Netflix's plan to dominate the anime market isn't new, but its live-action adaptation ambitions showcase just how Netflix is approaching expanding its current and potentially new anime fanbase globally.
For example, Netflix is reportedly creating a live-action Pokémon series based on the popular long running anime and video game franchise, marking the latest leap into adapting beloved anime series as new original titles for the platform.
Not only is Pokémon one of the most successful video game franchises of all time, but the anime that co-exists alongside the game series, and has run for more than 20 years, also remains very much in-demand. It has 47.66x the average longevity — how long a show remains in-demand overtime — of other TV shows and boasts 66.57x the average reach of other series, making it an exceptional title. Demand for Pokémon is 23x the demand for the average show in the US — a feat that only 2.7% of all shows in the market can boast.
People love Pokémon, and Netflix wants to buy into that fan base to expand it even more. It’s not the first anime Netflix is trying to do it with, either.
Much like how Netflix is exploring adapting video game IP into series and films (like The Witcher, Castlevania, and Far Cry: Blood Dragon), live-action anime adaptations are exploding as companies try to tap into pre-existing fan bases that can boost overall platform demand and engagement. Instead of trying to whip the next hit out of thin air, a live-action My Hero Academia or Pokémon series brings with it millions of intrigued fans.
One Piece, Death Note, and Cowboy Bebop are just some of the other titles that Netflix has either adapted or is in the process of adapting, according to multiple trade reports. It’s easy to see why. Anime is one of the fastest growing genres of entertainment, with more anime produced in the last 10 years than in the decades that preceded it.
Anime also travels extremely well globally. Certain anime titles consistently maintain their positions in the top 10 most in-demand series world wide, sitting alongside big Marvel shows, The Walking Dead, and Stranger Things. Attack on Titan has 64.85x the average demand of all other shows globally, and My Hero Academia boasts 50.82x the average demand. Both of those fall into the exceptional category — a bucket that only 0.2% of all shows around the world achieve.
Although anime is still arguably a niche category of entertainment, it’s undeniably approaching mainstream phenomenon. More accessible distribution methods (catching up with a series on Netflix, Crunchyroll, Hulu, or HBO Max) allows for younger audiences to dig into series they may not have been able to find otherwise. Piracy for other shows not available through streaming in some markets also allows fans to keep up with new series. Attack on Titan has more than 1 billion peer to peer streams.
Both in the United States and globally, the most in-demand anime series coming out of Japan include Attack on Titan, My Hero Academia, Jujutsu Kaisen, One Piece, Naruto: Shippuden, Pokémon, Dragon Ball Super, Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, and One Punch Man. The majority of these titles are currently undergoing or are preparing to undergo a live-action adaptation from some of the biggest entertainment conglomerates in the world.
By lowering the barrier of entry (whether that’s through more English-speaking projects or more specific on-screen talent, like Ryan Reynolds in Detective Pikachu) and ensuring accessibility is simple, the streaming companies and studios can try and turn an in-demand anime title into a cultural phenomenon.
Partnering with corporations like The Pokémon Company and licensing rights to step into a world already dominated by super fans helps. If Netflix becomes the home for a new live-action Pokémon series, and pairs that with a sizable portion of the Pokémon anime series catalogue, then Netflix retains one of the most in-demand series globally.
The new show brings fans into Netflix for the first time, or convinces lapped subscribers to return, but having the catalogue is what keeps people subscribed month after month.
Comparing global demand for anime to Netflix originals (chart above) showcases where there’s room to pursue potential live-action adaptations, or dig into series belonging to similar genres. Attack on Titan, My Hero Academia, and Jujutsu Kaisen are more in-demand than Shadow and Bone, The Witcher and, in the case of the first two anime series, even more in-demand than Lucifer or La Casa de Papal. Attack on Titan and My Hero Academia are also two of the most in-demand series on Netflix globally, proving there’s a direct overlap in interest for the genre and action-adventure style shows.
A Difference In Audience Is Good
The overall importance and value of an anime series, alongside the potential of adapting a specific show in a live-action format, also depends on other types of shows viewers are watching. If there’s higher affinity for mainstream live-action titles from a variety of regions that are also available on a specific platform, there’s a better chance that a live-action adaptation of a specific anime will work within an overall content strategy. Higher affinity across numerous shows increases overall engagement and changes a customer’s perception of a platform from a nightly or weekly option to a necessity.
Take My Hero Academia as one example. The trend for high affinity titles skews younger and more mainstream. To one extent, this makes a ton of sense. My Hero Academia is continuously one of the most in-demand series in the United States, alongside Rick and Morty, Game of Thrones, Stranger Things, and Ted Lasso. Knowing, however, that My Hero Academia shares strong affinity with titles like Pokémon, Arthur, Big Mouth, and iCarly is crucial for Netflix. Younger audiences watch more digital content than any other group. Three of the aforementioned shows are also available to stream on Netflix in the US and in some international territories.
