Chicks On Anime
Tales from the Rental Front

by B. Dong, S. Pocock, Apr 7th 2009

About the contributors:

Bamboo is the managing editor for ANN, and writes the column Shelf Life.
Sara is an animator who's also released her own independent short film.

Everyone gets their anime differently. Some prefer to watch episodes as they air on TV, some like to buy the DVDs first before watching, some like streaming shows online, while some like to download. A large chunk of fans rent their anime, too, whether it's through an online rental service, or from a brick and mortar location. This week's guest is Kira Dunn, co-owner of a family-owned video rental store in Fort Collins, CO called The Village Vidiot. They have a complete selection of DVDs and hard-to-find VHSes, adult titles, and also a very thorough inventory of anime. We talked with her about the rental habits of anime fans, and how the economy's been impacting the store.


Bamboo: Over the months, we've talked to quite a few people in various parts of anime-dom, from animators to industry folk, to fan fiction writers. I wanted to get a different perspective today, from someone who's intimately familiar with the consumer side of things—the video rental industry. Kira, can you tell us a bit about your job, and how long you've been at it?
Kira: Well, my father and I co-own a local video store, and a lot of our business has to do with anime rentals and merchandise sales. We've been in business for about 30 years, not always having been a rental store, and I've personally worked there for about 11 years, give or take. I'm in charge of the actual anime section, what we order in for rental, items for sale, all that stuff. It's pretty hard trying to figure out what's hot at the moment, because anime customers are pretty up-to-date, even moreso than I am anymore, but we sure try!
Bamboo: Do you stock everything that comes out?
Kira: Give or take a few titles that I don't think would rent, mostly kids stuff or less-popular titles, we do try and carry everything.
Sara: What does the face of your market look like? Are there any demographic trends you notice in your area? And where's your location?
Kira: We're located in Fort Collins, Colorado, which is a pretty big hub of college-aged kids, due to Colorado State University being about 2 blocks away. The majority of our customers tend to be around 15-25, so your typical high school to college aged crowd. There are some older customers that rent, ones that have been renting since they were about 15, and it's interesting to see how the crowds change over the years.
Bamboo: Do the same people keep renting over the years? Or do they "get over" anime at a certain age?
Kira: Mostly people seem to "get over" anime. We've seen a lot of people "drop out" of the fandom over the years, and I overhear a lot of kids talking about "oh, I'm so over that show now" or things like that all the time. But we do have the solid regulars who've been around for years, who never seem to change, just get older.
Sara: I don't know if you pay attention this closely to your renter's habits, but do you notice a change in the renting trends of your long-time regulars?
Kira: Hmm. Not really...most of them tend to rent the same genre even as they get older. If they started out watching the magical girl shows and shows like Mai Hime, they tend to keep renting the same kinds as they get older. It can get a little disturbing, but that may just be because I'm jaded. *laughs* But not really, as long as the genre is alive, that's what they tend to stick to. Rarely do they branch out and try other genres. Of course, there are people who rent all kinds, which is refreshing. I like seeing all shows get a chance to be seen.
Bamboo: From a money perspective, what kinds of shows/genres rent the best?
Kira: Breasts and guns. By and large, the best renting series include those with scantily-clad women on the cover, or some random action scenes on the back. The ones that rent the least are slice-of-life and dramas.
Sara: You're an anime fan as well, right?
Kira: Yes. I was heavily into it back in high school, like most of the people I know, but recently I've been out of the loop. I stay up to date on titles for the sake of buying stock for the store, but I am pretty selective with what I watch these days.
Bamboo: Forgive me if this seems like a silly question, but I've always figured that people rent anime because they just want to sample a title, or just watch it once. Do people ever rent the same thing multiple times? Or does that only happen with anime movies?
Kira: No, people rent the same shows multiple times quite often, actually. Honestly, some of these sets are expensive or out of print, so to be blunt, where else are you going to see them?
Sara: I find the information about people renting within their chosen genre really interesting. I think the genius of rentals is their ability to open up a whole slew of new possibilities to a person. I'm pretty selective about what I buy nowadays, but I still rent across the board, just to see what's out there. Especially in the case of a store like yours, where it sounds like you have a pretty wide selection.
Kira: We definitely try to appeal to everyone. It is interesting, because at such a low cost to rent, you'd think more people would step outside their preferred genre, but I really don't see that happen too often. I try to get people to try different things, when they ask for recommendations, but recommending anime is really hard.
Bamboo: So this is a two-part question that I feel like we can't avoid. I'm sure services like Netflix has taken away some business, right? Has that drastically cut into your customer base? I imagine back before Netflix, your store used to be the Big Man in the area, because places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video don't exactly have a huge anime selection. What about fansubs?
Kira: Yeah...I hate this topic! I argue with customers quite often about Netflix, and honestly, without being just limited to the anime section, Netflix hasn't really hurt us. Our argument is that when you want to see a movie, you want to see it right now, right? You don't want to have to wait for it to arrive in the mail, possibly scratched, possibly the wrong disc, and then you have to send it back...it's just such a hassle! That's the exact reason brick-and-mortar stores like us hope to be around--to service people who want the movies they want, right now.

