Following his passion—and having fun doing it

After three decades in the entertainment industry, Mitchel Berger, B.M. ’93, still marvels that he has built a career doing what he loves. His advice to students and new graduates: “Find your passion, follow your dreams, be present and committed, and you’ll never regret it.”
mitchel berger

As a kid growing up outside Atlanta, Mitchel Berger was a self-described “massive ‘Star Wars’ nerd.” He saw all the movies and had, as he put it, “all the toys.” It has been part of his life for as long as he can remember—and has left a profound imprint.

Now, as senior vice president of global commerce for Crunchyroll, Berger does what he loves best: using his deep understanding of what it means to be a fan to serve the worldwide community of anime fans.

Emerging in Japan in the early 20th century, anime is a form of hand-drawn or computer-generated animation that has exploded in popularity since the advent of the Internet and streaming media in the early 2000s. With its distinctive visual style, storytelling, and characters, anime has gained hundreds of millions of fans—mostly, but not exclusively, young people—around the world.

A subsidiary of Sony, Crunchyroll is the ultimate destination for anime fans. It is anchored by a streaming subscription service that drives other parts of its anime business, including theatrical distribution, games, licensing and merchandising, events, and collectibles. The company has distributed ten of the 20 highest-grossing anime films in U.S. box office history—Berger managed the distribution efforts—and has a constantly expanding library of films and series, subtitled and dubbed in more than 10 languages. Berger oversees the company’s consumer products and merchandise, content sales, and theatrical businesses.

For Berger, anime’s legions of fans and ethos of belonging are the keys to its success. “When you look at the themes of anime, and the stories, everything is about community and belonging and being part of something bigger than oneself,” he explains. “And [anime represents] this place where people can share their interest in this art form and find their group—it’s the connective tissue.”

This understanding of fan culture, and the importance of anime in fans’ lives, permeates Berger’s work and derives from his experience as a “Star Wars” fan. “It’s a fictional universe with fictional characters. It’s archetypes of good and evil,” he said. “I’ve made friends and learned valuable life lessons through sharing ‘Star Wars’ fandom with folks. It’s this thing that I am obsessed with that’s completely made up.

“I think that what helps me with anime is that if you don’t understand fandom—if you aren’t a fan of fans—then it comes off as inauthentic. So, coming into the anime world, I understood what it’s like to be an uber fan, how it’s part of your identity, and how you relate to people. And I know what it’s like to meet someone and talk to them for hours about a particular film. So, I want to be able to enable those experiences for [Crunchyroll’s] fans. And it’s so much easier to sell something that you’re passionate about,” he added.

At one point, as a teenager, Berger wanted to be a rock star. “I wasn’t talented enough to do that, but I love music,” he laughed. At the University of Miami, where he enrolled in 1989, he studied in the music industry program at the Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music.

“I loved my time in Miami,” Berger recalled. “I was there from 1989 to 1993, which was a fun four years because we got two national championships [in that time]. I was in the Band of the Hour for a couple of years, lived on campus the whole time, and just enjoyed the experience to the fullest. I had an amazing experience and learned things that I still use in my everyday life, both personally and professionally.”

Even Hurricane Andrew, which devastated the campus and surrounding community just before the beginning of Berger’s senior year, didn’t dampen his enjoyment of life at the U. “It was nice to see the entire community and University come together,” he reflected.

Berger credits the music industry program at the Frost School for setting him on his career path. “At the time, it was a newish program,” he added. “It was this great opportunity to satisfy the musician part of me and learn a lot of good core business things that would help me in my career.”

Berger cited the late Alfred Reed, professor of music and program director at the time, as being particularly influential. “He was this very accomplished composer and musician [who] helped show me that the business side of entertainment is every bit as fulfilling as performance,” Berger said. “And I thought, there’s a career that could be had here.”

During his last semester, Berger interned at MCA Records in Atlanta, later part of Universal Group. After graduating, he was considering continuing on the record side of MCA when an opportunity in Universal’s home entertainment division opened up.

“I had this moment of ‘I love movies, I love entertainment,’” Berger said. “So, I thought, I’m going to give it a shot. I cut off all my hair, took my earring out, dove in, and spent 21 years in the movie business at Universal.”

In 2014, Berger joined Funimation, an anime streaming and distribution platform that later merged with Crunchyroll. There he has broadened the knowledge base and skill set that the Frost School nurtured and Universal honed.

“I was doing home entertainment, but I’ve had a chance to work with the theatre group and learn that business more deeply,” he said. “I’ve worked with the consumer products group, with the e-commerce group, with content licensing. I’ve learned the broad spectrum of an entertainment company, not just one slice of it. That growth opportunity, coupled with this medium [anime] with such a gigantic and rabid fan base was a perfect marriage of opportunities.”

It's no exaggeration to say that Berger relishes his job at Crunchyroll. “I’m having fun because what I do is what I love to do. It’s not a job; it’s a passion. I’ve worked with amazing people whom I would never have met otherwise. I’ve traveled the world and done things I would never have done otherwise. I feel like I’ve won the lottery, to get to do something I love and get paid to do it.

“We’re not curing cancer, but we are bringing small moments of joy to people’s lives every day. We’re helping people connect over a shared passion, and those connections can be very deep and long-lasting. That’s what makes it all worthwhile.”