn about $1 million in domestic B.O.

Michael Vollman, who oversees marketing for Go Fish Pictures, says the studio is pleased with that kind of performance.

“(One million dollars) is silly in the world of ‘Shrek’ or ‘Shark Tale,’ but for the anime world, it’s a nice milestone,” Vollman explains. “We’ve completely exceeded our profitability targets. We had a number that we needed to make, and we’ve almost doubled it.”

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