Fansubs definitely hurt us, though, I have to say. Without sounding too judgmental, hopefully, anime fans are greedy—and I understand, because I used to deal with fansubs too, back in the VHS days. But they want the newest, hottest shows right now, and we just can't provide that. So we have lost business to fansubs merely because we just can't keep up legally. The interest of a hot new anime is so fleeting, half the time we don't even stand a chance.

For example, back when Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya came out, I bought two copies of the first disc for rental, because that's all everyone was talking about—they didn't rent for nearly a month, because all of our customers had already seen it. That was disappointing.

Bamboo: I admit that I use Netflix. Part of the appeal is that I can rent things that I normally wouldn't want to spend the $3 on. I'm not saving any money at all, because I keep those discs around forever, but it feels like I'm getting the upper hand. Maybe that's why people don't explore out of their genre, you know? Plus I'd be so embarrassed if I walked up to the counter with a copy of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.
Kira: Yeah, because Netflix operates on the monthly fee, and there's not really a reasonable way we can do that. We've discussed it, but it's not really logical for us. So I can understand people not wanting to explore other genres, but it's disappointing. I've rented worse titles to people. You wouldn't believe how many guys I've rented copies of Twilight to this week.
Sara: I don't use Netflix. I prefer renting from brick-and-mortar stores, always. The community aspect of renting appeals to me a lot. And browsing. When you think about it, one of the best parts of being an anime fan is the fan community. People are always so happy to talk to other fans and swap stories and suggestions. Or, it used to be that way.
Kira: We get a lot of groups of kids in to look at anime stuff, that's for sure. Community has always been an important part of the anime fandom.
Sara: I feel like, while Netflix has made renting convenient for a lot of people, part of that warmth has been lost.
Kira: It definitely used to be that way—even though now, I'm hearing more of "You didn't like such-and-such show? You suck!" I personally enjoy talking to customers about movies—I like hearing about their tastes, and I like friendly banter and arguments. Not just in the anime fandom, even regular movies. It makes my job more interesting than just being a clerk.
Sara: The banter and arguments are the sort of thing that appeal to me, especially when you get away from the big rental chains. There's this amazing rental place in Minneapolis, Nicollet Village Video, which used to be not only my favorite rental place, but kind of a cool place to hang out and talk to people, too. There's nothing quite the same as talking to people who really love anime and movies; it reminds you of why you became a fan in the first place. But I'm kind of a sentimentalist—I'm one of those people who also bemoans downloads and things because I love collecting things.
Kira: I totally understand, I'm such a collector personally. The appeal of actually having something tangible on my shelf is a feeling that can't be replaced with downloads.
Sara: Which brings up another point—if the industry moves more and more into digital distribution, do you guys have a way to cope?
Kira: Well, a lot of people are talking about digital being the new way of business, and we think that's as far as you can get from the truth. Digital copies are a joke, what with the hidden fees, the codes to install, not being able to use it more than once, etc. Our means of coping is just to stay alive as long as we can, to keep offering customers what they want: personal service, knowledge about movies, selection that no one else carries, stuff like that. Not to stray too far off the topic of anime, but we get magazines weekly with articles about businesses and new stuff happening everywhere, and a lot of the industry professionals are talking about how little downloads are actually doing. No one just wants to admit it out loud.
Sara: That's kind of ironic, considering how internet content is driving newspapers and magazines out of business.
