Hey, Answerman! Licenses-a-Go-Go
by Justin Sevakis, Oct 25th 2013
I just got back from a much needed vacation in New York City. I ate a lot, walked a lot, caught up with a lot of old friends, and had a great time. Very little of that time was spent on anime.
I did, however, manage to participate in "Sesame Chicken Friday," an old Central Park Media tradition that's still being kept alive by members of its old production crew. An astounding number of them actually are now working at DuArt Film and Video, where they work on the American dub of Pokémon. I never realized what a punishing schedule that must be, but I was freshly reminded that the show is STILL GOING, churning out 52 episodes a year without a break.
Let that be a lesson to you: be nice to the guys who work for anime companies. They may move around a bit, but once they're in, they very seldom leave the industry. It's like the mafia. A very poorly-paid mafia.
I've heard on ANNCast and other places that back in the mid-2000s license fees used to be something crazy, like $80,000 per episode. Does it still cost that much to license a show?
Yeesh, no. Those prices were insane, fueled by dumb market speculation and one-upsmanship from by the different anime publishers, who started bidding wars with each other to keep prices high. While there were a handful of shows that ended up costing that much back in those crazy bubble days, the only one I know about that actually made its money back was Fullmetal Alchemist. How many shows out there were as big as Fullmetal Alchemist?
Once the bubble burst and the anime publishers stopped buying, things cooled off a lot. For a couple of years, nobody bought ANYTHING. Nowadays, many anime can be had for far, far less -- some series don't even crack the $1,000 per episode mark. While bidding still occasionally gets competitive, everyone is looking at their wallets, so things don't get too crazy. I would bet something like Space Dandy went for way more than that, but a middle-of-the-road romance show from a few seasons ago would probably stay around that level.
$1,000 per episode isn't very much money at all. It's such a drop in the bucket, as far as making back the costs of the show, that companies like Aniplex of America are often eschewing the idea of licensing out their shows and just releasing them by themselves. While only a few licensors are in a position to "cut out the middle man", there's no denying that the prospect of selling rights to American publishers is nowhere near as exciting as it once was, financially.
I recently got into collecting records, and I feel like, although it's not as handy as digital music, there's small things about just the act of listening to them that I really enjoy. I wonder, if there's any feeling you get from watching anime the old fashioned way, like on VHS? Is it worth going back and collecting anime on VHS, do you think?
Probably not. I definitely understand the unique pleasure to be had in playing vinyl, but to be honest I never got that pleasure from VHS. (I got it from playing 16mm film, but finding anime prints on 16mm is not something that happens very often.) Also, by today's standards, VHS looks like absolute balls. After seeing the gorgeous Blu-ray transfer of, say, Wings of Honneamise, the very idea of going back to a VHS tape is something that makes me want to curl into the fetal position.
That said, there are little things about watching anime on VHS that I do miss. It has less to do with the format itself, and more with the quirky ways the American anime publishers would format the shows in English. They'd often try to re-create the logo for the show in English text with the primitive video technology of the day. They'd also creatively try to re-cut the ending, to try and shoehorn in the English credit roll, or maybe squish the ending animation into the corner of the screen. They'd painstakingly rewrite song subtitles to be "singable" in English. It was kind of adorable.
I think my favorite formatting was applied by Media Blasters in their earliest days. For their initial handful of shows (which included an inordinate number of hentai OAVs like Advancer Tina, Orchid Emblem, and Balthus - Tia's Radiance), they actually went so far as to render an elaborate -- but choppy and awkward -- new 3D logo for each show. And don't get me started on their trailers, which were little more than amateurish AMVs cut to bizarre synthesizer music. It was all very surreal.
So yes, anime on VHS offers a few surprises. Few of them are good, but some are lovably quirky and dated. However, is it worth suffering through poor subtitles, blurry images, crackling audio, and otherwise ruining your viewing experience? Probably not.
We used to talk a lot about how certain shows were in licensing jail, and we would probably never get them here. A lot of them ended up getting US releases anyway -- DNA^2, Rose of Versailles and Five Star Stories, just to name a few. What's left? What is on the great unattainable list of anime titles that we just can never get in America?
It's true, a good number of the "unlicensable" shows of yesteryear have finally gotten some sort of release Stateside. Circumstances change, shows change hands in Japan, old companies go out of business, contracts get re-negotiated, and all sorts of things can happen to free up the rights to shows that were previously considered unavailable to American publishers. The obstacles to such shows are often political, so when certain obstinate people get moved out of the way (or retire), sometimes whole companies that were too difficult to work with suddenly become really accommodating. It's just how things work.
So, what's still unattainable? Well, for starters, the myriad legal issues surrounding everything Macross still means everything from Do You Remember Love? to Macross Frontier is still a no-fly-zone for American interests. I wrote about this a while back, and this isn't a situation I expect will change anytime soon. Worse, I'm pretty sure once Manga Entertainment's rights for Macross Plus expire, that'll probably be it for that series as well.
Another show we'll probably never get here is Legend of Galactic Heroes. Every once in a while I hear about yet another attempt to license the show that fell on its face. The Japanese creators still put a very high price tag on the show, but a rapidly aging, slow-moving sci-fi space opera that runs over 100 episodes is the very definition of a "hard sell" in the American market. I don't expect we will get a proper release in the US, possibly ever.
There are a number of smaller shows that are unattainable for myriad reasons. The obscure art house OAV The Sensualist will never be available because the two producers hate each other and refuse to do anything that will enrich the other. Music rights issues often crop up in shows with prominent music, especially if that music is by a boy band managed by Johnny's Jimusho (such as SMAP, Arashi, Tokio, KAT-TUN, Shonentai, etc.) that are just plain insurmountable. We just don't know about most of them because the vast majority languish in obscurity.
Of course, no list of unattainable shows would be complete without mentioning Sailor Moon, which seems to be completely off limits. Licensor Toei Animation can't even discuss licensing the series in North America, and rumor has it that the hold-up is at the manga artist end of things, but who knows what the real problem is. The truth of the matter is that the original creator (gensakusha) can always hold back an anime adaptation they don't like, so Sailor Moon is probably just one of a number of shows that are off limits for that reason.
That's all I can think of off the top of my head, but what others have you heard of? Let us know in the comments!
And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.
Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.
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