My Hero Academia also shares high affinity with shows like Quantico, which is also available to watch on Netflix in the United States. Taking into account consumer demand and behavior input from the presented data, working on a live-action adaptation of My Hero Academia or a similar anime helps by retaining subscribers through increased engagement of catalog titles. Since interest spans multiple Netflix series, having a high profile live-action series or film that fits within subscribers’ interest can lead to longer session periods or more frequent consumption.
More than 100 million global households “watched at least one anime title on the platform between October  and September 2020,” according to Variety. That figure demonstrates a jump of more than 50% in anime viewing. Bela Bajaria, Netflix’s global head of content, specifically noted the importance of having content that travels globally in another interview with Variety.
“To export these shows from all over the world in different languages and find a global audience is really exciting and rewarding,” Bajaria said, adding that viewing of non-English titles grew more than 67% amongst US customers. “They’re traveling from all different kinds of countries. So I think you’ll see so many different kinds of stories being told and storytellers.”
As the streaming service begins to see the majority of its subscriber base come from non-US and Canadian households (in fact, UCAN is a group that’s seeing subscriber losses in some quarters), in-demand content that audiences want around the world is key — and anime falls into that group. Live-action adaptations create a lower barrier of entry amongst audiences who may be turned off by anime’s visual aesthetics, but may create a batch of new anime fans who find their next binge on Netflix.
Jujustu Kaisen, for example, is one of the most in-demand anime series globally but doesn’t share high affinity with mainstream live-action titles. Instead, Jujustu Kaisen shares higher affinity trends with other anime series and non-English titles.
Jujustu Kaisen could end up as a flop on Netflix despite a built-in fanbase because affinity trends for other titles on the platform aren’t as high. Even if it brings in additional subscribers, it’s unlikely to lead to as high engagement with other series and films on Netflix meaning that churn reduction isn’t as likely.
On Crunchyroll or Funimation, however, it can lead to additional discovery of titles they didn’t know previously, which in turn could increase overall engagement and reduce churn. Netflix executives have recently started highlighting discovery — shows that subscribers find even if they’re not Netflix Originals — as a key component of the service’s offering. Live-action adaptations of specific anime with high affinity amongst other anime series could do the same for Funimation or Crunchyroll.
Even knowing strong affinity trends and what can work best for any individual platform, there are some undeniable concerns.
Ordering a live-action adaptation of an anime doesn’t always translate to success, though. A built-in fan base may turn up to see if the adaptation honors the original series, but playing to that audience can backfire. If it’s too faithful to the original series, the chance of expanding beyond the original fanbase its less likely. If it’s too different, the original fanbase — the group of people who are the “guaranteed” audience — will hate it, turn their backs on it, and spread word that it’s terrible, which can turn away possible new fans.
Then there’s the additional cost. Anime, on average, is infinitely cheaper than a live-action TV show. It’s also easier to create remotely, and production issues that can impact live-action programs are much rarer in an anime or animation setting.
Not every anime is going to translate into a functional or successful live-action series. Figuring out what is worth the investing (and licensing) costs is crucial to betting on successfully expanding a beloved franchise and finding new fans for a specific title. The cost of producing an elaborate live-action series that incorporates CGI and real world elements can get expensive, fast. That’s why the current list of anime or manga series with upcoming adaptations are particularly high in demand, and therefore present lower risk.
Networks and streamers get into animation or anime production because the costs are relatively low, meaning the risk associated with producing those titles is inherently less. Netflix signed deals with four anime studios in Japan and South Korea (Japan’s NAZ, Science SARU, MAPPA, and Korea’s Studio Mir) to produce more originals for global subscribers.
Speed Racer, Dragonball Evolution, and The Last Airbender are all examples of how financially harmful mishandling live-action anime adaptation can be. Speed Racer lost $80 million. Dragonball Evolution and The Last Airbender recouped some domestic losses through international distribution, but they were seen as harmful to bringing in new fans to the anime franchises they were based on.
There are inherent risks with adapting popular anime series — shows beloved by fans who have put years of their life into those worlds. But the potential for success outweighs those costs if approached strategically. What anime best travels around the world? What anime has the most franchise potential? Can different genres of anime perform well in certain markets because local content from those regions isn’t fulfilling those audience needs?
If the demand for horror is high in certain regions but there isn’t enough supply, tapping into an anime series with high or growing demand, building on that fanbase, and providing content audiences are looking for helps to fill those holes.
Pokémon has universal appeal, making it a much safer and wiser option to pursue. But Pokémon is just one of many titles. Tokyo Revengers, Haikyu!!, and Dr. Stone all have high travelability, high franchise potential, and strong momentum, on top of outstanding demand worldwide. Figuring out ways to tap into this fan base, and determine how to make a live-action adaptation work, could lead to exceptional return on investment.
As an industry, anime is valued at just under $25 billion, with that number expected to nearly double to $43 billion by 2027. Audiences once considered niche in North America, Europe, and Latin America are becoming some of the most sought after audiences, alongside regions where anime is already a mainstream form of entertainment like Japan and South Korea.
Live-action adaptations help to lower any last barriers, but it’s not as simple as pointing to any anime title and hiring a team to turn it into a 10-part series or movie. Understanding where the global demand for certain series comes from, and how that demand can be translated into new installments, is key to making the best business decisions possible.