The company’s SVP of Global Commerce, a longtime home entertainment executive, talks about the growing theatrical appetite for anime, and how passionate audiences around the world continue to support the franchises they love.
Since 2006, Funimation and Crunchyroll – now unified under the Crunchyroll brand after their 2022 merger – have theatrically released over 40 anime titles, from Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa to Jujutsu Kaisen 0. Their most recent release, Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero, is showing now through September 15 - one of six Dragon Ball films Crunchyroll has released in theaters - and has grossed over $79 million worldwide, becoming the second-highest-grossing Dragon Ball film to date.
Crunchyroll was also behind the famous triumph of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train, which was not only the highest-grossing film of 2020, but the first non-Hollywood production to earn that honor. It set numerous box office records, including becoming the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time, ahead of even the Oscar-winning Spirited Away.
As franchises like Dragon Ball, Demon Slayer, Attack on Titan, and One Piece show such impressive theatrical results as well as growing legions of fans worldwide, it poses the question, why are these long-standing stories just now gaining so much popularity? Credit could go to the rise of streaming services. But according to Crunchyroll senior vice president of global commerce Mitchel Berger, it’s because of the fans.
Berger oversees all consumer products, merchandise, content sales, and theatrical businesses for Crunchyroll, and is credited with managing the distribution of seven of the top 20 highest-grossing anime releases of all time in North America, including the 2021 Demon Slayer film at #2 and Jujutsu Kaisen’s 2022 feature at #4.
We got the chance to talk with Berger about anime’s popularity spike over the last five years, how he witnessed the early stages of the medium’s rise to fame, how fans have played a critical role in the industry’s success and survival, and the growth of Crunchyroll’s mission to provide a “place to belong” for anime fans around the world.
Victoria Davis: You worked at Universal Pictures for 13 years and at NBCUniversal for another eight. How did you come to work for Funimation, now Crunchyroll?
Mitchel Berger: I've spent my entire career in the entertainment field. I spent 21 years at Universal, primarily in the home entertainment group. I had a wonderful run, but a friend of mine was working at Crunchyroll, and I had this amazing opportunity to come over and do not only home entertainment, but also theatrical and consumer products and content distribution. So, it was just a phenomenal opportunity.
VD: Were you a fan of anime before starting at Crunchyroll? Or is that something that's grown on you as you’ve worked in this position?
MB: I was absolutely aware of anime, but I wouldn't consider myself a hardcore fan. I've definitely become a fan, now that I've been here for eight years. The primary fandom that I grew up with in middle school, high school, and into college was Star Wars. I'm a massive Star Wars nerd.
But what was interesting was, when I came over to Crunchyroll, we're so focused on the fans and it's so important and central to what we do, that my being a fan of Star Wars and being part of that community and understanding what it's like to be just obsessively compulsive about creative things and fictional characters and storylines, I could see that in the anime fandom as well.
So that adjacency really helped me come in with a leg up of understanding fandom and appreciating it. And then learning the medium and learning the amazing things about anime itself has made me a fan of that as I've been here.
VD: What’s it like getting to oversee all consumer products, merchandise, content sales, and theatrical businesses for Crunchyroll during a time that anime fandom has never been greater?
MB: It’s a privilege. It’s an honor. It’s amazing to be a part of something that you can see grow and change and you can feel the excitement in the air. You can just feel this energy around anime fandom. And, for me personally, as a professional working in the business, it's just cool to be part of something that you know, in the moment, is special. I think, too often in life, whether personally or professionally, things happen that are foundational or revolutionary or evolutionary, and you notice them after the fact. And it's years later you realize it really had an impact.
What I feel is special about anime is everyone knows, right now, something special is going on. This thing is growing. And it is becoming more popular. I've been in entertainment my entire career and my two kids never really cared about what I did, until I came to Funimation and Crunchyroll.
VD: What do you think has caused this unprecedented growth in anime fandom these last few years?
MB: Too often, people want to call anime a genre. It's not. It's this really unique, really special, really amazing medium that creators are using to tell unbelievable stories and, like everything that we do in this business, it starts with those storytellers. You need to have a good story, you've got to have great characters, and you've got to have a reason for people to emotionally connect and invest in these characters.
I think the other part of it is the fans themselves. The thing about this fandom is that it truly is a community. And what's happened over the last five, 10, 15 years is it’s become a global community. You've got people from all over the world who have a passion for these characters in these stories, and they're able to connect through their shared love of anime, and create these really meaningful, legitimate, weighty relationships with people because of what they share.
So, when we see things like the convention circuit, and the way people come and cosplay, and our theatrical experience with people getting together, that's all about the community coming together and finding ways to share this love of this thing with other folks. And I really believe that part of the magic here is anime has brought a lot of people together. We're helping people belong and find that place where they belong with people that share the same loves and interests that they do.
