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Opinion | Crunchyroll may rescue the theaters Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise can’t

Christopher Nolan, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman have all done their parts to try to save movie theaters. But every superhero team needs a surprising member. And in the quest to preserve the cinematic experience, the anime distribution company Crunchyroll is punching above its weight.

The company’s success is welcome good news for a troubled sector. And it says a lot about the power of smaller-but-more-voracious audiences in the contemporary pop culture economy.

Crunchyroll doesn’t get numerous glowing profiles like indie darling A24, the studio behind “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” “Ex Machina” and “The Witch,” among other critical (and personal!) favorites. But the anime-oriented distributor and streaming service purchased by Sony from Warner Bros. in 2021 merged with fellow anime purveyor Funimation this year to become a powerful figure in the world of targeted movie distribution.

Japanese cultural products have an increasingly large footprint in the United States, particularly among younger consumers: manga (Japanese comics) sales nearly tripled between 2021 and 2022. Japanese animation capitalizes on this by offering fans of these popular comics motion pictures and TV shows to accompany them. And there’s a steady flow of product from Japan that is easily dubbed into English.

That said, some of these series have been around — and popular in the United States — for decades. Consider the success of their latest release, “Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero” — a predecessor of which was so popular that it inspired a modest moral panic — which led the box office two weekends ago with a surprisingly strong $21.124 million opening. That figure by itself would make it the ninth-highest-grossing A24 film of all time, domestically, sneaking it just ahead of “The Disaster Artist.” The $31.3 million it has grossed through Monday, Aug. 29 would put it at fifth on the list.

Crunchyroll and Funimation have really perfected the art of releasing these “surprise” hits, propelling a bunch of movies that average consumers might not have heard of into big grossers.

In March, “Jujutsu Kaisen 0: The Movie” opened to $18 million and ended up with $34.5 million total. A previous Dragon Ball picture, “Dragon Ball Super: Broly,” raised eyebrows when it opened to nearly $10 million and more than tripled that figure over the course of its 36-day run. And Crunchyroll’s biggest hit so far, “Demon Slayer the Movie: Mugen Train,” earned a genuinely shocking $49.5 million — a figure that would have made it A24’s third-highest-grossing film.

In the grand scheme of things, both A24 and Crunchyroll are putting up modest numbers; the opening of a new “Demon Slayer” movie will never compare to the opening of a new MCU picture. However, on slower weekends they can be a huge boon: “Super Hero” nearly doubled the opening weekend of Universal’s more mainstream-minded “Beast.”

Earning grosses like this requires two…

Read More: Opinion | Crunchyroll may rescue the theaters Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise can’t

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