Answerman Oscar Schmoscar
by Justin Sevakis, Nov 8th 2013
It's been a busy week, so let's just get right to it.
Quite a few years ago Funimation released the complete Dragon Ball Z series with the infamous orange box's that every "FAN" supposedly hated but sold like Hot Cakes. Now the same debate is rearing its ugly head with Funimation announcing the release of the series yet again but this time on Blu-ray using a similar restoration process as they did with the orange box's. Why would Funimation do this again? Why doesn't Toei just do it themselves and Funimation wait to release it until that happens? To be quite frank I'm just sick and tired of fan's complaining about it. With your vast knowledge of the anime industry could you indulge me and explain why Funimation is going about it the way they are. Is it because of some reason that I wouldn't think of because I don't know the intricate in's and out's of the anime industry? Can you help a brother out?
The Dragon Ball franchise is easily Funimation's most important property, and the one that has brought in more money for them over the years than anything else. It's incredibly important to the company's bottom line, and so obviously they're going to milk it as much as possible. Why does Dragon Ball Z sell SO much more than all of the other anime they put out? Because it's mainstream. The people that buy it, predominantly, are NOT anime fans, they're the mainstream consumers that made the show such a hit.
Mainstream video consumers are not purists. They detest seeing things like film grain (however naturally it occurred), because anything that isn't "pure picture" is something that, in their minds, shouldn't be there now that everything is nice and digital and clean, and they bought a nice giant flat screen TV on which to watch it. They also hate pillar-boxing, because it's a waste of real-estate on said giant screen. They don't think about things like the show's original shape or the artists' intention, they want a pretty, clean picture to fill their screen.
Funimation tried to "fight the good fight" with the Dragon Ball Z Blu-rays and restore the show into HD properly, but despite what I'm told was an insanely laborious production process, the discs they ended up putting out were not popular. They heard over and over that this huge group that pays the bills did not like those discs, for the above reasons. No amount of "education" that Funimation might attempt will be enough to dissuade the masses from liking things that way. So, rather than continuing to spend gobs of time and money making those discs, they stopped. And that's why they're going back to what they did for the best-selling and super-popular "Orange Box" DVDs, which is filter out all the film grain, brighten the colors, and zoom them in to create a 16x9 widescreen picture. It might not be what the hardcore otaku want, but Funimation has to go where the money is.
What Japanese collectors want in a video presentation is more in line with what American anime fans want: the original picture, as created, with as little mucked around with as possible. So eventually Toei Animation will likely do their own HD restoration and come out with their own Blu-ray boxed set in Japan. And Funimation will probably eventually release those here, too, much like they did the Dragonboxes on DVD. But it could be some years until that happens (if it happens at all), and in the mean time, I'm sure Funimation would like some more money. I certainly can't blame them.
What is going on at Media Blasters? It's easy enough to guess from their sparse release schedule, frequent delays, shedding staff, the evaporation of stocks of their releases as well as what Meredith Mulroney and Sean Molyneux said on ANNCast that the company is in considerable fiscal distress. What's harder to figure out is how exactly their operations have been affected, what their strategy is and how long things will go on like this. How does the zombie keep shambling on and why?
The last few years have not been good for Media Blasters. The company in its current form (which now DOES exist as a corporation again, or so I'm told) now operates with a skeleton crew, and is releasing new discs sparingly, often with long unannounced production delays. The few people that still work there are no longer interested in speaking to us or much of the rest of the anime business. The inter workings there are now anybody's guess.
Obviously, without their formerly huge staff and lower cash-flow, things are moving pretty slowly over there. Also, well-substantiated rumor has it that many vendors used by the company for everything from dubbing to replication may be owed money, and/or are not currently on good terms with Media Blasters. This means that when Media Blasters releases a product, getting it made can be quite a challenge, and might involve having to mend a relationship or two.
But the company soldiers on, and for all his faults, John Sirabella is a tenacious survivor of a businessman. The way the business world works in the US in general, it's very very difficult for a small company to truly die when they still want to hang in there, even while jettisoning most of the infrastructure they've built over the years. If it comes down to Sirabella doing everything himself, from licensing to authoring, then I have no doubt that if he wants to stay in business that's just what he'll do.
If you couldn't tell, I am dancing a very fine line here because I have heard SO many off-the-record allegations about Media Blasters over the years that I am having a very hard time figuring out what I can write about them publicly and what I can't. Much of what we've heard over the years has never become printable.