VD: We're also seeing a lot more anime getting released in U.S. theaters than ever before. Can you talk about the realities and process of setting up these limited theatrical releases with outlets like Fathom Events? You have a short window to spotlight these specialty releases, but they’ve certainly played a hand in the rise of anime’s popularity.
MB: Absolutely. The movies that are coming out of Japan right now are as good as they have ever been. The content is amazing. The visuals are amazing. The animation is amazing. The characters are amazing.
But I think what makes it possible, what makes it special, is the fans. We know we have this passionate fan base, so when we decide to put a film in the theater, it really is about letting those fans know. We don't have to spend as much time casting a net to every single person in the entire world and hoping that someone will raise their hand and say, “Oh, I like this film. I want to go see it.”
Our fans are very vocal and we have this great back-and-forth relationship with them. We talk to them all the time and know they're going to be passionate about supporting these films in an amazing way. They will go to the theater; they will go see it on a Tuesday afternoon if that's when it's showing. And that's what makes it possible for us to continue to bring these anime properties to theaters and to fans all over the world.
VD: When you guys decide to license a film for theatrical release in the U.S., not just on one of the streaming platforms, how much of that decision is affected by the fans? How much say does the anime fandom community have in what makes it into a theater?
MB: It's this wonderful virtuous circle where Crunchyroll, as an entity, spends a lot of time talking to the fans. We're communicating back and forth online and we're talking in person at conventions. Different from anywhere I've ever been in my career, there's a closeness and direct connection between our fans and our company with this great transfer of information. We do listen to what fans love and what fans inside of our own company love as well.
Licensors and creators in Japan have a good finger on the pulse of what's driving the industry. So, they're making these films and our job is taking those amazing pieces of content that are created in Japan, and then giving it as big a platform as we can, outside of Japan, whether it's worldwide or in specific territories, because every film has a fan base.
Some fan bases are larger, some are smaller and there are really two ways of looking at how to do this; you can either be something to everyone, or everything to someone. For me, regardless of the size of the film, regardless of the size of the fandom, if we can bring a film to someone, and they're sitting in the theater surrounded by this group of fans who share a passion for this film, and in that moment, they feel something and it means something to them, that’s success for us. Whether it’s with two screens or four thousand screens, we want to find a way to be everything to that someone sitting in that chair.
VD: You have a large fan base you're appealing to with the recent release of Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero. That's a long-standing fan base that has just grown and grown.
MB: Dragon Ball has a great, deep fan base that’s been around for a while. But every single time we do one these movies, it's a new adventure. Because what's amazing, especially for Dragon Ball, is the possibility for another generation to really come to experience it. We're at this place now where so many of the kids who grew up watching Dragon Ball in their youth – coming home after school, watching it on TV – have all grown up and they've had families of their own. And now they're sharing that love of this wonderful franchise with their children.
As a parent, there's no better feeling than sharing something that you love with your family, and they embrace it as well. One of the really great things about this movie is there's so much in it for long-term Dragon Ball fans. There are so many callbacks and there are so many inside jokes, but, as a new fan, it's completely accessible. Getting to provide entertainment for a cross-generational experience is great.
VD: And then you have releases like Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba – The Movie: Mugen Train, where a brand new fanbase was born out of that film’s success, in addition to the already existing fandom from the anime’s release on Netflix. The film really took the world by surprise.
MB: Demon Slayer was a wonderful example of just truly amazing content. The content was so rich, so well done, and it was a special time in theaters when we were just coming out of the pandemic. I think people were just really starting to go back in significant numbers to the theaters. And it was this great moment in time where it was a phenomenal film, people were ready to go share this experience in person with others. That one was a lot of fun to work on for sure.
VD: If you can pick, what’s been one of your favorite anime films to distribute so far in your time with Crunchyroll?
MB: I've loved every film that we've released for different reasons, but I will say, if I have to pick a favorite, it would be Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection F. That was the first film that we released, after I came to Funimation, directly as Funimation Films. I was relatively new to the company and I got to dive in and work on that. That entire process, and going to see it in theaters with fans, was what really told me how special this could be. It was that moment where I saw the potential, and the specialness of the anime fandom and realized, ‘Wow, this is something unique.’
VD: Dragon Ball Super: Super Hero is being shown in theaters well into next week. What do you hope this latest Dragon Ball Z release does for the anime fandom and the future of Dragon Ball theatrical releases?
MB: What I want fans to take away from the current film is that there is a lot of life in the anime medium. And there's a lot of life in the fandom. This movie is such a love letter to longtime Dragon Ball fans, and also such a great on-ramp for new fans. I want people to share that and enjoy being able to gather again in a room full of people and share something you love and not worry about anything else in the world for two hours. We need more of that in the world.
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