Kira: For news, sure. Even I get all my news online. But have you tried streaming shows very often? I can't even get ABC's player to work this week! It's a joke.
Sara: Oh, I feel ya. NBC's streaming sucks from my apartment.
Bamboo: I love Hulu, but the streaming.... blegh. I guess there's always been that warm, fuzzy feeling about going to the same mom 'n' pop shop all the time, and being a "regular," you know? You obviously don't get that when you pull red envelopes out of a mailbox.
Kira: Exactly. We have customers we've known for years, and I feel like they're our friends after all this time. We know some people we've lost to Netflix, and it's sad, because we used to see them every few days. But for every two or three people we lose, we gain 10 new customers, and we might continue seeing one or two of them for years, so it balances out.
Bamboo: Kira, how do you feel about all the streaming anime content? Places like Hulu, Crunchyroll, YouTube, Joost, and all sorts of places offer free streaming anime, now. Even ANN. Is that going to cramp your style?
Kira: Not really. We're going to lose a few fans, but we're keeping people who don't have internet, who want real subtitles, or dubbing, or that customer interaction and the chance to watch shows on a large television. I don't think, unless you're a fan who's really in the loop, you're going to leave a routine of renting just to watch something a little early.
Sara: I can't speak for Kira, but I'd be inclined to think that online streaming content cuts into the fansub group more than anything. They were never going to rent solid DVDs anyway.
Kira: I think the fact that the library rents DVDs makes me more angry than fansubbers, but that's another issue. *laughs*
Bamboo: Hmm, that makes sense. Personally, I love having physical DVDs in my hands. Even though I can stream movies from Netflix online, I don't, because I'd rather have the DVD. It's honestly the same reason I can't get into e-books, because having the tactile sensation of having a product in my hands is way too important for me.
Kira: A lot of people feel the same way, and that's just one of the reasons our business has increased over the last year, even in the "decline" going on right now.
Sara: Really? Wow.
Bamboo: Can I ask you about that? How are you weathering the recession?
Sara: Are people renting anime to forget their economic woes?
Kira: Granted, it's not an awesome increase, but numbers are showing a slight increase. One reason is because about two years ago we bought out our old business partner, which helped a lot because people didn't like him, but they like us. *laughs* But generally, the recession is cutting into vacations and time away from home, so people are turning to rentals, which are cheap. Our monthly numbers have been increasing steadily, and even though there's been some crappy months with some crappy titles to choose from, we've prevailed. Even if our numbers are down for a month, our average amount of rentals is increased, so we benefit either way.
Sara: That makes sense. I mean, in Southern California, you have to drop $12 every time you see a movie in a theater, which I find outrageous, so renting definitely saves money.
Kira: We're also a heck of a lot cheaper than Blockbuster, which is all that's left around here. The only other independent closed.
Bamboo: Is that for the anime rentals, though? Or does that increase account for movies and porn also?
Kira: It's for everything. We've been renting a lot more of everything lately.
Sara: My favorite place in Minneapolis rented 4 movies for $5, including anime, which is a pretty sweet deal. Way cheaper than the chains.
Kira: We don't have any deals like that, but we're still cheaper, and from what I've heard, Blockbuster is over $5 a movie now.
Bamboo: I guess now that Best Buy has been raising their prices, that must help, too. Less risk involved with renting anime, than buying blindly.
Kira: Yeah, we always have that to rely on. No one likes buying a show for $30 and getting home, only to realize it's completely crap.
Bamboo: Your store buys back used videos too, right? Any recession-related statistics there? What about the used movies and/or merchandise you sell?
Kira: We're seeing a lot more used DVDs being sold to us lately, because everyone's hurting for cash. But at the same time, we're seeing a lot of used stuff sell. Our anime sales have gone up in the last few months, but probably because I moved the section to where people can actually look at the boxes and read covers.