ANN reported this week that 19 animated feature films are eligible to be nominated for an Academy Award. I was disappointed that Mamoru Hosoda's "Wolf Children" wasn't on the list. I remember hearing on a podcast (probably the ANNCast) that applying for qualification just to be nominated for an Academy Award is a time-consuming and expensive process, but considering all the attention nominated films get, I would think it would be worth it (especially now that judges can be sent screeners). And, hey, in a year full of weak American animated films like this one, you just might win!
So what are the pros and cons of trying to get your limited-release Japanese film nominated for an Oscar? Why would Aniplex attempt to get the third Madoka Magica movie nominated, but Funimation skip out on a chance to let Wolf Children go for the gold?
Every year, when Oscar season comes around, I kind of dread having to see anime fans wring their hands about Japan's chances at taking home a statue. I dread it because nearly everybody around the world still sees the Oscars as a real, albeit vaguely subjective, contest about picking the best movies of the year. And it's just not true. They are a cynical, political, money and power-soaked marketing institution that is incredibly effective at both raising up its own, and keeping outsiders away. Even in this age of cynicism and distrust in institutions, for some reason both filmmakers around the world and movie fans still take it way, way more seriously than it deserves.
Let's take a step back and see what it actually takes to win an Oscar. It's true, you need at least a decent film, and Wolf Children most certainly qualifies. You also need a multi-million dollar campaign to drum up support for the film's nomination, buying ads in trade websites and publications. You need to send out screener discs, hold special screenings, and pay to have the film screened in New York and Los Angeles for a week. You need to hire a publicist to get the film into the press, or sometimes leak venomous stories about rivals. The whole thing is basically an election.
The money at stake is enormous. An Oscar winner can get an extended theatrical release (or re-release) and bring in hundreds millions of dollars of additional revenue for the film. Long-term, being able to call your film an Oscar winner means it can likely do better on home video, among decades of re-releases, and even on television. It adds marketing value to the names of everyone involved. And most importantly, it's a giant ego stroke to be involved with an Oscar winner. And in movies, you cannot underestimate the importance of a good ego-wank.
So who, then, decides the winners? Who makes up the members of the Academy? Well, it's almost entirely geriatric actors. Many of them are long since retired from filmmaking. Some have had a lifetime of other careers. And old people, as a demographic, have a few things in common. As anyone who has tried to show anime to older relatives and family friends can attest to, they tend not to really "get" anime. I hate to generalize, but many people that age have an extremely outdated concept of what is Japanese (Exotic and foreign!), consider animation to be a medium for kids, and are thinking a lot about death.
Here are a few examples. Japan's most recent Oscar-winner, a decidedly middle-of-the-road drama called Departures, was about dealing with the death of a loved one. Don Hertzfeldt's now-legendary animated short film Rejected was nominated for an Oscar in 2000, but lost to a now-completely forgotten Dutch short about the death of a parent. Koji Yamamura's amazing Mt. Head lost in 2002 to a CG comedy short released with Men In Black II called The ChubbChubbs!
Why did Spirited Away win Best Animated Film in 2002? Because Disney, Pixar, and John Lasseter, lacking a release of their own to push that year, got behind it and gave it a lavish Oscar campaign, likely to ensure Dreamworks Animation would walk away empty-handed. That sort of push by moneyed showbiz institutions is unlikely to happen a second time. There's an outside chance the Academy will remember Miyazaki this year for The Wind Rises, since he's now "part of the club" and has announced his retirement. (Also, The Wind Rises is getting a Disney release, so there's that.)
[Edit: As a few people have pointed out, there were two other Disney films up for an Oscar that year, Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet. The point remains that without Lasseter and Disney giving the film a huge campaign, it never would have won.]
But aside from Miyazaki, I don't think the members of the Academy are likely to ever "get" anime, and are extremely unlikely to reward it. It just doesn't fit their demographic, and virtually none of the companies that release it can afford the expense of a coordinated Oscar push. Japanese creators often dream of an Oscar, as do countless indie filmmakers every year. They spend a combined fortune on Oscar-qualifier screenings, but without deep pockets and a coordinated strategy, their plans tend to be gigantic wastes of money.
Even at the mainstream level, Oscars tend to go to the prestige films being pushed by major distributors. As entertainment changes and more interesting filmmakers go the indie, low-end distribution route, and more big movie companies forget how to market anything that isn't a superhero movie, I really have taken a jaundiced view of the whole Oscar ritual. The awards are not relevant artistically, often miss the mark socially, and languidly showcase old-Hollywood in a dull-as-dirt presentation that seems like it's ripped from 1974. I honestly don't understand why people care.
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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