Sara: I know that I tend to take advantage of second-hand merchandise and clearance-type sales. I usually end up spending even more than I otherwise would. I wonder if that's a universal constant.
Kira: Yeah, we change up sales for used DVDs a lot, but not usually for anime. We just try to price the anime DVDs low enough to move, because they're already cheaper than new, and in great condition anyway. People who sell us used anime know how to take care of their stuff, as compared to regular DVD owners.
Bamboo: That's definitely true. Every anime fan I've ever known, including those who post on our forums, treat their merchandise and DVDs really well. I kind of like that. That's part of why I think the industry will last, because we're all collectors at heart.
Kira: They really do care about their stuff. I may not watch much anime anymore, but I get really mad if someone wants to mess with my collector stuff. It's important to me, as a fan.
Sara: I definitely feel that way myself, but I worry that more and more people are getting weaned off collecting habits in favor of digital content.
Bamboo: You think so? People love to show off their collections. You can wow people with your DVD shelf, but you can't wow them with your hard-drive.
Kira: I just can't see that for collectors. Are you truly proud of that 300gigs of anime you've downloaded? That's not really an accomplishment...
Sara: I mean, when we were kids the internet wasn't even around. Each generation is going to approach fandom in their own context. And as time goes on, that means less and less collecting. People don't buy as many CDs as they used to. The album is turning into a dead format.
Kira: Yeah, I guess that's true. Maybe we're just not cool enough to get this whole digital culture stuff.
Sara: I mean, I'm definitely a collector. I think all three of us are. But I don't think everyone else, especially the younger fans, feel that way.
Kira: Definitely. I love showing people all the crap I've collected over the years. I'm still so proud of my Nuriko plush I spent $50 on back in the day!
Bamboo: I think I just love stuff too much. Owning a DVDs feels so much more permanent. And it's better than burning something onto a disc, because it's prettier, too. I mean, I obsess over whether or not I need to buy my fourth copy of some movie, just because it has different special features. I sit there and obsess over whether or not I like something enough to buy it on Blu-Ray. I put a lot of thought into owning things. You know, we might have to have on a panel of those "younger fans" to talk with us. That might answer some of our questions.
Sara: That would be excellent, actually. I want to know what their thoughts and habits are.
Kira: I think it's interesting to see how the sales of "stuff" continue to grow—just look at anime convention dealer rooms and the crazy fans who buy everything from a show, but DVD sales continue to decline, especially because of fansubs. Is it because people want to show their love through stuff, instead of the actual show?
Bamboo: I think so. Because stuff is always new, always changing. Every season comes with a new set of capsule figures, you know? But once you've seen a show, do you really want to invest the time in watching a show again?
Kira: Maybe companies should stop making new anime and just focus on more Asuka and Rei figures?
Sara: Right. Anime is almost more fun to appreciate through its merch.
Bamboo: I will never stop buying Asuka and Rei figures! I already have so many!
Sara: Bamboo, I recall you saying that you continued to buy Love Hina merch, despite not liking the series. Sometimes cute, anime-related things are just hard to resist.
Bamboo: Have you seen those figures? They're so cute!
Kira: I totally understand. I buy more figures than I do anything else. I don't even care if you can't do anything with them, they're so cute!
Bamboo: Maybe your store could start selling figures.
Kira: We used to, but it's hard to find wholesalers for that stuff. We go through one supplier, the same one that the FYE stores use actually, and even their selection for stuff is limited.
Sara: Did they sell well?
Bamboo: You just have to start taking monthly trips to Japan. Maybe start bringing back some doujinshi. Especially the porno ones. Then you'd be making bank.
Kira: Not really. There's never really been one sort of item that sells, besides plushes. Plushes are the best selling thing ever because they're so freaking cute. But everything else just doesn't really sell. We've tried all sorts of things, and they usually fail. We even had body pillows, and while I thought they'd sell immediately, they took months. If we could afford monthly trips to Japan, well, we wouldn't be worrying about stuff to stock. *laughs*
Sara: Body pillows, wow. I'm kind of relieved they took so long to sell.
Bamboo: Speaking of such things, a while back, some forum users were saying that they didn't like the original covers for Welcome to the NHK, because they were a little embarrassing for them. Although the show is a dramady with no sexual content, the covers have scantily clad women in lewd positions. Anyway, the users mentioned that they didn't like bringing titles like that up to cashiers. As someone who gets customers who bring up those titles... are you phased at all? Even better, do you get excuses? Like, "Oh, uh... my brother wants to see this show."
Kira: Not anymore. Ten years ago I would have been, but seeing some of the covers on the porns we rent...well, you just stop caring and don't even blink after awhile.We don't get excuses too often, either, but I occasionally get someone who hides that sort of title under another, less embarrassing one. That amuses me more. Usually the sort of person who rents NHK knows why they're renting it, even if they don't have that sort of content, and they don't care.
Sara: I wonder if fandom in general is becoming more or less embarrassed for liking anime with each passing year. With all of the online content it seems to becoming a moot point. I still feel like anime has a big community aspect to it, but it's migrating online.
Kira: Hm, interesting point. Anime is definitely becoming more mainstream, but at the same time, if it's not Naruto/Bleach/some other gigantic show, it's still sort of embarrassing. At least, people I see act like it is.
Bamboo: Well, anime is okay to like now. It's cooler now than it ever was before. Maybe back when we were in high school, it might've been something to shrink away from, but I think nowadays a lot of people can say, "Oh, you like anime? That's cool. I watched Bebop, and I liked it."
Sara: Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I talk way less about anime in public than I did when I was in high school.
Kira: I hardly ever talk about anime outside of work with anyone, but it's just because I'm getting out of the obsessive fandom. It's also refreshing to see kids getting into it. We have some regulars with children who are starting to see these shows, and even though it's Naruto or Bleach or something mainstream, I know that someday they'll get to see the stuff that their parents liked back in the day, or maybe they'll get their parents to watch shows with them. It's the circle...of anime!
Bamboo: I'm always surprised by how many people have watched anime, and liked it. The other day, I had mentioned Vampire Hunter D in passing, and someone I never expected to watch anime piped up with, "Oh, yeah, I saw that movie! It was tight!"
Kira: Yeah, I experience that a lot—a friend of mine I met last semester, whom I never thought liked anime, asked me the other day if I could identify a show from AMV Hell 3 (which I totally did, it was Battle Athletes, ha), and she actually made fun of me for liking Super GALS I was stunned that she even knew what that was.
Sara: I have a final question. Can you pitch to our readers why they should support their local anime rental places? What are the pros? What can you offer that everything else—Netflix, streaming—can't?
Kira: Well, in order to stay in business and bring you guys the shows you want to see, we need your support! Local businesses rely solely on the dedication of their customers, and if we don't have that, we don't have a store. We offer immediate selections of what customers want to see, we're more personable than a computer screen, we keep our discs in working order; overall, we just try harder than those online options! Also, if you read this article, stop in and say hi—I'd love to know what ANN fans we rent to!

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